Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hemingway’s Style

The Short Declarative Sentence
It is as a stylist that Hemingway commands the greatest respect among contemporary writers and critics. The famous Hemingway style which he forged in the early twenties has been imitated, seldom successfully, so widely that we recognise it as soon as we see it, although it seldom attains the perfection that it did in the hands of, Hemingway. The first collection of stories In Our Time is a classic example of short main-clause sentences, sometimes strung together with a coordinate conjunction :

                He went to America on a boat from Genoa. Luz went back to Pordenone to open a hospital. It was lovely and raining there, and there was a battalion of arditi quartered in the town. Living in the muddy, rainy town in the winter, the Major of the battalion made love to Luz, and she had never known Italians before, and finally wrote to the States that their’s had been only a boy and girl affair. She was sorry, and she knew he would probably not be able to understand, but might some day have forgiven her, and be grateful to her, and she expects, absolutely unexpectedly, to be married in the spring. She loved him as always, but she realises now it was only a boy and girl love.
Or, take the passage in the first chapter of A Farewell to Arms which is quite well-known :
                In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.
The Influence of Gertrude Stein
This style be had learnt from Gertrude Stein who wanted him to cut out unnecessary details and focus attention of the reader on the most important event in the narration of the most important aspect of the scene. She had also taught him to learn the effect produced by repetition of certain words with minor variations :
                Mr. and Mrs. Eliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Eliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Eliot was quite sick. She was sick and when she was sick she was sick as Southern women are sick.
A Master of Dialogue
Hemingway’s most important contribution to the art of narration is perhaps his dialogue wherein the authorial comment is absolutely minimum. Words like charmingly, smilingly, hesitatingly, angrily are completely missing. And they are replaced by, one simple word “said”. A typical Hemingway dialogue runs something like this :
                ‘What are you looking at ?’ Max looked at George.
                ‘Nothing’.
                ‘The hell you were. You were looking at me.’
                ‘May be the boy meant it for a joke, Max,’ Al said.
                George laughed.
                ‘You don’t have to laugh,’ Max said to him. “You don’t have to laugh at all, see ?’
                ‘All right’, said George.
                ‘So he thinks it’s all right.’ Max turned to Al. ‘He thinks it’s all right. That’s a good one.’
                ‘Oh, he’s a thinker’, Al said. They went on eating.
                ‘What’s the bright boy’s name down the counter’?’ Al asked Max.
                ‘Hey, bright boy’, Max said to Nick. ‘You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend.’
                ‘What’s the idea ?’ Nick asked.
                ‘There isn’t any idea.’
                ‘You better go around, bright boy’, Al said. Nick went around behind the counter.
                ‘What’s the idea ?’ George asked.
                ‘None of your damn business’, Al said. ‘Who’s out in the kitchen ?’
                ‘The nigger’.
                ‘What do you mean the nigger ?’
                ‘The nigger that cooks.’
                ‘Tell him to come in.’
                ‘Where do you think you are ?’
                ‘We know damn well where we are’, the man called Max said. ‘Do we look silty ?’
                ‘You talk silly’, Al said to him. ‘What the hell do you argue with this kid for ? Listen, he said to George, ‘tell the nigger to come out here.’
                ‘What are you going to do him ?’
                ‘Nothing. Use your bead, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?’
Absence of Qualifiers
It will be noticed that there are very few adjectives and adverbs. The greatest burden is carried forward by the nouns and the simplest verbs. At this period of his life Hemingway found the greatest difficulty in his efforts to write. What he was trying to achieve was not to give the reader what the author felt but he was looking for the sequence of motion and act which produces the emotion ; in other words, he was looking for what Eliot calls “the objective correlative” something in the physical world which by its mere reproduction would produce the emotion.
Colloquial American Speech
This style was a revolt against the 19th Century romanticism in which there were verbiage, romantic allusions, a great deal of description or a description of false sentiments. The famous Hemingway style emerged as a reply to the crash of values after the First World War on the English literary scene. The famous passage in A Farewell to Arms wherein he states that words like patriotism and glory appear “obscene” to him became the manifesto of the new writing that Hemingway was trying out. It was his distrust of the literary ; and therefore, he wanted the writer to use the simplest possible words concisely and accurately. He believed that if the experience has been felt deeply and genuinely it can be expressed in the simplest possible language without ambiguity or complication. The style is closely parallel to the code of endurance and stoicism that Hemingway champions. Even when the hero is suffering deeply he would express his emotions in expletives like “damn it” “hell with you” etc. It is the famous British understatement that seems to have come up to Hemingway’s expectation of what the expression of an emotion ought to be. This style, even though it looks extremely simple, is really not the simple. It requires hard discipline and a very deep understanding of the language. Hemingway revived in literature the language of Huckleberry Finn, that is to say the colloquial American language. He also brought to literature the language of the bar and the brothel, of the pool room and the street. The main sentence is a declarative sentence, sometimes qualified. The short sentences move with the stride of an athlete to their goal. There are no decorative words to distract the readers’ attention. It is bare and bleak.
More Flexible Style
In the Thirties, Hemingway’s style underwent a change. The old Biblical austerity was replaced by a certain flexibility and ease that goes with confidence. The influence of the Authorized Version of the Bible (1611 Edition) is clearly discernible in Hemingway but he had used that style for delineating the contemporary society. Now the sentences have become longer, dramatic situations are more complex, and, in fact, it is a movement towards the style of Faulkner. In Green Hills of Africa, writing of the Gulf Stream, Hemingway goes poetic :
