Ernest Hemingway: Modernist Style
“I always try to write on the principle of
the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under the water for every part that
shows. Anything you know, you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your
iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show.”- Hemingway, 1958. Of all the great
American writers, Hemingway is most famous for his objective and concise prose
style. We can see this in every of his work, but the Old Man and the Sea is
what reflects this technique the most.
Writing by the iceberg principle, the
language that is used seems simple and totally normal on the surface, but in
actuality, it is deliberate and engineered. Through the use of his unique
experience in the first world war as a guide, Hemingway drew some of the most
realistic pictures of the wartime experience that the world had ever seen. He first accomplished this with his
publication of A Farewell to Arms in 1929, the 20th century knew
what being in war at that time meant.
Compared to William Faulkner, Hemingway
writes short sentences that are filled with metaphor, symbolism and imagery,
whilst Faulkner writes long sentences and adds details. This style has made
Hemingway nicknamed the master of dialogue. This writing style allows him to
relate his characters to his readers, but this style has been one subject to
criticism because of the lack of detail.
This particular style can be witnessed in one
of his works “Hills like White Elephants”. Hemingway’s use of dialogue is so
brilliant in that he never explicitly states what is being discussed by the
couple, instead he leaves it to the reader to figure out what they are both
talking about and of course it is easy to infer that they were talking about
her being pregnant. There was no plot in the book whatsoever, in the sense that
there were no twists, intrigue, or goals for any of the characters and the dialogue
was the only thing that moved the reader through the book
We can also see this style in his book, The
Sun Also Rises. It is amongst many of Hemingway’s strengths as a writer that he
can present dialogue as a simple and yet puzzling technique. Most critics have
argued that in this book Hemingway’s dialogue style contains elements of
modernism. Modernism is an idea that involves deliberate and radical break with
some of the traditional bases both of western culture and of western art.
I am drunk. Why aren’t you drunk? Why don’t you ever get drunk, Robert? You
know you didn’t have a good time at san Sebastian because none of our friends
would invite you to any of the parties.” This quote is an example of how
Hemingway’s character dialogues contain modernism, because of the subject of
drinking and how open the characters how to be discussing it. There have been
mixed reactions from critics concerning this method because most writers during
Hemingway’s time weren’t familiar or rather they abstained from this style
probably because it wasn’t socially acceptable.
level of style, it is justifiable to view Hemingway as a something of a
modernist. As earlier mentioned we can consider Hemingway’s “iceberg
principle” theory as support for this. Hemingway believed that
the most important detail was the only element that needed to be on the paper;
the true and hidden meanings was left as the work of the reader, his
imagination, and his own interpretation of the hidden meaning.
In all of his works Hemingway did not give
out the meaningless details. Like a dramatist, Hemingway displays his
characters and their actions with little to no background detail, forcing the
reader to interpret underlying themes and meanings. Hemingway learned the basics
of this technique when he was an overseas newspaper correspondent.
He was short of words and therefore learned
to express a paramount of ideas in a tiniest of words. He did not write out
what could be inferred by the reader. For example, he often left out speech
tags because he believed that by leaving out such distracting and
frustrating conversations, it’d be easier to figure out the truth behind the
emotions. This technique of omission serves to undermine the purpose of
narration that usually provide guides for the reader.
He was very similar to Virginia Woolf, in
the sense that he was a dramatic realist. That is displaying characters and
events with very little to no explanatory detail. Like Woolf’s stories,
Hemingway’s stories usually did not let readers know immediately what was going
on, the main plot/themes unfold as the readers go along. Moreover, during the
character’s dialogue, a significant amount of information is given out.
Mark Twain whom Hemingway got most of his inspiration
from used a technique in his stories known as incorporating informal dialect.
This was also a part of dramatic realism. The characters they created usually
spoke using American English and the setting was also American. The dialogue usually consists of American
dialect, thus, making it more formal than normal and standard English. It was
His characters’ method of dialogue emulates
how Americans speak in the real world. Hemingway is clearly diverting from the
usual formal, elegant English of the nineteenth-century style, and instead
adapting a more journalistic style. Like his predecessor, Hemingway creates
dialogue that bounces on everyday speech, but his style is more “minimalist”
than that of Twain, and this is what makes his style distinctively
modernist. In Hemingway’s stories, description and actions are subjective
to dialogue. The latter is so because it helps the reader to understand the
implicit motives of each character.
This is also related to Hills like White
Elephants, when Jig says “Everything tastes like liquorice. Especially all the
things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” By using this particular
word, she is implying that what they have both been waiting for will either
kill her or drive her crazy. Obviously, we know that she is talking about the
choice of keeping the bay or getting an abortion.
