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Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream

Thomas Hudson, the main character in Ernest Hemingway's (1899‐1961) novel Islands in the Stream (1970), lives an apparently idyllic life as a painter in the Caribbean. However, Hudson is frequently struck with sorrow and the loss of loved ones. His sorrows get swept up in worldlier troubles as he hunts German submarines in the Second World War. As Hudson struggles to come to terms with his feelings, Hemingway elucidates themes of loneliness, sorrow, grief, manhood, and nature. Keep reading to learn more about Islands of the Stream's characters, the themes, and more.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway: Context

Islands in the Stream (1970) was the first of Hemingway's novels published after his death. He began the novel in 1950, writing three stories about a man named Thomas Hudson at different stages of his life tied together by the setting of the sea. The first story takes place on the Caribbean island of Bimini, the second in Havana, Cuba, and the third around the waters surrounding the Caribbean islands and the Florida Keys.

The song "Islands in the Stream" (1983) by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers is named after Hemingway's novel!

Islands in the Stream, Caribbean Island Sea, StudySmarterFig. 1 Thomas Hudson faces struggles and grief alongside the beautiful backdrop of the sea.

Real-life historical events, personal experiences, and people influenced Hemingway's novel and its characters. Thomas Hudson is based on the American painter Mike Stater, whom Hemingway spent time with one summer in Bimini. In the first part of the novel, Hudson's son speaks about his time growing up in Paris, encountering writers and artists like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Hemingway lived in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, in the early 1920s and mixed with these writers and several other famous artists as part of the Lost Generation.

The second and third sections of the book are set in World War II (1939-1945), during which Hemingway was given weapons and ammunition to patrol the Caribbean sea in his ship, the Pilar. Many German submarines lurked in the Caribbean to sink shipping boats.

Like Thomas Hudson and his friends, Hemingway was an avid fisherman with a love for the sea and issues with alcohol.

Islands in the Stream: Summary

The book consists of three parts set in different locations over the span of Thomas Hudson's adult life.

Islands in the Stream, Hemingway House Key West, StudySmarterFig. 2 Hemingway had a house in Key West and also lived in Bimini and Cuba.

Part 1: Bimini

Thomas Hudson lives a highly comfortable life working as a painter in Bimini. He has a waterfront house, boat, butler, and cook. He lives a relaxed, small-town island life where everyone is a friend or an acquaintance. Hudson is used to the routine and order of his life, which revolves around his work as a painter and leisure—reading, fishing, and drinking with friends.

Huson's close friend, a writer called Roger Davis, stays with him for a while. Hudson's three sons, Tom, David, and Andrew (from eldest to youngest) come to visit for the summer. They admire Hudson and are cautious not to upset him, as they do not see him often. Thomas Hudson loves his children. He is patient with them, is interested in all they have to say, and makes sure they enjoy themselves. However, their visit makes him dread the loneliness he will feel once they leave.

Hudson takes the boys swimming and fishing. He sees to it that they have the finest food on the island. His middle child, David, nearly gets attacked by a hammerhead shark while spearfishing, but the cook shoots the shark from the boat. Another day, David spends over 5 hours wresting with a thousand-pound swordfish he has on the fishing line. It sadly gets away, but David has no regrets.

Islands in the Stream, Swordfish, StudySmarterFig. 3 David struggles to reel in a giant broadbill, a type of swordfish.

The boys take a boat back to meet their mothers as the summer comes to a close. Shortly after, Davis leaves to write at Hudson's cottage out West with Audrey, a girl he and Hudson knew from their prior days spent in France.

Hudson feels the loss and sadness of everyone's departure, but true sorrow hits when he receives a radio message saying that his two younger sons, David and Andrew, were killed in a car accident with their mother in France. Hudson departs for France and New York to sort out their affairs. He tries to focus on his work and reading but begins spiraling into drinking.

Part 2: Cuba

Thomas Hudson arrives at his home in Cuba, where he lives with several cats and servants. He drinks heavily and has many conversations with the cats. It is the beginning of World War II, and Hudson is in between missions as the captain of a boat that hunts German submarines for the US military.

