The Unsaid in Hemingway

While Hemingway may be known for his realistic portrayals of life by using sparse language, and what can seem at times, simplistic diction, it is often what he leaves unsaid that has the largest impact. Hemingway’s technique of holding back is used in many ways through out his fiction. He often never fully details what the main conflict of a piece stems from, gives only minimal descriptions of settings, and cuts conversations down to almost robotic exchanges. Yet, all of these forms of leaving things unsaid are what makes Hemingway an engaging and talented writer.

Often in Hemingway stories characters seem at odds with each other, but the reason for the discord is never disclosed. Instead Hemingway simply hints at some underlying conflict that the reader must uncover for his or herself by paying careful attention to detail. One example of this is in the short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Hemingway portrays a couple that is waiting for a train while tensions build between them because of some situation that is never explicitly mentioned. Hemingway has them shoot little verbal daggers at one another during the story such as the man telling the girl in a childish manner, ” ‘Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything'” after the girl says he never would have seen an elephant. The girl later refutes with her own cutting remark about how, ” ‘Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for.'” Hemingway builds a captivating story by creating a tension that cannot be defined and therefore demands the reader stick around for more clues. Finally towards the close of the story Hemingway offers some sense of an answer, not by explicitly stating the cause for the friction between the couple, but by interjecting little pieces of the puzzle. First the man tells the girl that, ” ‘It is an awfully simple operation'” and that, ” ‘I’ve known lots of people that have done it.'” Here Hemingway makes it clear that the source of the conflict comes from debate as to whether the girl should have a rather common procedure done. A procedure that is not necessary however. It not till the close of the story when the man says, ” ‘I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else.'” Here it becomes clear that the operation would be an abortion, because it would prevent someone else from being a part of their relationship.

Hemingway acts like a poet in this story by concealing the cause of the conflict from anyone who is not willing to really dive into the story and study the details, just as a poem keeps much under its surface. It is what is unsaid that propels the entire story. If the story had opened as a tale about two people arguing over a possible abortion and continued in the same manner it would have been boring and much less engaging for the reader. Hemingway uses this same technique in “The Sun Also Rises.”

Throughout that novel there is a strange relationship between Jake and Brett. Theirs is a relationship that shows all the signs of love, but is never fulfilled. Jake goes so far as to help Brett attain other men. It is clear that Jake is upset and frustrated by all of this through his crying fits and eventual fight with Robert, but Hemingway never overtly states why the relationship cannot be. Again the reader must add what little details Hemingway gives to formulate an answer. In this case it is a mention of Jake’s war wound and Bill making a conversation awkward with Jake by using the word “impotent” that lead to the conclusion that Jake is himself incapable of performing sexually. Again, by removing clear motives for conflict, Hemingway has created an engaging work of fiction, which while stated in a simple diction, is rather complex because of underlying truths.

Hemingway’s second technique of leaving things unsaid comes in his descriptions of settings. While he does not do this in all his fiction (For ‘Whom the Bell Tolls” offers extensive attention to landscape detail) he does do it quite often. It seems that again Hemingway wants the reader to have to participate in the reading of the story instead of sitting back and having the details spoon fed to them. If his descriptions are sparse that leaves the reader to fill in the details and perhaps ultimately make the story more personal by applying familiar settings to Hemingway’s situations. Also Hemingway seems to do this in order to show that it is not the setting that is the most important part of the story.

In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” Hemingway does not describe the cafÃ?© that the old man sits in at all. Instead he simply mentions that he, “sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” Later in the same story the older waiter goes to a bar that Hemingway simply describes as, “a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.” In both instances Hemingway almost does not describe the setting at all. He seems to do so in this story to allow the reader to imagine the place where he or she feels the most comfortable and relaxed as the old man does. If Hemingway were to describe the cafÃ?© in detail it may have detracted from the reader’s own reactions to the points made by the older waiter. Also it seems Hemingway restricted his descriptions in order to show that it is not so much the setting, but the concept of a “clean and well lit” place and the effect it has on a person that is most important to the story. In this context what is left unsaid ultimately requires the reader to create their own picture and to focus more on the action and conversations of the story than the setting.

Hemingway also leaves things unsaid in his conversations. He seems to do this because often people who know each other well enough do not have to explicitly state specific points and also because it again puts the reader in a position where he or she can apply personalized additions to the story. What is unsaid allows the reader to react and ultimately fill in the blanks. In Hemingway’s short story “The End of Something” a tension builds between Nick and Marjorie that ultimately results in the ending of their relationship. What’s interesting about this dispute is that Hemingway never has Nick fully express what is wrong. After making little curt remarks (similar to those in “Hills Like White Elephants”) Nick continually says that he doesn’t know what is wrong. The best words he can find to explain himself are, “It’s not fun anymore.”

This use of unsaid dialogue works in many ways for Hemingway. The first is that it makes the situation seem more realistic. In matters of love logical thought patterns often disappear and a “gut” feeling takes their place. If Nick were to have launched into some lofty romantic speech about just what the “something” is that had ended, it would have come off sounding cheesy and fake. Instead Nick struggles to explain feelings that are ultimately unnamable. This can also work in Hemingway’s favor because if Nick were to fully explain himself it might seem like a good answer to some readers while disappointing others. By leaving his reasons ambiguous Hemingway is providing the reader with the opportunity to superimpose his or her own feelings when it comes to relationships. Nick is believable because we can see our own unnamable emotions in him. Also the fact that Nick does not have to say much and Marjorie does not really argue shows that they understand each very well. Sometimes it is the people who know each other the best that can understand what a person means in a few simple words. Hemingway again seems to create a situation that is more realistic than a verbal melee would have been in this instance.
Hemingway has turned bare language into an art form in fiction. He knows what needs to be said and what details can be left out, just a minimalist does in music, or an impressionist does in painting. Hemingway is able to understand how a story can be conveyed in an interesting, absorbing, and reactionary way. By leaving things unsaid in plot, setting, and dialogue, he is allowing the reader to explore and live vicariously, a feat that makes the reader as much a part of the fiction as the characters themselves.

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