Prose Style of Ernest Hemingway’s Novels

Also Read


Hemingway’s Style

      In the twentieth century, Hemingway’s literary style is generally considered to be a remarkable innovation in literature. It is a reaction to an age of war and a world ravaged by it. It has now become a well-known-know commended by critics and the casual reader alike for its authenticity and suitability to the Modern Age.

Sentence Structures and Diction Marked by Simplicity

      That Hemingway was a stylistic writer, is confirmed. Critics praise his style. Hemingway’s prose is easily recognizable for its colloquial, non-literary, lean and stripped style. It is largely colloquial and one of its chief characteristics is a conscientious simplicity of diction and an ultra-simple sentence structure. Hemingway believed in an economic style. Therefore, the words that he chooses are usually short and the very common kind that is ordinarily used in day-to-day conversation. However the mundane is completely absent in his work, he brings a curious freshness and crispness to his diction that immediately strikes the reader. This had caused some critics to remark that his words hit the reader ‘as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages had the effect of a brookbottom into which you look through the flowing water. The words form an tessellation, each in order beside the other. Hemingway utilizes simple, declarative sentences and they are usually joined by conjunction mostly ‘and’. A crisp and clean effect is created and speaks of the clarity and scrupulous care that he has put into his prose. It is remarkable in that it is unintellectual. Events and accidents are usually described as they happened in their original sequence without any philosophical and intellectual descriptions. He does not re-order or analyze these events apart from stating them and allows the reader to draw his conclusion or else to perceive the event according to his thinking without relying on what the author says or asks you to feel. The writer provides the stimuli that remain passive and therefore an impression of intense objectivity is created. Such a style is perfect for the subject matter that Hemingway deals in. The irony and understatement that Hemingway employs suit the subject matter calls for a sharply focussed, narrow vision.

Lean, Stripped, Non-Literary Style

      Hemingway’s style of prose writing is to get straight at the core of the subject. He deals in “the facts of the matter”. Therefore, there is an aggressive quality to his prose and a non-literary, colloquialness in its rhythm and texture. The short, declarative sentence is his style. The usual limit of syntactical complexity is that sentence that is a compound sentence formed by yoking several of these short sentences by using conjunctions. There is nothing extraneous in such a style. There is a sharp edge to these times because of their bare, lean, and stripped quality. Hemingway stringently avoids any kind of device in any diction or syntax that might interpose intrusive qualifications in the prose that drives an urge between the reader and the fictional world that he is to contemplate. This style, therefore, restricts itself to the statement of facts like this and that. No more, no less. Because Hemingway aimed to get to “the way it was”, it was necessary to adopt such a style.

Motion and Fact in Sequence

      Hemingway himself once described the art of prose writing. Following is a verboten quote of his statement. “In writing for a newspaper. You told what happened, and with one trick or another, you communicated the element of timelessness which gives a certain emotion to an account of something that has happened on that day. But the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or ten years, or with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it”. Hemingway was able to perfect such a style as early as in In Our Time. His characteristic style of catching the right ‘sequence of motion and fact”, was to give the reader sentences running closely together wherein one sentence gave one fact, the next another and so on so that it they move along quickly, giving a kind of terse telegraphic impression which in effect has a powerful impact on the reader. An example of this style is given below.

      The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. For the back, the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest.
—The Sun Also Rises

      Such is Hemingway’s style. One has to look at the world with a true, and straight view. This is Hemingway’s philosophy as evident from his style. One cannot gloss over the facts or grumble over them. This is a necessary factor if one has to learn to face the facts and reality of human existence. He is implying in his use of economy of long wage that one shouldn’t take on more than one’s load. Hemingway’s style is tense because it is a tense atmosphere where the struggle for control takes place and the tension expresses the fact. This is the view that the eminent critic Phillip Young expresses.

Striking Dialogue

      Hemingway always had a sharp ear for the different accounts and mannerisms of human speech and therefore his dialogues are usually true to life and striking. This is why he was easily able to bring a character to life. However, Hemingway’s dialogues are not mere renditions of the manner in which people converse. Rather, in fact, the dialogues that he writes are such that they are not just representations of speech but also the manner and responses of the person speaking. This was a technique to render an illusion of reality to his works. Thus, his dialogues are also part of his realism. However, his style is simple to the point of monotony. Every aspect of his prose is simplistic simple sentences, simple paragraph structure, etc but this simple style is not without purposes. A relation of dramatic decorum between the characters, situation, and style necessitates this starkly simple style.