In real life, Hemingway's Key West house has six-toed cats, known as Hemingway cats, that are ancestors of the author's own cats.

Hudson hangs out in bars and mingles with prostitutes. His eldest son, Tom, has recently died in battle as a flight lieutenant. Hudson has a long talk with a prostitute called Honest Lil. They have known each other for many years and she knows his history. She asks him to tell her stories of a time when he was happy. He tells a story of a time when he slept with three beautiful Chinese women while stationed in Hong Kong. He reminisces about his time in Paris with his first wife and young Tom.

A woman walks into the bar, interrupting Hudson and Honest Lil. They embrace and kiss, and a man at the bar asks for her autograph. It is later revealed that this beautiful, famous woman is Thomas Hudson's first wife, Ginny Watson. He is still in love with her, but she is now with another military man. They sleep together and discuss whether they can stay together. She asks Hudson if he has heard from their son, Tom. Hudson tries to skirt away from revealing the truth but ultimately reveals that Tom is dead.

Islands in the Stream, Spitfire Plane, StudySmarterFig. 4 Young Tom ties while flying a Spitfire plane.

Hudson is called to leave on another mission. He tells his ex-wife that she can look through his desk and read Tom's letters and take any photographs she would like. Hudson thinks about how he left before she could even process what happened and wishes he could be there for her.

Part 3: At Sea

Thomas Hudson is on a boat with a crew of men hired by the US military to patrol the waters. They travel around the Caribbean Islands and the Florida Keys looking for a group of German soldiers who lost their submarine and destroyed an entire island town, killing its inhabitants. They find an injured German soldier, but he dies before they can get any information from him. Hudson and the other men try to think like the German soldiers to determine their course.

Hudson likes the straightforward duty involved in this type of work. He tries to keep his mind off of Tom's death and his first wife, but memories of them frequently slip back into his mind. He does not know how to deal with these thoughts and emotions.

They travel from one small island to another, encountering an abandoned boat, a German sailor who kills one of their men, and finally, the German soldiers they have been looking for. There is a big shoot-out. Hudson's troop wins, but Hudson gets shot by one of the Germans. He lies down on the boat while his friend Willie talks to him to keep him conscious. Willie tells Hudson not to die because he loves him. Hudson thinks he understands, but his consciousness is fading.

Islands in the Stream: Characters

Below is a chart with information about the main characters in Islands in the Stream:

Thomas HudsonThomas Hudson is the protagonist of the novel. He is a painter who becomes a naval patrol captain when World War II breaks out. Hudson has a deep appreciation for beauty and the sea. He embodies traditional stoic, manly qualities with a tinge of sensitivity and brief insights into a longing soul. He likes painting, fishing, drinking, appreciating nature, and meeting women. He is not highly emotional but measured and pensive. He tries not to overthink the things that make him sad, but he has a deep love for his children and a slight sense of remorse for many of his selfish decisions.
Roger DavisRoger Davis is Hudson's close friend and a writer. They lived together in Paris as young men. Davis stays with Hudson in Bimini for a while. Davis can be violent and troublemaking, but he gets along very well with Hudson's children. He frequently doubts his writing abilities, but Hudson encourages him and offers him accommodation so that he has a proper space for writing.
young TomYoung Tom is Tom Hudson's eldest son. He is the only child from Hudson's first marriage to Ginny Watson. Tom was raised around the world and has memories of growing up around famous writers such as James Joyce as a young child in Paris. Young Tom is a very conscientious, caring boy. He worries a lot, but it is out of deep concern for others, especially his younger brothers. Young Tom grows up to be a handsome military pilot who dies during World War II.
DavidDavid is Tom Hudson's second son. His mother was Hudson's second wife. David is a determined boy with great fortitude and a good disposition. He holds onto the fishing rod for hours, even when his feet are bleeding and his body aches. When after all the pain and endurance he loses the fish, he is not upset. He says he loved the fish. Even the grown men admire David's fortitude.
AndrewAndrew is Tom Hudson's youngest son, who bares the strongest resemblance to his father. Hudson recognizes a mischievous nature in the boy that is familiar to himself. Andrew and his brother David die in a car accident with their mother in France shortly after their visit to Bimini.
Honest LilHonest Lil is a prostitute in Havana, Cuba. She has known Tom Hudson for many years. She knows his history and knew young Tom. She questions Hudson to learn more about his past and struggles with her worth and happiness as she ages.
Ginny WatsonGinny Watson is a beautiful, famous movie actress who is young Tom's mother. She was Hudson's first wife and only true love. Watson and Hudson still have entangled feelings for one other though they have been with many other people since their separation. Hudson's thoughts frequently return to Ginny Watson and his remorse over how he could not keep her though he loved her.

