Across the River and into the Trees (1950)

Sebastian Oates on “The Role of Control: Hemingway’s Expatriate”

In Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, Richard Cantwell, former General officer and current Colonel of Infantry in the Army of the United States, struggles to deal with the fact that he is dying. Like many other soldiers who experienced the violence of war, including another Hemingway protagonist, Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises, the Colonel returned home with physical injuries—one of his hands had been struck by an exploding mortar shell, which caused extreme damage to the extremity. Not only did the war cause physical injury to Colonel Richard Cantwell, but it caused psychological damage as well. Due to the injury, the Colonel felt he had lost his sense of immortality. Resulting from this loss, the character showcases an inability to be in control of his own life—a trait not usually found in Hemingway’s protagonists. Richard Cantwell’s unsuccessful quest to achieve control of his life helps to contrast Hemingway’s view of what a proper expatriate should be—someone in control.

The text takes place over a week in Venice where the Colonel meets with his 19-year-old lover, Renata. Although both the Colonel and the girl know that the Colonel will soon die from his failing heart, only Renata is able to come to terms with the fact that he is dying. Cantwell’s denial of his own inevitable death directly stems from his loss of immortality during the war and shapes the man’s personality and actions during his final week alive.

First, the 51-year-old’s relationship with Renata seems to be an attempt for the man to recapture his youth and the feelings of immortality that came with life prior to the war. In the couples’ relationship, Cantwell forces the girl to listen to stories of his youth. By dictating the conversation with the girl, he is able to recreate memories of his youth and avoid the fact that he is dying. Even after the girl falls asleep he continues to tell stories. By continuing to recite the stories, the Colonel proves that he isn’t truly in love with Renata, but, instead, using her as a means of escape from death. In other words, his story telling is a way to place himself in control of his life.

Hemingway insists in his autobiography that part of what makes an expatriate is the ability to be in control of their surroundings. Hemingway portrays himself as a well traveled American, he is able to get by and get along with people in not only America, but Italy, Spain, and France and this makes him a “good” expatriate. On the other hand, Richard Cantwell does not seem to understand Venice. Before the novel flashes back to the past few days that the Colonel had spent in Venice, Hemingway places Richard Cantwell in the middle of a lagoon during a duck hunt. Cantwell creates several misunderstandings with the game-keeper, who served as the Colonel’s boatman, due to his confidence in the belief that what was acceptable in America was also acceptable overseas. On the hunt, the two men become increasingly aggressive with each other as they struggle to free the boat from the surrounding ice. Richard Cantwell shouts insults to the boatman in English and the boatman replies in Italian. Both men sat in the small hunting boat with a man whom they did not understand and who did not understand them. The pair had no other boats around them and were surrounded by a sheet of ice. Although he had the game-keeper as company, the Colonel could not identify with him and was left alone in the boat—physically exiled in a foreign land. This scene shows that Cantwell was not well traveled and was, in fact, a “bad” expatriate.

Ernest Hemingway also helps to define the expatriate as somebody in control in A Moveable Feast. He writes about the time in a café on the Place St.-Michel in which a particular woman was able to produce a strange effect in him. Hemingway decides that one day he will place her in a story. He writes, “You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil” (Hemingway 18). By putting her in a story, the writer is able to control her and his surroundings. Hemingway had to resort to putting her in a story because she had already “placed herself” in the café and was probably already waiting on another man. The anecdote ends with the writer looking up for the girl only to realize she had left to go somewhere else. He notes how he felt sad—the feeling that comes from loss of control.

In Across the River and Into the Trees, Richard Cantwell faces a similar situation to the one that Hemingway faced in the café. Because he lost the feeling of immortality during the war, Richard Cantwell “always hates to leave his flank unguarded, and this feeling causes him to seek a psychologically sheltered place for setting up watch”. He places himself in the corner of Gritti Palace Hotel bar in Venice where he notices a rich Milanese couple. He admires the beauty of the mistress and begins to wonder what his life would have been like if he had enough money to win her affection. After some time passes Cantwell turns to look for the couple only to realize they had already left without him noticing. He thinks, “I’m getting awfully slow. Somebody will take me any day now” (Hemingway 46). The Colonel’s inability to control his situation and surroundings create within him an impending sense of doom and distrust of the environment.

Richard Cantwell feels the same despair that Hemingway felt in the café when he realized he could not be in control of the woman. Both men envisioned other scenarios where the women, in the café and in Gritti Palace Hotel, were apart of their lives. The difference between Hemingway and the Colonel is that Hemingway used his writing to regain control of the situation while Cantwell felt defeated. In both texts, Hemingway notes the sadness that is felt when one loses control. He uses the Colonel to declare what an expatriate should not be—a person who loses control and gives up.

Works Cited

Stephens, Robert O. “HEMINGWAY’S “ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES”: A Reprise.” Texas Studies in English 37 (1958): 92-101. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition. New York: Scribner, 2010. Print.


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