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Ernest Hemingway FAQ: Style

Question What are a few characteristics of Ernest Hemingway's writing style?

Answer Below are some characteristics:

  • Stark minimalist nature
  • Grade school-like grammar
  • Austere word choice
  • Unvarnished descriptions
  • Short, declarative sentences
  • Uses language accessible to the common reader

Ernest Hemingway is a master of dialogue. It's not so much that he is recreating precisely how individuals speak, but through his brilliant use of repetition, he is able to make the reader remember what has been said. Hemingway's style of writing was probably most influenced by his early work as a cub reporter for The Kansas City Star. There he was forced to adhere to a stylebook for young reporters, which included the following advice: "Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English, not forgetting to strive for smoothness. Be positive, not negative."

Hemingway's words are essentially just words like any other words, but the way he stirs them together is his own unique formula, a stylistic recipe that no other writer has been able to recreate. There are sentences that only Hemingway could get away with because we know that Hemingway wrote them. Take this short sentence from For Whom the Bell Tolls: "He was dead and that was all." This is and always will be a Hemingway sentence. For a reader to immediately recognize that "Hemingway wrote this" by reading the words alone is a remarkable legacy for a writer to leave. Hemingway is truly alive in his words because his words are truly his. His style is uniquely his. This is what makes him a writer in the truest sense.

For articles and books that discuss Hemingway's distinctive writing style, see the Ernest Hemingway Bibliography.

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Question Should Ernest Hemingway be classified as an anti-Semitic writer? If so, why?

Answer The portrayal of Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises is probably the best illustration of Ernest Hemingway as an anti-Semitic writer. Whether Hemingway was displacing his own feelings for Jews onto Robert Cohn or merely reflecting the views of a vastly anti-Semitic 1920's culture is an interesting point to consider. Hemingway himself was anti-Semitic to a certain degree. His personal letters are sporadically littered with the word "kike." He sometimes used the word in the verb tense, writing to the effect: he "kiked" me out of money. However, Hemingway also had many Jewish friends throughout his life and while in high school, he gave himself the nickname of "Hemingstein." In creating such a name, he may have been cleverly trying to combat the anti-Semitism of his day.

To classify Hemingway as just a sexist writer or an anti-Semitic writer or a racist writer is to dismiss the great depth and complexity of his art. Let's take his portrayal of women as an example. Many critics have found his depiction of women hollow and superficial. His women seem to exist only in the context of the male hero. They are given no distinctive voice of their own and are almost always dealt a tragic fate. They are victimizers, bitches, ruiners of men. Yet let us also recognize the strength and courage of the Hemingway female. Let us commend Pilar's qualities of leadership in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Catherine's heroic exit in A Farewell to Arms. Let us recognize Hemingway's sensitivity towards women, his attempts to understand their inner core and their suffering, as evident in the last chapter of To Have and Have Not.

As a writer, Hemingway wanted and needed to show the various faces of life: the smiles, the tears, the pain, the triumph. He never turned away from the sensitive subjects such as anti-Semitism, sensitive, that is, to our present day society, but rather commonplace in Hemingway's time.

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Question How is the "iceberg principle" used in Ernest Hemingway's works?

Answer Ernest Hemingway's theory of omission is widely referred to as the "iceberg principle." He explains this principle in chapter 16 of his 1932 book, Death in the Afternoon. Essentially, the principle states that by omitting certain parts of a story, a writer actually strengthens that story. The writer must be conscious of these omissions and be writing true enough in order for the reader to sense the omitted parts. When the reader senses the omitted parts, a greater perception and understanding for the story can be achieved.

Let's apply Hemingway's "iceberg principle" to the endings of some of his most famous works. At the end of The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley contemplate a life together. At the end of A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry walks back to his hotel alone in the rain. At the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan awaits his impending death. The fate of these characters is never directly stated. Hemingway doesn't tell the reader that Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley will never be together. Instead, it is "pretty to think" that they could have had a damned good life together. Hemingway doesn't tell the reader what lies in store for Frederic Henry after he leaves his dead lover in the hospital. Does his walk alone in the rain represent emotional freedom or devastation? Robert Jordan is surely to die at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, but Hemingway leaves the reader with the image of Jordan's "heart beating" against the forest floor.

Hemingway disliked discussions regarding the symbolism in his works. The "iceberg principle," however, by its very nature, invites symbolic interpretations and I think Hemingway acknowledged this in his own subtle way. Fraser Drew once quoted him as saying: "No good writer ever prepared his symbols ahead of time and wrote his book about them, but out of a good book which is true to life symbols may arise and be profitably explored if not over-emphasized."

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