Skip to content

Iceberg theory

Men Without Women – Ernest Hemingway

Much has been said about Hemingway’s minimalist style of writing, and Men Without Women is perhaps his most stripped back work.  The collection of short stories, first published in 1927, is almost like a series of anecdotes, with some of the stories lasting no more than a few pages.  It has to be said that this abruptness can be frustrating for the reader, who must constantly turn back on himself in an attempt to clarify the context and setting of each story.  There is no doubt that reading Hemingway can be hard work, and often it’s not even the sort of hard work that reaps tangible rewards – the effort made to come to terms with each character can at times feel utterly futile.  So what is to be gained from this truncated approach to writing?  I’ve read The Killers at least a couple of times and I’m still not sure I understand why Ole Andreson resigns himself to his fate.

Some critics have coined the term “iceberg theory” in relation to Hemingways’s writing – the idea that more is concealed than revealed in his books.  This is interesting because it assumes that there is something to be revealed in each case.  Sometimes it’s hinted at, as in Hills Like White Elephants, where the elephant in the room is almost certainly an abortion, but even where we are given some clue regarding the underlying plot or a character’s motivation, this almost never gives the full picture.  Herein lies the paradox: as readers, we want to know everything we can about what we read – we want to know the whys, hows, wheres and whens of every story – and yet our thirst for omniscience assumes that everything can be known.  Like deterministic scientists we try to reduce the characters we read about to skeletons of humanity – puppets that are masterfully manoeuvred by an author pulling on the strings of psychological and social theory.  Suffice to say that Hemingway did not buy into this reductionism; his characters are alive in all their unpredictable glory.  As such, we can try to understand each one as best we can, but often they are simply beyond us, which is what makes them so fascinating in the first place.

Oh, and it’s not sexist just because he writes about men.

The Editors

%d bloggers like this: