A Window on the Prey: The Hunter Sees a Human Face in Hemingway's "After the Storm" and Melville's "The Grand Armada." (Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville)
Philbrick, Nathaniel, The Hemingway Review
ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S "After the Storm" tells a simple yet haunting tale. A Key West fisherman discovers the wreck of a huge liner lying on its side just beneath the water's surface. Fully expecting to make his fortune from the salvage operation, he dives underwater with the intention of breaking through a porthole with a wrench. When he finds the face of a drowned woman staring at him through the window, he is undeterred and hammers at the glass. His makeshift salvage equipment, however, is not up to the task, and after several unsuccessful attempts to break through the porthole, he reluctantly heads for home. By the time he returns with others to finish the job, he discoves that "the Greeks had blown her open and cleaned her out" (SS 370). He laments, "I found her and I never got a nickel out of her" (376).
According to a letter Hemingway wrote to Maxwell Perkins, "After the Storm," first published in Cosmopolitan in 1932, follows "word for word" what the conch fisherman Bra Saunders told him during a fishing trip in 1928 (SL 400). But as a manuscript study by Susan Beegel has revealed, the story is something more than a transcript. Instead of the spare dramatic monologue it would ultimately become, "After the Storm" began as what Beegel terms a Conradian "story-within-a-story," in which a Hemingway-like narrator describes Saunders' reluctant telling of his tale to his three-man fishing party. Junking the fairly complex narrative structure, along with a rather sensational ending involving a retributive attack on and burning of a Greek fishing ship, Hemingway pared the story to the bone. But he also made several significant additions: the diving sequence that would become the story's central scene and a final attempt by the narrator to descibe what the captain of the ill-fated liner must have experienced during his last, terrifying night.
While Hemingway may very well have been, as one critic suggests, "covering his tracks back to Conrad" (Smith 242), this radical overhaul of the story may have been linked to something else as well: his reading of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, particularly chapter eighty-seven, "the Grand Armada," in which an underwater transformation occurs that has suggestive parallels to the diving sequence in "After the Storm." Whereas Hemingway's hard-bitten narrator looks covetously into a sunken ship of seemingly infinite bounty and sees a human face, Ishmael and his fellow whalemen look down into the suddenly serene waters at the center of a huge pod of whales and see an equally unexpected scene: mothers nursing their young and newlyweds making love in "submarine bridal chambers and nurseries" (389). By "humanizing" (a term used by the critic Robert Zoellner) the whale, the chapter threatens to undercut the traditional hunter-prey relationship that a whaleman takes for granted--a process that, as several critics have pointed out, is also at work in Hemingway's short story.
Whether or not he had read Moby-Dick by the time he published "After the Storm," a comparison of the two works offers an instructive context in which to examine not only Hemingway's artistic process but his fascination with the hunt and its relevance to his overall view of life. As his first attempt at the genre of sea fiction, "After the Storm" offers insights into how Hemingway scavenged bits and pieces from not only the stories that were told to him but his own darkest experiences in an attempt to match and even better Conrad and especially Melville.
Before beginning an analysis of "After the Storm" and "The Grand Armada," I'd like to review what we know of Hemingway's interest in Melville. In Green Hills of Africa (1935) he insists that the true greatness of Moby-Dick lies not in Melville's "rhetoric" but in his ability to convey "how things, actual things, can be, whales for instance" (GHOA 20). As it turns out, Hemingway had an early and "actual" connection to the island that is so critical to Melville's masterpiece. …