Islands in the Stream is the first of many books that were published posthumously by famed and famous novelist Ernest Hemingway. This book was initially released with the intention of improving his reputation after the publication and subsequent negative reactions to Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees. He initially started on this book in 1950, and made much headway on it through 1951. This work, while rough, was in fact complete, and was initially found by Mary Hemingway, among 332 other such works that Papa Hemingway had actually left behind upon his death. The novel ended up being divided up into three distinct sections, with the intention of showing the three life stages that the main character has found himself in. While the titles were eventually changed from their original designations, this idea of utilizing a three act structure has remained intact, and can in fact be seen in the final version of the novel that’s available. These three acts, “Bimini,” “Cuba,” and “At Sea” will be outlined in further detail in regards to the plot of the book below.
This first act begins with the protagonist of Thomas Hudson being introduced. A stoic male figure, which is typical in the Hemingway canon, he is a well-respected American painter, an adventurist who actually grows to love the peace and calm that he ends up finding when staying for an extended period of time on the island of Bimini. Though he has a strict routine when it comes to his work, Hudson is interrupted when his three sons come over to visit him on the island. Another important character is then introduced. Roger Davis is an old friend of Thomas Hudson’s, a writer who seems to have a more outgoing personality while Hudson is far more reserved. While Davis deals with some sort of internal conflict that isn’t explicitly stated, the act ends with Hudson receiving word that his two youngest children have died.
Taking place soon after the events of “Bimini,” during WWII and set in Havana, Cuba, this section of the novel shows us an older and more reclusive Hudson as he receives word that his final son has actually died in the war. He becomes very pessimistic and distant, and spends his days primarily by drinking and undertaking naval recon for the military on board his yacht, which he’s had converted to an auxiliary patrol boat.
This final act actually follows Hudson and a team he’s assembled as they track down and eventually go ahead and chase down survivors of a sunken German U-boat off one of the coasts of Cuba. It becomes clear that Hudson is tracking these men down not just because they’re Nazis, but because they actually massacred an entire village in order to cover up their ultimate escape. This novel ends with a shoot-out that leaves the Germans completely killed and Hudson with what we figure must be a mortal wound. However, in typical Hemingway fashion, the end is a bit on the ambiguous side. During this chase that Hudson undertakes, he stops questioning why it is that his children died and ultimately accepts that this is what happened. Some have noted some similarities between this book and Hemingway’s more famous novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Real Life Influences
While a work of fiction, this novel did in fact feature several fictionalized accounts of people and events that really did appear int eh life of the author. Among these are Hemingway’s friend Henry Strater, who like Thomas Hudson is an American painter who at one point, with Ernest Hemingway, stayed on Bimini island for a time, primarily fishing, back in the year 1935. At one point, Henry Strater even brought in a 1,000 pound Marlin which ended up being half eaten by sharks while being brought in. Another instance of Hemingway’s real life cropping up in his fictional work in this novel are in the people of Gerald and Sara Murphy. This is because while on the island of Bimini, the Murphys lost their own son to an illness. Lastly, just like in the story, Ernest Hemingway used his boat to hunt for German U-boats during the war. In real life, his boat was actually outfitted with communications gear which was supplied by the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
The island of Bimini is a string of keys off of Cuba’s northern coast, and is 300 miles east of Havana. The Jardines, a set of islands that includes Bimini, were among Hemingway’s favorite getaways all throughout his love affair with Cuba that lasted well over thirty years. While Hemingway never did finish this novel, and so it has remained in an unfinished, some would say rough state, his late wife decided that she would go ahead and seek publication for it after finding it in a bank vault after the writer’s suicide in 1961. Published in 1970, this manuscript was actually manically edited by the author before his death, and in the process had two sections that were ultimately removed due to the fact that they were unrelated to Hudson and his dramatic sub hunt. These two sections were reworked and published separately by themselves. One of them actually became The Old Man and the Sea, which ended up winning a Nobel Prize for the late author.
And so, while this novel is in fact in a relatively unfinished, some might even say rough state, it’s a testament to the skill and ease with which Hemingway renders both his prose and characters that the novel is in the strong form it can be seen in today. Comprising three distinct sections that go into the nature of our protagonist and explore the depths of agony that go along with losing those closest to us, especially our own offspring, Hemingway delivers a work of substantial emotional weight that’s executed in a way that is not overwrought but instead poignant and profound.