Terse, Athletic and Spare Style

      Hemingway first published his works from Paris as an expatriate. Here, his close mentors were Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others. These eminent scholars were the first to examine his work and guide him accordingly. They did away with his adjectives and other redundancies and were instrumental in shaping the hardstyle, the terse description, and the spare dialogue that eventually became the distinguishing qualities of Hemingway’s prose style. Hemingway’s style keeps any kind of writing at bay. Only the bare happening is recorded. The reader may then read and deduce it according to his manner. The absence of emotion can be seen in Hemingway’s description of the wounded and dying soldier in ‘A Farewell to Arms. Henry is hurt and being conveyed to the hospital. Another wounded soldier has the stretcher above him and has a hemorrhage. This is how Hemingway describes it, “The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone. It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top, they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.” Everything is therefore described in the sparest and most athletic style that one can conceive, without any kind of emotion being shown at the surface. Hemingway’s idea of writing prose was, in his own words, to write, “without tricks and cheating”. It is as though, in his attempt to write with ‘a mere notation of objective facts”, he sets himself under strict laws in our choice of words and almost seems to be following a rule of self-denial in this approach. Hemingway’s style is therefore simplistic and concrete to the point of brutality and s reminiscent of the Bible in its monosyllabic quality and abundance of ‘and,s.

Hemingway’s Sense Impression

      Hemingway was ultra-sensitive to the impression of the physical and material world. This is the most significant aspect of his writing style and is sometimes compared to that of Thoreau’s. His writing style speaks for its clarity and vividness of portrayal and the manner in which he describes the material and physical aspects of the world and nature and its effect on the human senses is so new and refreshing that it seems as though Hemingway awoke and saw the world with fresh new eyes every morning. This newness imparts a kind of moral significance to his rendition of the sense-impression. Examples of this aspect of Hemingway’s art can be seen in almost all his novels. The best examples are however those wherein The Sun Also Rises he describes the cleaning, washing, and preparing of the trout, and in For Whom the Bell Tolls, his description of how Maria’s poor cropped head “feels”, feels like the fur on a marten, and again in Across the River and into the Trees, the description of the Colonel’s duck-shooting expedition and the description of the ice breaking.

Hemingway’s Use of ‘And’ and His Content

      As has been stated earlier, Hemingway has a lean and spare style marked by his unexcessive, minimal approach. This is so because Hemingway believed in a simplistic style, condemned the obscure, involved, and complicated style adopted by the earlier writers and he further showed a disinclination towards the use of elaborate syntax to confuse and over-extend and impression. He, therefore, restricted himself to writing very simple sentences. These simple sentences and clauses are then connected by a series of the conjunction “and”. He made extensive use of ‘flat statements and avoided under-statement or overstatement or any extraneous interpretation or setting. Such a style calls for content of its own and when a distinctive style is rendered, it has its meaning. Hemingway’s style, therefore, conveys his outright statements. His style points to his content and vice versa. The sentences he writes are strictly disciplined and this is a reflection of the control over the hero and his nervous system which is again a strict and disciplined control. Where the style shows any kind of “mindlessness” it is a reflection of the save in the hero and a further reflection of his need to stop thinking when his thoughts are painful or remind him of unpleasant things that make him uncomfortable. The simplicity of his style and content further points to his ideal that life should be simplistic or else one will be lost. Similarly, the precise focus and economy of the prose point to the fact that in life very little can be controlled and the element of “tenseness” in the prose reveals the tense atmosphere of life where attempting to take control is a tense activity or maneuver.

Ordered Structure

      Hemingway’s narrative technique followed a precise and ordered pattern. He was naturally gifted in this series and he arranged his scenes in his novels and stories in a structured sequence that left no doubt to its naturalness. No matter how much of fiction or artificiality the narrative contained it showed a naturalness in its sequence and pattern. Hemingway’s style stands as a unique style that spawned many imitators but no equal. His style, stripped of any ornamentation is completely devoid of explanations or any such descriptive tags. Sometimes his simplicity degrades into childishness but it serves the author’s purpose of portraying actuality. An example of this is Henry’s description in A Farewell to Arms about his and Catherine’s routine.

      “We went to slap and when I woke she was not there, but I heard her coming down the hall and the door opened and she came back to the bed and said it was all right, she had been downstairs and they were all asleep”.

A Craftsman Difficult to Analyse Inspite of Simplicity

      Hemingway is a literary craftsman in his league. In spite of all his simplicity of style, diction and syntax his prose is not easy to understand. This is because he follows an intensely implicational style and juxtaposition is a very important part of his narrative technique. He is all the more difficult because he does not believe in interpretation and leaves the readers free to analyze and understand the juxtapositions on their own. He simply states what his character did or said. He never gives us what to feel. However, sometimes, meanings are submerged in his writing and the reader has to identify and understand them. In much the same way as a composer repeats key phrases in his lyrics for a song, Hemingway also uses key phrases but more for emphasizing the emotional effect by its repetition and less for any kind of clarification of meaning. Hemingway is a craftsman and his brilliant fictional technique segregates him from the rest. His distinction as a novelist rests on his technique whose many aspects are as follows dialogue marked by short, concrete statements, emphasis on violence, and a concentration on the physical and material world. It is also a technique that insists on finding the exact word to suit the exact and limited truth, and on finding that prose rhythm to suit his work. Hemingway is a stylistic writer of the order of a fine poet. The style and rhythm prose that he eventually attained transformed his earlier writing style resembling a staccato rattle, into the later writing sensually beautiful for its liquid cadenced quality. In his sensitivity to light, color, form, and atmosphere, he is on par with the best lyrical poets. The beauty of his prose is also in his ability to take any emotional atmosphere and subtly suggest it.

