Hemingway short stories

Hemingway Short Stories — Finca Vigia Edition

By Honorine Roullier

Hemingway matured as an artist in the city of lights, the city considered by modernist writers as a wellspring of inspiration. Paris was portrayed as the “city of growth for the artist” (Prizer 12). Moreover, during his time in Paris, Hemingway was close to Ford Madox Ford, one of the key modernist writers. Hemingway worked as assistant editor to Ford on the Transatlantic Review and thus learned from a practicing modernist writer. Are these facts along enough to consider Hemingway a modernist? In France, Hemingway is considered a modernist because of his style alone. Some American scholars, however, argue that Hemingway is not a modernist but rather a Realist. What does it mean to call Hemingway a Realist writer? Is his practice of realism compatible with modernism? Are modernism and realism two overlapping movements?

At the level of style, it is easy to classify Hemingway as a modernist. We can consider Hemingway’s  “iceberg principle” theory as support for this. As he famously said: “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows” (The Paris Review). Basically, this means saying less to suggest more. Hemingway believed that the essential was the only element that needed to be on the paper; the underlying meanings was the work of the reader, his imagination, and his own interpretation. At first glance, the reader generally does not see what is beneath the lines; he needs to re-read the story to discover the layers of meaning. According to Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, Hemingway acquired the technique “to get the most from the least, […] to prune language and avoid waste motion, […] to multiply intensities, and […] to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth” (Baker 117). This statement, especially “to multiply intensities,” recalls the statement of Virginia Woolf: “Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist’s intention if we are readers” (Woolf ). Hemingway makes the reader work by not expressing everything and thus the reader has to go in the writer’s mind to attempt to understand what are his intentions, how does he want to bring the reader into the reading. Baker explains Hemingway’s metaphor by noting that there are two surfaces in his fictions: above the water float the hard facts; under the water–what we cannot see–are the “supporting structure complete with symbolism” (Baker).  This explanation also reminds us of the importance of Hemingway’s  technique of omission, which means omitting “everything that is not absolutely essential to the narrative” (Archer 14). Baker adds that Hemingway believes that it is not because things are not uttered that it cannot affect the reader, on the contrary.

Hemingway does not give useless details. Like a dramatist, Hemingway presents his characters and their actions with minimal background detail, requiring the reader to interpret underlying themes and meanings. Hemingway learned the basis of this technique when he was an overseas newspaper correspondent. He was limited in words and therefore learned to express a maximum of ideas in a minimum of words. He did not spell out what could be inferred by the reader. For instance, he often omits speech tags  because he believed that leaving out such distracting conventions could more directly reveal emotional truth. This practice of omission deconstructs the classical mode of narration, which typically provides reassuring signposts for the reader. Like Ford Madox Ford and Virginia Woolf, Hemingway is a dramatic realist, presenting characters and events with minimal explanatory detail and asking the reader to do the work of interpretation. In Mrs Dalloway, Woolf also asks the reader to do some interpretive work:

Clarissa had a theory in those days . . . that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death . . . perhaps—perhaps (Woolf).

Clarissa believes that the soul of a person resembles a plant or a tree, with a complex and unseen system underneath and a less significant part on top; a concept which is quite similar to Hemingway’s iceberg principle. She expresses that to truly know someone you have to go beneath the surface. To truly understand Hemingway’s stories you must do the same. The way Woolf narrates Mrs Dalloway means that she is alway taking us inside people’s thoughts rather than dwelling on the actions, which supports Clarissa’s theory and reminds of Hemingway’s iceberg principle. The difference is that Hemingway dwells on surface actions and statements of characters, asking us to infer what is going on beneath this surface. In this way both Hemingway and Woolf ask a great deal of their readers, but give us different kinds of details about their characters. In Hemingway, we know what the characters see and say but Hemingway does not directly state what his characters feel; this is the job of the reader to determine.

Like the stories of Ford and Woolf, Hemingway’s stories usually start in media res with an action; the reader does not immediately understand what is really going on. Moreover, a lot of information is given in the dialogue through exchanges between the characters. Mark Twain famously used a distinctive American oral language in his stories, something which inspired Hemingway, who went on to master this technique of vernacular dialect. This is part of his dramatic realism. His characters often speak in distinctively American English, and of course many of his stories have an American setting. The dialogue often makes use of authentic American idioms. Thus it is less formal than standard English, more colloquial and vernacular. His dialogue captures the characters’ voices in the way they actually speak. Hemingway is breaking away from the more formal, ornate English of much nineteenth-century American literature, adopting a more journalistic style. Like Twain, Hemingway creates dialogue that reproduces everyday speech, but his style is more “minimalist” than that of Twain, and this is what makes his style distinctively modernist.  “When Hemingway writes dialogue, and despite [Ezra] Pound’s advice, his adjectives and adverbs multiply in order to define character while also emphasizing verbal play” (Stolfzus 31). In his stories descriptions and actions are subordinate to the dialogue. The latter is revelatory because it portrays verbal actions, leaving motives for the reader to interpret. Moreover, it helps in the reader’s understanding of what is implicit in the story.