We also learn vividly that her partner does
not want this baby, and that she is heartsick at the thought of losing it. All
of this information is implied and thus makes the reader wonder what has
happened to these characters to bring them to this place. By only suggesting
things, Hemingway requires the reader’s engagement. He implies far more than he
states—a key modernist strategy.
Hemingway learned not to use redundant words
and he did this by avoiding abstractions and irrelevant adjectives. In other
words, he made his writing simple, precise, and concrete in order to give originality
to the language. Gertrude Stein’s writing inspired
Hemingway into writing from a different perspective and she taught him about
the repetition of “valid and valuable” words, the need for clarity” intrusive
punctuation, the use of present tense, short sentences and the importance “of
communicating ‘the emotion of reality'”.
In the remainder of my essay, I will analyze
three of Hemingway’s short stories to demonstrate the points that I have made
above about what characterizes the modernism of Hemingway. “Indian Camp” was
the first short story Hemingway wrote and published in the Transatlantic
Review in 1924. I will also analyze “Hills like White Elephants” (1927)
and “A clean-well-lighted place” (1933).
In “Indian Camp,” Nick, a recurrent
protagonist in Hemingway’s short stories, goes through a transformation. He
arrives as a boy and leaves as a man after what he experiences in the shanty.
Although Hemingway does not clearly state it, he gives clues for readers to
understand what has happened and encourages them to read beneath the lines. For
instance, at the beginning of the story, when Nick and his father are both on
their way to the shanty, “Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him.” This demonstrates
closeness, a little boy being protected by his father.
book, Nick sees the dead body of an Indian woman’s husband who cut open his own
throat because he couldn’t bear to see his wife go through pain. Nick begins to
experience shock, and this is peculiar because the reader is also experiencing
it, this goes to show the modernistic details in Hemingway’s work. This was the
same technique used by several modernists around his time. They created
graphical scenes and left it to the reader to provide emotional details to it.
example of how metaphor was used in “Indian Camp” was with the sun rising when
father and son cross the lake. At the beginning at the story, the narrator
notes “the two boats started in the dark” while, when the story was concluding,
the setting had already changed: “the sun was coming up over the hills.”
This metaphor was used to
show that Nick was in the dark when they arrived; he was innocent. The word
“Dark is used in ambiguous way here, it is implying both a literal and at least
two metaphorical applications. Nick is in the dark before he
accompanies his father; after this experience he emerges into the light because
he has learned something new, he had now become grown and more mature. He is in
the dark in the sense that he has learned dark and horrible truths about human
life and suffering.
Hills Like White Elephants is one of the
most modernist stories of Hemingway. As mentioned before this story is based
almost entirely on simple dialogue, one of the ways Hemingway incorporated
modernism. The reader understands everything they need to just by noting the
tone between each character. The brilliant thing about this story is that even
though it rests entirely on communication, the story reveals the lack of
communication between each character.
They do not listen neither do they
understand each other, they make small talk instead of actually having a
conversation. At the end of the story they are no longer in the same location;
he is at the bar, while jig is staying at the cabin, which might suggest that
they are going separate ways.
This story further
illustrates Hemingway’s “iceberg principle” because he gives very little
attention to what would have normally been considered important details, such
as the names of the characters. The beginning only lets the reader know that
there is an American and a girl. Later on, thanks to the dialogue, the reader
learns that her nickname is Jig. The white Elephants are also not explained,
the reader has to figure out what this really means.
“A Clean-Well-Lighted Place” also exhibits
modernist work because once again, the meaning of the story is found between
the lines. As with “Hills Like White Elephants,” characters do not have any
names in the story, reinforcing Hemingway’s conviction that it does not make
any difference to the story to know their names as long as the reader
understands their functions in the story.
The plot is about three men at a bar: two
waiters and one deaf old man. The two waiters are talking about the man’s lives
and diverge to talk about life and general and the nothingness of life. The two
waiters disagree on each meaning they came up with. In
“A Clean-Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway repeats the world “clean” and “light”
many times, which parallels the modernists style of repetition.
shifts the responsibility of understanding the story’s timeline onto the
reader. For instance, at one point in the story, one of the waiters is at
another bar; however, the narrator never specifies that he left the bar and
walked to another one. Rather than clarifying on the Characters,
setting and their situation, Hemingway cuts out all this information so that
his language only focuses on the necessary details.
All of Hemingway’s work has been translated,
analyzed and discussed throughout the world, and from someone that was inspired
by mostly French writers, he went on to inspiring the next generation of French
writers after him.