Favor the Concrete Over the Abstract

      Hemingway believed in a simple statement as such favored concrete words, concrete nouns, the names of actual things over and above any kind of abstract words. He preferred to use words that could be tested through the evidence of the senses. He deliberately restricted his use of words with the result that his vocabulary was small and limited in comparison with other authors. But he aimed to write the truth about life as he found them out through experience. And for this or straight forward, no hanky-panky kind of large wage was required especially since he wanted to write ‘honestly the things I have found true”. This continuation was in a way both strength and a limitation to Heming as a writer. When on the one hand it made him an exponent of a certain truth, on the other hand, it restricted him from interpreting the vast areas of human experiences. However, his success in his areas of experience is a major success. His interpretation and representation of big-game hunting, fishing, violent exercises such as bull-fighting, physical sensations-pain, sex, and the primitive emotions, love, death, etc, which he had experienced and found true are unparalleled and unrivaled.

Personal Experiences

      Hemingway in his writing was strongly guided by the theory that a writer should restrict himself to writing that which he knew. He aimed to achieve a kind of prose that was devoid of tricks and cheating and therefore prose that had not been attempted before. But he was to stick to the truth as he knew it. He was not at all to attempt to go beyond what he had experienced or else his writing shall be lost the quality of truth and authenticity and lack substances and vividness. Hemingway’s prose followed the iceberg theory, according to which, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing 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 iceberg is due to only one light of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” That Hemingway followed this iceberg theory is evident in his technique of stating the fact and leaving all the rest unsaid for the reader to interpret as and according to his attitude. Hemingway’s prose is remarkable for the massive unspoken substructure that lies beneath what the readers observe on the page. Like the iceberg, in his prose, Hemingway is only partially discernable and the rest is veiled.

A Fourth and Fifth Dimension to Prose

      Hemingway apart from the iceberg theory also spoke about a fourth and fifth dimension. Though the term is rather vague and unclear, Hemingway spoke of them as a dimension that prose could acquire in ‘The Green Hills of Africa". The fourth dimension is perhaps related to the concept of time and with the various fictional techniques used to portray time. Now, about both terms, various critics have expressed different views. Malcolm Cowley is of the opinion that the fourth d.imension is to do with time and is related to the almost continual performance of rites and ceremonies, “thereby pointing to the recurring pattern of human experience. But Cowley has referred to the “fifth dimension” as a mystical or meaningless figure of speech”. Harry Lavin on the other hand has pointed out how the ‘third dimension’ is lacking in Hemingway. The ‘third dimension’ is relating to the complexity of structure that a work of fiction is based on. However, Lavin says that Hemingway’s style offers like in motion pictures, a series of images in quick succession that creates the impression of immediacy and the notion of the passage of time. J. W. Beach also has something to say about the ‘fourth dimension’. According to him, it is an ‘aesthetic factor’ that is produced or reached due to the hero’s participation in some traditional ‘ritual or strategy”, whereas the “fifth dimension” is an ‘ethical factor’ that is the result of the hero’s ‘participation in the moral orders of the world.

      P.O. Ouspensky, a mystic, first used the phrase ‘the fifth dimension’ in 1931, defining however as the perpetual now. To make this theory a step further, the idea of the perpetual now relating to psychological time and the physical time comes from the philosophy of “radical empiricism” as propounded by William Tames, the philosopher. This theory had been adopted by Gertrude Stein for literary purposes and Hemingway seems to have followed both the style and structure of these ideas, evidence of which can be discerned in the style and structure both of his philosophy and practice. Hemingway aimed to present kinds of literature through the theory of ‘immediate empiricism’ and this he tried to convey through his ‘fifth-dimensional’ prose.

