Writing Lessons from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

In the lavish prose that is her signature, Francine Du Plessix Gray defines seduction as a kind of “challenge to create a tension between the promise of gratification and the refined delay of that gratification-to intimate how much information I shall offer and how much I shall withhold.”  No writer was a better master of seduction than Ernest Hemingway, whose economical writing style revolutionized English prose.  A revolt against the ornate artistic flourishes of the 19th century, Hemingway’s minimalist style pioneered a fiction “in which nothing crucial—or at least very little—was stated explicitly.”  His philosophy- known as the “iceberg theory”- rested on the belief that a story’s deeper meaning should be intimated- not expressed directly.  In much the same way the majority of an iceberg lies beneath the water where we can’t see, most of a story- he argued- operates underneath what a text says unambiguously.

One of my favorite professors described it this way: all novels have two levels, a narrative and a story.  The narrative is the surface: character, dialogue, setting.  Most readers can decipher at this level of what is literally being divulged on the page.  What isn’t being disclosed, however, is harder to grasp but infinitely more interesting: is what a character says what she actually means?  why does she pause dramatically before she speaks?  when her lover asks if she’s okay, why does she look away?  In Hemingway, these uncertainties are pregnant with possibility: you have to dig beneath the narrative to get to the real story.  Much like a painting’s white space heightens its colors or a symphony’s silences make its notes more resonant and full-bodied, what’s implied escalates tension and compels us to keep reading.  

It is well known among writers that drama dwells in the unuttered.  No where does the unsaid drive drama more than in the opening line of Hemingway’s masterpiece Farewell to Arms:

“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 trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” 

hemingway

As a lover of poetic prose who prefers the complex constructions of a Faulkner or the opulent language of a Fitzgerald to the unornamented word choice of a Hemingway, I initially dismissed this passage as further proof that Papa was overrated.  Where was the beautiful, baroque wording?  the cultivated vocabulary?  the sumptuous figures of speech?  Hemingway’s plain diction- his monosyllabic, elementary school words, his exasperating obsession with “and” and “the”- seemed the hallmark of a less skilled writer- that is, until I read Joan Didion’s exceptional New Yorker essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway Wrote, and Those He Didn’t.”  Her penetrative close reading of A Farewell to Arm’s opening line finally made me appreciate the genius of Hemingway’s storytelling:

“That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself.  Only one of the words has three syllables.  Twenty-two have two.  The other hundred and three have one.  Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.”  There are four commas.  The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and,” creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of “the” before the word “leaves” in the fourth sentence (“and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling”) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.  The power of the paragraph, offering as it does the illusion but not the fact of specificity, derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information.  In the late summer of what year?  What river, what mountains, what troops?”  

joan didion

Never in that first line does Hemingway explicitly state the year, never does he make clear that the “troops” to which he refers are fighting in WWI, the war to end all wars.  Though we’re often taught that specificity is at the heart of good writing, a masterful storyteller knows sometimes its more compelling to leave things incomplete.  Certainly, there are times when precision in phrasing is absolutely necessary- in an instruction manual, say, or any legal document where you sign your name- but stories exist in the ambiguities.  In his brilliant book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing- the same compendium of writing wisdom that gave us Hersey on the impact of understatement and Plath on the unifying power of motif– journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark maintains a story is an enigma: what compels an audience to turn the page (or binge-watch another episode) is a mystery.  As quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, “love is three quarters curiosity.”  If we want to seduce our audience, then, we have to conceal more than we disclose:

Writing Lesson #1 

“As important as what you put in is what to leave out.  This is easy to say but hard to do.  After you’ve written a draft, read it aloud, but only to yourself.  If you read it to someone else, that person may ask questions, which will lead to a longer draft.  That can make things clearer.  But if your goal is spare prose, it helps to listen for the useless or distracting word or phrase.  It may look right on the page.  But when you hear it, it may sound like that extra note in a trumpet solo.”  