Islands in the Stream: Themes of the Novel

Islands in the Stream explores themes of loneliness, death, grief, violence, alcoholism, boyhood, manhood, and nature.

Loneliness, Death, and Grief

Underlying the plot of the entire novel is how Tom Hudson deals with his loneliness, death, and grief—even though it is often through avoidance. In the first part of the novel, Hudson has an extremely materially comfortable life on a beautiful island, a good reputation as a painter, friends, and a measured, routine life. However, he struggles with loneliness that comes from the lack of love.

When his sons visit in the summer, there is joyousness and love, but he fears the impending loneliness that will come when they leave. He masks this loneliness by drinking and focusing on his work. When his two younger sons die abruptly in a car crash and his eldest son dies in battle, there is not much of an emotional reaction on Hudson's part. He simply recognizes that a portion of himself has died as well, and he tries to carry on in the same way.

Hudson searches for happiness in fleeting pleasures like sex, alcohol, and danger to overshadow his pain, but these things do not bring meaning into his life. They help him mask his grief with the mentality that nothing matters. However, his mind always returns to the sorrows of regret for the loves left behind—his first wife and his dead children.

Violence and Alcoholism

The novel explores human tendencies toward violence and alcoholism. In the novel's first part, Roger Davis brutally beats up another man and describes his loss of control. Davis and his friends are rowdy and disruptive. They go around the island drinking and shooting at night. Hemingway points out the dangerous, violent tendencies of human nature early on. Though the men may think it is harmless, this propensity for violence later channels into the idea of war.

Hemingway shows how alcohol both soothes and propagates the anger and sorrows of men. Roger Davis is drunk when he nearly kills another man, young Tom is concerned about the cook Eddy being a drunk, or a "rummy," and Hudson drinks to deal with the pain of loss. Hemingway paints alcohol as a double-edged sword enjoyed in life's lightness as it destroys in the darkness.

Islands in the Stream, Mojito Drink, StudySmarterFig. 5 Sadly, drinking becomes the only consistent thing in Hudson's life.

Boyhood and Manhood

The novel explores the differences and overlaps between boyhood and manhood. While both are characterized by a need for adventure, mischief, and fun, Thomas Hudson's children present a freedom of expression in thought, emotion, and hopefulness that is not present in adult men. Hudson's children earnestly and innocently share all their thoughts, worries, and insecurities. They find hope in faith and prayer. There is a genuineness that shines through the children and brings light to adult life.

While David is trying to reel in the giant swordfish, young Tom worries about him immensely while the adult men drink and encourage David to keep up the fight. They admire David because he does not complain, but he is tough and exhibits strength and determination. Hemingway characterizes manhood in a similar light of being tough, enduring, having fun, and not speaking about troubles.

Hemingway portrays unhealthy stereotypical 'manly' men who drink, start fights, objectify women, and do not deal with their emotions. Though Hemingway suggests Hudson's deeper sensitivities, Hudson never decides to make any changes but simply accepts things as they are. Ultimately, his ways lead to a sense of isolation, as Willie tells Hudson that he never understood anyone who loved him as he is dying at the end of the novel.