Examples of His Various Qualities
Example of his colloquial style

      It led to a farmhouse. We found Piani and Bonello stopped in the farmyard. The house was low and long with a trellis with a grapevine over the door. There was a well in the yard and Piani was getting up water to fill his radiator. So much going in low gear had boiled it out. The farmhouse was deserted. I looked back down the road, the farmhouse was on a slight elevation above the plain, and we could see over the country, and saw the road, the hedges, the fields, and the line of trees along the main road where the retreat was passing. The two sergeants were looking through the house. The girls were awake and looking at the courtyard, the well, and the two big ambulances in front of the farmhouse, with three drivers at the well. One of the sergeants came out with a clock in his hand.
—A Farewell to Arms

Example of the use of 'And'

      We had a lovely time that summer. When I could go out we rode in a carriage in the park. I remember the carriage, the horse going slowly, and up ahead the back of the driver with his varnished high hat, and Catherine Barkley sitting beside me. If we let our hands touch, just the side of my hand touching hers, we were excited. Afterward, when I could get around on crutches we went to dinner at Biffi’s or the Gran Italia and sat at the tables outside on the floor of the galleria. The waiters came in and out and there were people going by and candles with shades on the table cloths and after we decided that we liked the Gran Italia best, George, the head waiter, saved us a table. He was a fine waiter and we let him order the meal while we looked at the people, and the great galleria in the dusk, and each other. We drank dry white caprice in a bucket; although we tried many of the other wines, fresh, barbera and the sweet white wines. They had no wine waiter because of the war can George would smile ashamedly when I asked about tines like fresh. —A Farewell to Arms

Example of the short, terse sentences

      When do you think it can be operated on?’ "I borrow morning. Not before. Your stomach must be emptied. You must be washed out. I will see the old lady downstairs and leave instructions. Goodbye. I see you tomorrow. I’ll bring you better cognac than that. You are very comfortable here. Goodbye. Until tomorrow. Get good sleep. I’ll see you early”.
—A Farewell to Arms

Example of simple, unostentatious writing

      ‘After dinner, we walked through the galleria, past the other restaurants and the shops with their steel shutters down, and stopped at the little place where they sold sandwiches; ham and lettuce sandwiches and anchovy sandwiches made of very tiny brown glazed rolls and only about as long as your finger. They were to eat in the night when we were hungry. Then we got into an open carriage outside the galleria in front of the cathedral and rode to the hospital. At the door of the hospital, the porter came out to help with the crutches. I paid the driver, and then we rode upstairs in the elevator. Catherine got off at the lower floor where the nurses lived and I went on up and went down the hall on crutches to my room; sometimes I undressed and got into bed and sometimes I sat out on the balcony with my leg up on another chair and watched the swallows over the roofs and waited for Catherine. When she came upstairs it was as though she had been away on a long trip and I went along the hall with her on the crutches and carried the basins and waited outside the doors, or went in with her; it depending on whether...? —A Farewell to Arms

Example of non-literary repertorial style consisting of the remarks made by various people:

      I don’t like Rome, I said. It is hot and full of fleas. You don’t like Rome? Yes, I love Rome. Rome is the mother of nations. I will never forget Romulus suckling the Tiber. What? Nothing. Let’s all go to Rome. Let’s go to Rome tonight and never come back. Rome is a beautiful city, said the major. The mother and father of nations, I said, Rome is feminine, said Rinaldi. It cannot be the father. Who is the father, then, the Holy Ghost? Don’t blaspheme. I wasn’t blaspheming, I was asking for information. (A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 12).

Example of dialogue that adds to the realism:

      ‘Let me pay you something for the boat now’.
also, I’d rather take a chance. If you get through you pay me all you can'.
All rights.
‘I don’t think you’ll get drowned.
‘All right.’ I stepped into the boat.
‘Did you leave the mo^y for the hotel?’ ,,
"Yes. In an envelope in the room.’
'All right. Good luck, Tenente’.
‘You won’t thank me if you get drowned’.
"What does he say ?’ Catherine asked.
‘He says good luck.’
‘Good luck, Catherine said. ‘Thank you very much
‘Are you ready?’
—A Farewell to Arms

Example of the overflow of small realistic details:

      I dropped off the train in Milan as it slowed to come into the station early in the morning before it was light. I crossed the track and came out between some buildings and down onto the street. A wine shop was open and I went to for some coffee. It smelled of early morning, of swept dust, spoons in coffee glasses, and the wet circles left by wine glasses. The proprietor was behind the bar. Two soldiers sat at a table. I stood at the bar and drank a glass of coffee and ate a piece of bread. The coffee was grey with milk, and I skimmed the milk scum off the top with a piece of bread. The proprietor looked at me.


      Hemingway’s prose style is therefore generally considered to be a major achievement in the twentieth century. His style spawned thousands of imitators but remains unparalleled. His narratorial and prose style is an achievement of guise as a craftsman. And based on these he has stored his claim of fame and immortality. Acknowledging his contribution to literary craftsmanship, therefore, the literary world awarded him both the Pulitzer Prize and then the Nobel Prize for literature. The Nobel Prize Committee in its citation drew attention to Hemingway’s style forming mastery of the art of modern narration. His greatness as a modern master of prose is undeniable.

Previous Post Next Post