Hemingway did not master these characteristics by himself. He was inspired by many French writers. When he arrived in Paris, he went to Sylvia Beach’s bookstore and borrowed many French novels in order to “prepare himself for the challenge of being modern” (Stoltzfus xvii). He read Stendhal, Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy among others. But he only gave importance to what he felt he could use. As Ben Stolfzus has noted:

He combined Twain’s “Americanness,” Flaubert’s proleptic images, Maupassant’s and Chekov’s craft of short story. Gertrude Stein’s aural repetitions, and cablese (a journalist’s omission of unnecessary words in a cable to his editor) into a distinctive style noted for its compression, omission, and deceptive simplicity, all of which managed to connote “the dignity of movement of an iceberg,” whose seven-eighths is below the surface and therefore invisible (Stolfzus xviii)

When Woolf says “For the moderns “that,” the point of interest, lies very likely in the dark places of psychology” (Modern Fiction), she means that the realms of consciousness, especially the subconscious, are not well rendered by the fiction of the past. This can of course include the disturbed thoughts like those of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, but also private thoughts, subconscious thoughts, dreams, etc.. This too is related to Hemingway’s iceberg idea: writers should use the “surface” of their writing to suggest, and obliquely represent, the depths of consciousness. For instance, in “Hills like White Elephants,” Jig says “Everything tastes like liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” By using the word absinthe, she implies that what she has been waiting for so long will either kill her or make her crazy. After reading the story we know that she is talking about choosing between the baby she is carrying or getting an abortion. We learn obliquely 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.

From Ezra Pound, Hemingway learned not to use superfluous words and to avoid abstractions and irrelevant adjectives. In short, he made his writing simple, precise, and concrete in order to give freshness to the language. Gertrude Stein’s writing gave Hemingway 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’” (Waldhorn 31). Stein also advised him to read Flaubert, which he did. From him, Hemingway learned “the use of repetition and proleptic images into his own writing” (Stolfzus 20). From Sherwood Anderson, he learned vernacular speech rhythms. Very early, Hemingway started to use what he learned, such as repetition of words, “recurring images,” and the use of adjectives in order to adapt them to his own fiction (Stolfzus 31).

In the remainder of my essay, I will to 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).

“Indian Camp”

In “Indian Camp,” Hemingway does not specify that Nick’s father wanted Nick to come with him to the shanty. Nevertheless, you understand, through the dialogue, that he wanted to  show him his knowledge of child birth and medicine:

“This lady is going to have a baby, Nick,” [the father] said.

“No you don’t know,” said his father. “Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. all her muscles are trying to get the baby born. This is what is happening when she screams.”

“I see,” Nick said. (“Indian Camp”)

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. At the end of the story though, they are not close anymore: “They were sitting in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing.” He does feel the need of his father’s protection anymore. During his time at the shanty with the Indians, Nick watched his dad perform a Caesarian with a jack knife. He also saw the dead body of the Indian woman’s husband who slit his throat because he could not stand to watch his wife suffer. What Nick witnesses is brutal and shocking, especially because the reader is also experiencing it as Hemingway gives the details. This exhibits the modern characteristics of Hemingway’s work: to give details that the reader might not want to know. This is the technique used by several modernists, includings Jean Toomer or Lu Xun, who include graphic details in their fiction, but call on the reader to provide the emotional and moral responses that the author refrains from providing.

Another example of metaphor in “Indian Camp” plays with the light 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 ends, the setting has changed: “the sun was coming up over the hills.” This metaphor shows that Nick was in the dark when they arrived―he was innocent. “Dark” is a purposely ambiguous word here, implying both a literal and at least two metaphorical applications. Nick is metaphorically in the dark before he accompanies his father; after this experience he emerges into the light because he has learned something, he has become more mature. He is also in the dark in the sense that he has learned dark truths about human life and suffering.

