Author in Focus: Ernest Hemingway and the Iceberg Effect

Author in Focus: Ernest Hemingway and the Iceberg Effect 

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923 (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Hemingway Bio:

Ernest Miller Hemingway was an American author and journalist. His economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Wikipedia

Born: July 21, 1899, Oak Park, IL

Died: July 2, 1961, Ketchum, ID

Movies: For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, More

Spouse: Mary Welsh Hemingway (m. 1946–1961), More

Children: Jack Hemingway, Gregory Hemingway, Patrick Hemingway

Why Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway, was many things to many people and widely criticized for his machismo.  But for this purpose, let’s focus on his style of prose known by a term coined by Hemingway himself: The Iceberg Effect.

The Iceberg Effect 

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. ~ Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s prose bears out this philosophy which is in essence saying less is more. As a writer, I find nothing more liberating in my work than to edit out text, reducing it to what I consider to be the essential words.

But this is very subjective and to reduce prose in the extreme way that Hemingway did, is difficult.

It’s particularly difficult when you are dealing with events in the past, pertinent to the narrative. But the reader is there for a good story, not a history lesson.

“Hills Like White Elephants”

One of his most famous short stories is “Hills Like White Elephants”. The couple in the story is drawn in such sparse prose, it leaves much to the reader’s interpretation. The man is never given a name, and though it appears the couple are simply killing time while waiting for a train, they are in fact alluding to whether or not the girl should have an abortion and whether they will split up. All if this is done in basic exchanges of dialogue, and straightforward snatches of information. Here is an excerpt:

‘They’re lovely hills,’ she said. ‘They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the 

colouring of their skin through the trees.’ 

‘Should we have another drink?’ 

‘All right.’ 

The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table. 

‘The beer’s nice and cool,’ the man said. 

‘It’s lovely,’ the girl said. 

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’ 

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. 

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’ 

The girl did not say anything. 

The whole of the story is full of metaphor and innuendo, leaving the final interpretation up to the reader to make assumptions about the couples’ dynamic and what they are actually talking about.

Ernest Hemingway

Cover of Ernest Hemingway

Why The Iceberg Effect?

Supposedly Hemingway and others of his era, chose this style of writing as a backlash to the elaborate style of some 19th century writers e.g. Henry James.

What is your response to this minimalist style of writing? Do you know any 21st Century writers who write like this?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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Author in Focus is a blog series featuring vignettes on some of the greatest writers of the 20th & 21st century.

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  ~ Italo Calvino


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