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The Great Storm Before the Great Depression

Selfishness, greed, and narcissism. These are the adjectives describing a late 1920s story about a nameless man living in the Florida Keys, who, after a huge storm at sea, takes his small boat out to look for capsized ships. Interestingly, the man does not journey into the sea as part of a rescue effort. Rather, he seeks the possible treasures contained within the sunken ships. In the short story “After the Storm” by Ernest Hemingway, the author uses an extremely self-absorbed protagonist and scavenging birds to depict the greed and selfishness which caused Great Depression of the early 1930s. Hemingway then utilizes blood as a symbol for the possible damage done to individuals as a result of this self-centered mentality.

The Great Depression is a notorious time frame in American history lasting from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. It begun due to a stock market crash, causing a domino-effect on other sectors of the economy. People rushed to the bank to withdrawal their savings (which the banks did not have); people refused to spend the precious money which they did possess; the economy slowed, and millions went unemployed as a result. All of the immensely negative societal impacts mentioned were caused by the greed of business tycoons and stockholders, the greed of humanity. The market crashed because stockholders were placing much more money on stocks than they were really worth, in hopes of the stock benefiting them more than it already had. Eventually, the greedy shareholders realized they were putting too much money into something very risky which only had a small chance of success; however, many realized this at the same time, and for many it was too late. The result of millions of traders and businessmen withdrawing their investments from the market at once resulted in the infamous stock market crash, igniting the Great Depression.

The selfishness, greed, and necessity for prosperity prior to the Great Depression are clearly portrayed in Hemingway’s narcissistic main character in “After the Storm.” While on his quest to find sunken ships, the main character, who is also the narrator, comes across a colossal cruise liner beneath the surface of the ocean. There are birds everywhere, feasting on the bodies of the dead, and there is no doubt that hundreds have died. However, it is clear that the narrator is not worried about those who have died. In fact, he does not seem to care at all. In paragraph ten he describes himself as feeling “shaky” at the sight of the cruise ship, not because he is overwhelmed by the death of hundreds, but because of how many riches there must be inside the vessel. The character’s thoughts of self-prosperity outweigh his empathy and concern for others, and, although this man is an extreme example, he still represents much of the greed and self-centeredness of the 1920s.

In paragraph eight, as the narrator arrives at the scene of the massive cruise liner, he notes, “There were pieces of things floating out all the time. You couldn’t tell what they were. Just pieces. That’s what the birds were after. You never saw so many birds. They were all around me; crazy yelling.” The feasting birds, constantly referenced throughout the story, represent the thousands of stockholders before the market crash. The birds, like the main character, do what they want in order to flourish. What they are eating appears to be human remains, suggesting their actions are overall detrimental towards society and others; however, the birds do not care, as they still benefit, momentarily, from their actions. In a story centered around one man, the birds resemble the rest of society, who also get in over their heads with their investments. The man and the birds have the same goal: prosperity, and the birds show the reader that this strange, narcissistic man is not the only one putting everybody at risk in hopes of becoming rich.

Blood plays an important role in “After the Storm”, as it is a recurring symbol that pops up as a result of self-centeredness and narcissism. At the very beginning of the story, the main character is involved in a bar fight. He lays on his back while the other man is on top of him and choking him. Although nobody acts to break up the fight, suggesting that it was just an average fight, the main character takes it as a threat on his life and uses a knife to cut through the arm muscle of the other man. In paragraph two, as the other man is writhing in pain and severely bleeding, the narrator says, “What the hell you want to choke me for?” The quote clearly demonstrates the main character’s lack of sympathy for others, and, the fact that he only cares about the damage done to himself reflects his self-centered mentality. In this scene, Hemingway does not directly reference blood, but the fight leaves readers with clear imagery of blood as a result of the fight. The blood from the other man’s arm is a direct representation of how the insensitive and indifferent characteristics of one man affect another.

In the midst of the main character’s attempt to break into the cruise ship, his relentlessness gets the best of him, and his nose begins to bleed from being underwater too deep for too long. After surfacing, his blood gets on his water glass, the device he uses to see underwater, and in paragraph fourteen he describes his head feeling like it is “cracked open.” In this scene, the narrator’s blood clearly represents his physical suffering, and his nose ultimately bleeds because of his narcissism and self-centeredness. If the character had set out to rescue others, or call for help after finding the ship, or just stay home and not steal from dead people, then he never would have been hurt. Not to mention, his very own blood stains his water glass, making it even harder for him to accomplish his goal and prosper. Although the wound to his nose is a relatively small one, it still contains blood like the man in the bar fight, and both events came as a direct result of the narrator’s poor character.

Overall, “After the Storm” is a short story which tells the tale of a selfish man who hurts both himself and others due to his selfish, greedy, narcissistic character. The man and the scavenging birds play the role of greedy investors and businessmen, whose momentarily self-beneficial actions are linked to the suffering of millions in the Great Depression. Hemingway also uses blood to symbolize the consequences of selfish behavior to oneself and other people. This story mainly serves as a cautionary tale, warning readers to not be selfish and greedy, or it may backfire and them and others.


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