Analysis of and Symbols in Hemingway and Gellhorn

Photo of Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn
at the Stork Club in New York City (1941)
Ernest Hemingway Collection (Accession Number EH05582P)
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
in Boston, United States of America

It’s hard to say the exact moment that you
fall in love with someone, but with him, I knew it
was his words, the ones I would never hear, the
private things he uttered.”
Martha Gellhorn—–

The love between Hemingway and Gellhorn was triggered by professional admiration and respect, as well as a profound connection. This inspired their professional endeavors as well as the sexual energy between them. This can be seen when Hemingway tells her “Gellhorn, you inspire the hell out of me.” The movie should have been titled Gellhorn and Hemingway, as it was really her story. It was a story of a strong and passionate female. Gellhorn was in a passionate love/hate relationship with Hemingway to the very end. The movie was about both intimate passion and professional passion.

When Hemingway and Gellhorn were preparing to go into a war zone during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), he fell in love with her persistence and drive. Inevitably it seems that those two characteristics which colored Gellhorn, were also some of those which drove them apart. They were “going to the front to fight Franco and the fascist.” As a war correspondent, Gellhorn covered several major wars. It is when she went to the arctic (Finland), and she left the home she an Hemingway had purchased together in Cuba that she began to pull away from Hemingway. He did not want her to leave him to cover that war, and he told her “stay here with me. Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

Gellhorn’s passion was one thing which attracted Hemingway, it is unfortunate that it was also her passion which drove him away. I found an interesting theme which ran through the movie and that was passion versus control. The theme can be seen in the interactions of Hemingway and Gellhorn throughout the film, and it is also seen with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. While Gellhorn traveled as a war correspondent with these young men, she said that they were “compelled by passion and not government.” She and Hemingway likely understood this passion as they were both fueled by both intimate and professional passion.

At several points in the movie Hemingway comes forth as a protector of Gellhorn. She is capable and is not scared to be involved with war, yet this was still during a time in which women were seen as outsiders in such an environment. In one scene, Hemingway locks Gellhorn in her hotel room when she first arrives in Spain. He locks her door from the outside for the night and by the morning, she is livid. He tells her that men would have their way with her because she was the only blonde, and that “death unleashes the beast.” She says she “gets it” and agrees that she does not trust anyone. Hemingway tells her “the best way to know if you can trust somebody, is to trust them.”

Following are some of the symbols that I could derive from this film, as well as some of the quotes which I found memorable.


Music—– music was a powerful symbol in the movie. Music was a symbol of both healing and drive. The guitar was a specific symbol of healing and drive. The men strummed to come together, and they also strummed to go to battle. One of the soldiers had a guitar with a sign on it which read “this guitar kills fascists.” The same battle cry was heard continuously throughout the film, and the song was heard several times.

Whiskey—– whiskey is a strong symbol in this movie. In almost every scene someone is drinking. I think that drinking is symbolic of pain relief. When the brave Gellhorn saves a young boy crying in the street in Spain after a bombing, Hemingway tells her that she is not supposed to be doing that. In response she says “little boys aren’t supposed to see their mother bleed to death.” When the little boy (maybe 5 years old) is pulled inside and is in another woman’s arms, Hemingway gives the child a flask with whiskey. Apparently this is a gesture to aid the child, and kill the child’s physical and mental pain.

Bombs—– bombs are an obvious symbol of death, but in this film, they were also a symbol of connection. The traditional symbol could represent complete surrender, and the death/submission of egos as Hemingway and Gellhorn make love for the first time. Before this erotic sex scene, Gellhorn asks Hemingway way “is this what you want?” He tells her “this is what I need.” As they connect on the deepest and most passionate level, they become numb to the world around them as they are covered in ashes, as bombs fall around them, and as flames roar outside the window of the hotel room.

Scars—– the multiple scars Hemingway bears are revealed to Gellhorn after their first intimate scene. I think this was a very symbolic moment in the film as he seemed to reveal not only his physical scars, but his emotional scars as well. It almost seemed that his physical scars were nothing compared to the scars he suffered mentally throughout his lifetime.

Crow and Swordfish-—- there were two animals that I feel were strong symbols in this movie. There was a crow at the beginning and the end, and there was a swordfish at the beginning and the end. The crow was simultaneously symbolic of both Hemingway and Gellhorn. The crow is a symbol of intelligence/knowledge, and death. Both times when the crow appeared, Gellhorn could see a reflection of herself in his eye. Gellhorn was Hemingway’s intellectual muse, and she is reflected as such in that symbol. In the final scene, the crow appears to Gellhorn after Hemingway’s death. He appears to her as a messenger from the spirit world tapping on her window with his beak.

The swordfish is also a powerful symbol. This fish is a sole symbol of Hemingway. The fish represents his masculine energy, and sexuality with the striking phallic “sword” of this fish. The swordfish represents Hemingway’s personal battles- the battles with himself, and his battles with Gellhorn. In the beginning of the movie, Hemingway fights successfully to reel in a swordfish, and in the end of the movie, he gives up and lets the fish go. Hemingway had captured Gellhorn, but he had also released her.

Memorable Movie Quotes and My Thoughts:

Pauline Hemingway to Martha Gellhorn

My husband believes that if you kill enough animals, you may not kill yourself.”
—–I wonder if Hemingway really said that? Ironically, he did eventually kill himself.

Pauline Hemingway to Martha Gellhorn

Ernest likes to surround himself with exotic characters.”
—–Pauline could immediately sense their connection.