                If you serve time for society, democracy, and the other things quite young, and declining any further enlistment make yourself responsible only to yourself, you exchange the pleasant, comforting stench of comrades for something you can never feel in any other way than by yourself. That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its. value absolutely ; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-coloured, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted’ on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of’ palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer­distinguished cat ; all this well-shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians ; they hake the viewpoint ; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in. La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow ; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn lights bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing––the stream.
This marks a break with the past austere style that Hemingway used for writing the condition of the contemporary man in In Our Time. In this period the adverbs and adjectives which he eschewed in the past occupy their rightful place. The style is certainly relaxed. Not that he had discontinued the earlier style ; it acquired flesh and muscle in addition to the skeletal bones that were predominant earlier.
The Last Period
The last period of Hemingway’s writing career shows a retreat from the ease and flexibility that is reflected id the middle-period style. With Across the River and Into the Trees, and The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway shucked off the social commitments of his middle period and returned to his early form and to the code. But he retained something of the looser, less staccato style of Thirties, Here is the opening paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea :
                He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish, the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which got three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man coming each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and furled it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
Self- Imitation
The vision that Hemingway had acquired in his old age is the maturation of the earlier tentative views that he had evolved and later tested in the arena of life. Similarly, his style reduces the English language to primitive elementary forms. As he had withdrawn from the complexities of life which baffled him in For Whom the Bell Tolls and in To Have and Have Not, similarly he also withdrew from the complexity of the language and started imitating the style that had evolved in the Twenties. It is definitely a case of regression rather than of development. When Faulkner was asked to comment on Hemingway’s style he remarked : “He has no courage, has never crawled out on limb. He has never used a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.” When Hemingway learnt of Faulkner’s adverse comment, he in his own characteristic manner, replied: “I use the oldest words in the English language when I write. People think I’m an ignorant bastard that doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older, better words, and if you use them in the proper combination you make it stick.”
Style Reflects the Content
Whether Hemingway wrote in his early, middle or later style he is unique among modern prose writers because he pressed his style into the service of his subject matter. His style had become the minimal representation of the moral attitudes of the author. It objectified the author’s values and thus was in itself a comment on what he was writing about. In the absence of any code the style itself became the code. To use a literary cliche, Hemingway had style instead of God.
Because of the bareness of Hemingway’s language one sometimes is led to suspect that behind the smooth surface of Hemingway’s prose style there is a turbulent and disturbed state of mind which has somehow been concealed. On every re-reading one finds a deeper meaning in Hemingway’s simplest possible sentences. As a philosophical writer he would have been extremely naive if he had just described the motion and act to produce the emotion. Every writer worthy of any name has used symbols whether chosen consciously or unconsciously to express the vision that he has seen. In Hemingway’s writings one can sometimes sense the bitter tussle going on in the author’s mind between realism on the one hand and symbolization on the other.
Symbolic Writing
When there is one to one relationship in word and thought then it is the language of the child though it can become extremely sophisticated but when the image signifies more than what meets the eye it becomes a symbol. In Hemingway’s writings there are symbols, which reverberate in the human consciousness and, maybe, he is drawing upon the collective unconscious. In The Sun Also Rises when the waiter removes three empty glasses left behind by Romero, Brett and Jake Barnes one wonders whether they are not representative of the three empty lives. Similarly, in For Whom the Bell Tolls the bridge stands for many things simultaneously. Maria’s presence in For Whom the Bell Tolls has been considered an interpolation by some critics but when she becomes a symbol her role becomes extremely important. His style seems, in fact, to gain from association and connotation rather than denotation. The sea in The Old Man and the Sea, can stand for life, the world in which one meets one’s friends and adversaries, literally, the sea where the old man meets his marlin and the sharks. It is also the symbol of the vastness in which so many unexplored things are there for man to find out. The sharks can mean literary sharks, human sharks, destructive forces in society, or simply one’s personal enemies or parasites. Thus Hemingway by utilizing the technique of symbolisation has added richness to his bleak and bare style.
The Iceberg Theory
In this respect Hemingway had a theory, called the iceberg theory, which states that what is visible on the surface is only about one-eighth of the totality of the experience that is being represented. He believed that the author must know what he is writing about. He should delete everything that can be deleted. He also believed that if the writer deleted what he did not really know the result would be chaotic.
Hemingway is reserved and frugal ; he keeps to the strict self-discipline of the master. He is never tired of pruning off all that can be dispensed with : convention, embellishment, rhetoric, leaving what is essential and indispensable. He has done away with all metaphorical fat because basically in life as well as in literature he has been a sportsman. Sometimes an image or symbol is the whole story or the whole novel ; as for example “rain” in A Farewell to Arms or the unspoken word “abortion” in Hills Like White-Elephants. He believes in the worded hint, the combination of precision and laconicism. Even the awkward tone of a relationship about to come to an end is conveyed through awkward dialogue or the embarrassment experienced by the speaker groping for the right word. But the key is always there. And it is there for the one who looks for it.

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