The narrator also wants to claim that Nick and his father are crossing into a different culture: from Anglo-American to American Indian culture. Hemingway’s use of imagery gere parallels that of Pound’s idea of the image. According to Pound, the image presents “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” He adds that the image is “the presentation of […] a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” Hemingway demonstrates this in “Indian Camp” through his use of darkness and light, which correspond to Nick and his father traveling to, and then leaving, the camp.

“Hills Like White Elephants”

“Hills Like White Elephants” is the most modernist of the stories I am analyzing. This story is based almost entirely on dialogue, one of Hemingway’s modernist characteristics. The reader learns everything she needs to in the exchanges between the characters; the rest is her own interpretation. Even though the dialogue is the most important part of this story, it actually communicates more than the content of the dialogue to the reader, because it reflects a lack of communication between the two characters. They do not listen nor understand each other; they talk instead of conversing. Hemingway uses their drinking to demonstrate this lack of communication. When they drink, they avoid talking. For instance the woman orders “two big ones” so it will take more time to drink them. Once she is done with it she orders another one because she does not want to talk about her pregnancy, which is never spelled out in the story. She mentions that the only thing they can do is drinking together which demonstrate their lack of communication and the fact that they are drifting apart. At the end of the story, they are no longer drinking together; he is at the bar while she stays in the cabin. It suggests that they will go in different directions once their journey is over.

This story exemplifies Hemingway’s “iceberg principle” because he gives very little attention to what would traditionally be considered important details, such as the names of the characters. The beginning only informs the reader 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 never fully explained, though Jig does say that this is what the distant hills look like. The reader has to analyze the underlying implications of this image and phrase by herself. American readers will likely know a “white elephant” is a colloquial expression for something that no one wants; in this story it represents the baby. First she states that the hills look like white elephants as an indirect way of suggesting that she wants to talk about her pregnancy and the possibility of the abortion. Later, she retracts her comment and observes that the hills actually do not look like white elephants, suggesting that she has changed her mind. Everything is understated and the reader has to work and think in order to understand the story.

The lack of dialogue tags further exhibit Hemingway’s modern style as it demands the reader actively engage with the story in order to understand. The sentences are short and straightforward and there is no monologue. All these elements contribute to demonstrate that the reader has to interpret the character’s thoughts and feeling.  When Jig says, “Everything tastes like liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe,” she implies the abortion and the American understands her understatement. This is because absinthe at this time was thought of as a drink that could cause madness and death. “Waiting” for absinthe, then, implies waiting to die, as will happen to her unborn child if she has an abortion–which could also cause her mental distress and even illness.  Despite these apparently casual observations and comments, it is easy to infer that this couple is talking about something important–even though the male refers to it as “an awfully simple operation.” We are never told what kind of operation it is. As we have seen, however, Hemingway provides many clues in the dialogue and imagery to suggest what kind of operation the couple is talking about. Finally we know that she agrees to the abortion because she drinks the alcohol and because of her last sentence: “Let’s drink beer.”

“A Clean-Well-Lighted-Place”

“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 differences to the story to know their names as long as the reader understands their functions in the story. With this short story, the reader needs to know that there is two waitresses and that one is older than the other one. She also needs to know that there is an old man. That is what matters for the story, the rest is just superficial details. The plot is about three men at a bar: two waitresses and one deaf old man. The two waitresses are talking about the man’s lives and diverge to talk about life and general and the nothingness of life. The two waitresses disagree. We understand that the story is happening in Spain because the waitress is using Spanish vocabulary, such as “pesata,” “hombre,” “nada,” or “copita.”It is also possible happen during the war as “a guard” is mentioned.

Hemingway may not use long clauses and sentences; however, he is very picky about his choice of words, which gives all its power to the story. In “A Clean-Well-Lighted Place,” Hemingway repeats the world “clean” and “light” many times, which echoes Flaubert’s style of repetition. These two words are important in the story because light represents the emergency exit of the old man and the waitress’ distress. Clean symbolizes the happiness of the other waitress. “This is a very clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted.” When the waitress utters this, he means that in his cafe you do not feel so despair because “it is well lighted.” Usually night bars are very dark, the light is weak. Thus people in despair feel like nobody can see them in bars.

Hemingway shifts the responsibility of understanding the story’s timeline onto the reader. For instance, at one moment, one of the waitress is at another bar; however, the narrator never specifies that he left the bar and walked to another one. He does not think he needs to specify the movement of his characters because as long as the reader pays attention, she will follow the actions of the story. Moreover, it seems that the old man drank his glass very quick. Between the moment where he is served and the moment when he asked for another one, there is an exchange of twenty-fours sentences between the two waitress. A glass full of brandy cannot be drunk that quickly. Alcohol is not something you drink too quickly, you want to appreciate it; it is a long action. The story, however, is short even though the actions described are long: drinking, talking, reflecting on life, walking.