Gellhorn to a War Photographer

There is a human need to exert control when the world is spinning out of control.”
—–This statement was made as she seemed to be talking about both her career and her love for Hemingway.

Hemingway about Gellhorn

Bravest woman I ever saw.”
—–He makes this statement after Gellhorn hears a child crying in the street after a bombing in Spain. Everyone tells her it is a cat (?). She disagrees and runs into the street as bombers hover above. She saves the child from the street and from having to watch his mother bleed to death.


It’s hard to say the exact moment that you fall in love with someone, but with him, I knew it was his words, the ones I would never hear, the private things he uttered.”
—–This is an amazing quote. At this moment she realized she was deeply in love with Hemingway, regardless of anything else.

Gellhorn to Hemingway

Women get bombed the same as men.”
—–Gellhorn was talking about being a female war correspondent in a male dominated field.

Hemingway to Gellhorn

Stay here with me. Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
—–Another amazing quote. When she decide to leave and cover the warfare in the arctic, she began to pull away from Hemingway. He did not want her to leave him for her career.

Hemingway in a letter to Gellhorn

Love, you poison my typewriter. Since you have left, I have had hangovers they could name battleships after. Today I remember the heat of your naked body.”
—–Each time Hemingway is shown writing in the movie he is standing up. He is never seated. This was something that I did not know about him, and I assume that this is historically accurate (which is interesting).


When there was no war, we made our own. The battlefield neither of us could survive was domestic life.”
—–Maybe this is the hardest battle of all?

All in all, I think that this movie was great. I was not disappointed at all, and I would recommend it. I think sometimes we just need to go deeper to get a full bodied feel for what we are, or what we are not absorbing. Intimate and professional passion, symbolic imagery, love and hate, and highly erotic connections…. What’s not to like?

Explore posts in the same categories: Allusion, Analysis, Archives, Authors, Body and Mind, Connection, Disconnection, History, Journalism, Journalists, Knowledge, Movie Review, Movies, National Archives and Records Administration, Pleasure and Pain, Reviews, Symbols and Imagery, World War II, Worthy Reads, Writers, Writing

20 Comments on “Analysis of and Symbols in Hemingway and Gellhorn”

  1. JustMeMike Says:

    I think the film impacted you far more than it did me. But possibly you are reacting more to the people (Hemingway and Gellhorn) and I reacted more to the filmic characters.

    Still this was a fine read with good insights. Thanks.


  2. Perianne Says:

    I haven’t seen the film and now will look forward to it. Many of the contrasts you point out reflect the Uranus in Aries (Passion, Independence, Intelligence) square (conflict) Pluto in Capricorn (Power, Control, Government, Past Values, Sexuality)

  3. Md. Alsanda Says:

    Thanks for passing by.

  4. argylesock Says:

    I want to see this film now! Hemingway is one of my favourite authors.

  5. Decco Says:

    I have to agree with the favorable reviews here – as critics mostly panned the film… What do they know? And slamming gets THEM more attention than praising… In any event – given the inclusion here of many of the film’s dialogue/monologue quotes… Perhaps someone CAN post up one that I recall very impactfully – but not quite exactly. It is the Kidman, Gellhorn character speech from the podium, where they are showing the documentary, “Spanish Earth” in a theater… She goes into a rant about the takers and destroyers – the tyrants and their evil… It’s a compelling – and timely, for these particular times – piece of soap-boxing. Is anyone able to quote it here?
    Thanks in advance…


    • Felicia Says:

      Interesting Decco–

      Takers and destroyers ha? I do not remember that?! How could I have missed such a meaningful portion of that film? Maybe I was getting a snack LoL!? I will have to rent it again so that I can refresh my memory.

      I hate film critics, though I suppose in a round about way I have become one. I try and look at a film or even books with a deeper eye. I prefer the symbolic messages which can be conveyed to the aware audience.

      Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I always appreciate the thinkers out there!


  6. LyannV Says:

    “the best way to know if you can trust somebody, is to trust them.”
    An excellent observation – if it weren’t for your post, it is not likely I would ever have come across this quote.
    I haven’t seen this movie, but you have done an excellent job writing about it and I will certainly watch it if I get the chance.

    • Felicia Says:

      Yes Lyann— isn’t that so simple and interesting. That analysis I completed has been favored by my readers. We are always looking for something deeper ha? It is sad that sometimes we look for a deepness that was never there to begin with. Maybe EH never cared at all? It’s hard to read people who build walls! Thanks for taking the time to read this piece. You should watch the movie. It was good.

  7. johncoyote Says:

    Hemingway is one of my favorite people. Thank you for the story. I enjoyed the tale.

    • Felicia Says:

      Thanks John– a poet like you would find him interesting. He seems to be a man that people can’t completely figure out. Maybe that is why he drove everyone he touched mad— including himself?!

      • johncoyote Says:

        He had many reason to know madness. I knew many Soldiers who drank themselves to death. The memories of WW1 and WW2 left him with a lot to deal with. Hemingway did what most of us wanted to do and the experiences left him with ghost and bad memory. Thank you for remembering a great writer.

  8. JK Bevill - Lost Creek Publishing Says:

    Reblogged this on lost creek publishing.

  9. Awesome post. Thanks for the like on mine.

  10. tcap36 Says:

    Reblogged this on do it for you and commented:

  11. […] of Hemingway and how pain fueled his hunger for words (Read~ Pain: A Writer’s Inspiration; Analysis of and Symbols in Hemingway and Gellhorn; Whiskey Dreams: Inside the Mind of Hemingway; Wakeless Love, Tragedy and Words; The Hemingway […]

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