As a non-conformist who always had the obnoxious need to rebel against prevailing taste, it was natural for me to despise Hemingway: he was the leader of the Lost Generation, the man who single-handedly invented the style of the modern age– in other words, yet another over-hyped dead white man, a representation of the establishment I hate.  This was a controversial opinion in most university classrooms, filled as they were with devoted Papa admirers.  But no matter how unpopular, I’d defend my case against the man of machismo: his lean, muscular writing- I insisted- wasn’t innovative nor was his simple style the conscious choice of an artist so much as the heedlessness of an amateur lacking skill.  He couldn’t choose words with the careful ear for their connotative meanings like Plath; he couldn’t string together evocative sentences like his friend/rival Fitzgerald.  

Not only did I despise the sparseness of his prose- I hated his incessant repetition of the same words.  Jesus H. Christ, Hemingway!  Is it really necessary to repeat the word “leaves” four times in a short passage of one hundred and twenty six words?  Did you never learn how to vary your word choice?  But just as I came to appreciate Hemingway’s austere story-telling, I eventually recognized the artistry of his repetition.  His continual repeating of “leaves” wasn’t a sloppy oversight- it was an intentional choice.  But why return to the word four times?  In literature, “leaves” are archetypal symbols for maturity that signify approaching death and decay.  According to Clark, Hemingway repeats this word to underscore how war annihilates all, one of A Farewell to Arms’s paramount themes:

“When something is over designed, we often criticize it as being too busy or cluttered.  The same is true of the arts.  First it was Miles Davis and then Tony Bennet who preached the virtues of knowing which musical notes to leave out.  Didion is so tuned into Hemingway that she can see the small deletions, which can create a big effect.  It is not obvious why the deletion of the before leaves makes such a big difference, but it does.  Perhaps the effect upon the reader comes from the establishment of a pattern followed by a variation of the norm.  Notice that the word leaves appears four times in the passage, in three cases preceded by the article the.  In the third example, the disappears, only to be restored in the last two words.  The author sends out lots of signals that leaves is important, including repeating it four times, then letting it stick out at the end of the paragraph, abutted to the white space.  

So what is the difference between “the leaves” and “leaves”?  Perhaps it is the difference between specificity and generality.  Between things that are contained within a space or moment and those that suddenly appear.  The defines certain leaves that are covered with dust and fallen.  Without it, I get a greater sense of chaos- once living things scattered to decay.  

Sometimes in stories, leaves are not just leaves.  Falling leaves are a convenient and ancient emblem for the loss of life and the change of seasons.  They may be dropping from the trees between summer and winter.  But remember that the dust of the roads coats the leaves, acting, perhaps, as a kind of environmental defoliant.  And where does that dust come from?  From troop movements.  Why are the troops there?  To wage war.  And what does the war do?  It tramples everything, kills everything.  So maybe the dust is not just dust at all.  Maybe it’s an iconic symbol of mortality.  Dust to dust.”  

“Vary your words” is a dictum proclaimed in classrooms everywhere.  Since we first put pen to page, we- being dedicated students- obeyed this decree, conscientiously perusing the thesaurus and straining to find a synonym so we wouldn’t repeat the same thing.  “No, we couldn’t possibly use a word twice!” we thought, dreading the stern, too-serious ink of our English teachers.  So instead of repeat the word “argue,” we used the sophisticated “assert” or the official-sounding “declare.”  Though we’ve been taught that repetition is a sign of an inferior writer, Clark suggests it’s an indispensable addition to any wordsmith’s toolbox.  As writers, we can repeat to emphasize, to highlight, to underline, to underscore.  Just as Hemingway restates the word “leaves” to call attention to the devastating effects of war, we can reiterate a symbol or image to reinforce the underlying message of our work:

Writing Lesson #2 

“Repetition is different from redundancy.  Don’t strain yourself looking for synonyms.  I’ll point this lesson out several times in the book.  Think of repetition as a drum beat.  Somehow, a marching drummer can repeat a rhythm countless times without making it sound tedious.  After a while, the rhythm becomes unnoticeable, almost like a heartbeat.  But it must be done with a purpose.  Beware of those times when you unintentionally repeat a word or image.  Readers will judge you as inattentive.”

2 thoughts on “Writing Lessons from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

  1. Pingback: Writing Lessons From Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” – asia lenae

  2. Pingback: Writing Lessons From John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” – asia lenae

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