Instead of elaborating on situations, settings, and characters, Hemingway limits information so that his language only expounds upon the absolutely necessary details. Finally, in this story Hemingway is evoking Existentialist concepts.. Existentialism is the concept that life has neither meaning nor purpose. The universe is indifferent to human beings and each person must create their own meaning which is dependent on their actions.

The last several paragraphs of the story illustrate Hemingway’s knowledge and use of all the major components of literary modernism: minimalist dialogue, imagery, even stream of consciousness. Those who don’t consider Hemingway a modernist point to the fact that he does not use stream of consciousness in his work, which is usually considered a central element of literary modernism. Virginia Woolf is viewed a modernist because she pioneered the use of stream of consciousness. Ford also uses stream of consciousness in his writing, as does James Joyce. However, towards the end of “A Clean-Well-Lighted Place”, Hemingway demonstrates that he knows how to use the stream of consciousness, even though he does not. Some writers have considered the absence of stream of consciousness in Hemingway to be a weakness. Albert Camus, for instance,  has argued that this lack makes Hemingway’s writing “simplistic.” Stoltzfus, however, rejects Camus’s criticism:                   

Hemingway has infused this consciousness into the narrative descriptions and the action.    His proleptic images and time shifts, as in Flaubert’s and Proust’s fiction, form a network   of recurring tropes whose submerged meaning, like the iceberg, is invisible even as it           supports the visible portion. The reader must provide the meaning that seems to be     absent, and the role of the reader, as we will see in the chapters that follow, becomes all       important (Stolzfus xxii).

Like Ford and Woolf, in other words, Hemingway’s work places high demands on the reader. The implications of his stories are difficult to discern, and difficulty is also one of the central characteristics of modernism. In addition, silence is a major element in the entire story, and especially these final paragraphs. By silence, I mean that the narrator does not specify the pace of the story. For instance, there is indication suggesting the waitress is going to  another bar. He is talking to himself and then a waitress asks him what he wants to drink. The critic Arthur Waldhorn notes that “silence is a wordless metaphor expressing outrage against the chaos of the universe and the isolation of the individual” (36). Hemingway uses it in this story to express the unspoken aspects of conversations and, in this story, the meaningless of life. Two of the characters are often speaking at cross purposes, with statements and questions that don’t lead anywhere. The third character is a deaf old man, which is interesting because the story is based on dialogue. However, the old man does not participate in the conversation even though the two waitress are indirectly talking about him. By his silence, he is creating a major place of silence just as the absence of clues about the pacing of the story.

As these three stories illustrate, Hemingway was a thoroughly modernist writer, a master of dramatic realism as well as the kind of imagery and symbolic techniques more famously associated with writers like Virginia Woolf. These and many more of his stories deserve their place in the canon of modernist literature.  Inspired by French modernists such as Pound, Flaubert and Stein, Hemingway learned and implemented modernist techniques in his short stories. Even those who emphasize Hemingway’s realism are implicitly linking him to the modernist movement. As Walz points out, realism is a foundation of modernism: “the rise of Romantic bohemianism, literary Realism, ‘art for art’s sake, Impressionism, Symbolism provided some of the aesthetic foundations of modernism for the following century” (Walz).

As noted above, Hemingway was inspired by great French writers from that time, who were recognized at modernists. He took from them their belief in “le mot just,” their devotion to fiction as an art, and out of this foundation he created his own unique style. However, once he acquired some notoriety, he was the one inspiring future French writers. As Stolfzus writes:

His use of dialogue, short declarative sentences, and an emphasis on action, instead of inner monologue, appealed to Sartre and Albert Camus, both of whom wanted to express new sensibilities in keeping with accelerated rhythms of the machine age. Simone de Beauvoir writes that a great many of the rules that she and Sartre observed in their novels were inspired by Hemingway (Stolfzus xxi)

It is interesting to see that Hemingway went from being inspired by French writers to inspire the new generation of French writers. In less than twenty years, he became a famous writer, leaving the obscurity to go towards the light, thanks to the city of light. He was, at this point, the one who could define what would be characterized as modernist. His work has been translated, analyzed, and discussed throughout the world. And as this essay has demonstrated, his short stories have earned him the right to be called a literary modernist–of the realist camp.



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