Hudson's deep, artistic nature is revealed through his observations of nature. He understands that nature is extremely powerful and can express and evoke a multitude of human emotions. While Hudson cannot understand his own emotions, he can read and understand nature, which brings him comfort though it is not always serene.

Islands in the Stream, Monet Painting Boats, StudySmarterFig. 6 Thomas Hudson paints local life in Bimini, seascapes, people, and David's fish.

Islands in the Stream: Quotes

Below are some quotes to help explore and understand the novel's themes:

The novel's title comes from its setting, as Hudon lives on and travels through the waters of the Gulf Stream. At the beginning of the novel, he masks his loneliness with discipline and routine in his work. He does not know how to deal with life's emotional tides, so he accepts what comes so as not to be disappointed:

His life was built solidly on work and on living by the Gulf Stream...The aids and the habits and the customs were all to handle the loneliness and by now he knew he had opened a whole new country for the loneliness to move into once the boys were gone. There was nothing to do about that, though. That would all come later if it was coming there was no good derived from fearing of it now." (Part 1: Bimini, Ch. 8)

When Hudson's son David is determined to catch the giant fish at the expense of his own safety and wellbeing, Hudson lets him because he believes that wanting something badly and going after it is part of what it means to become a man:

But there is a time boys have to do things if they are ever going to be men. That's where Dave is now" (Part 1: Bimini, Ch. 9)

Hudson is most comfortable caught up in a life of action, as it keeps him from thinking about his sorrows. Hemingway explains this through Hudson's preference for the strong winds rather than the quiet calm:

The wind was blowing heavily and had blown now, day and night, for more than fifty days. It had become a part of the man and it did not make him nervous. It fortified him and gave him strength he hoped that it would never stop.

We wait always for something that does not come, he thought. But it is easier waiting with the wind than in a calm or with the capriciousness and malignancy of squalls." (Part 3: At Sea, Ch. 1)

The last line of the novel puts into perspective the major problem in Hudson's life, he cannot understand the people who care most for him nor fully accept their love:

'You never understand anybody that loves you.'" (Part 3: At Sea, Ch. 21)

Islands in the Stream - Key takeaways

  • Islands in the Stream (1970) is the first posthumously published novel by Ernest Hemingway.
  • The main character of the novel is an American painter named Thomas Hudson.
  • The novel is set before and during World War II and was inspired by Hemingway's life experiences.
  • The novel is split into three parts: "Bimini," "Cuba," and "At Sea."
  • Islands in the Stream explores themes of loneliness, death, grief, violence, alcoholism, boyhood, manhood, and nature.

Frequently Asked Questions about Islands in the Stream

The American author Ernest Hemingway wrote Islands in the Stream.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway is about a divorced painter named Thomas Hudson. At the beginning of the novel he is living in Bimini and his three sons come to visit in the summer. Later, he becomes the captain of a military boat chasing German submarines. 

Islands in the Stream was written primarily in 1950 and 1951, though it was published posthumously in 1970.

The saying "islands in the stream" refers to the Caribbean islands that appear to be floating in the water. Metaphorically, it refers to how people are just small islands in the bigger tide of life and the world.

Islands in the Stream is part of the American fiction genre.

Final Islands in the Stream Quiz


Who is the author of Islands in the Stream?

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Ernest Hemingway

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What is the name of the main character in the novel?

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Thomas Hudson

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Where is the first part of the novel set?

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Which of the following is not one of Hudson's three sons?

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True or False: All three of Hudson's sons die.

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What does Hudson do during World War II?

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He patrols waters around the Caribbean islands and hunts German submarines for the US military. 

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Name at least three themes explores in the novel.

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Loneliness, death, grief, violence, alcoholism, boyhood, manhood, nature

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True or False: David triumphantly catches the giant swordfish after hours of struggling with it.

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Which of the following is not the title of one of the sections of the novel?

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"Key West"

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Which of Hudson's sons eventually becomes an airforce pilot?

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young Tom

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