Hemingway’s Clues: The Excellence of His Short Fiction
By Thomas C Salatto | Submitted On March 9, 2021
Ernest Hemingway once famously embarked on a wager with a friend. He was bet that he could not write a complete short story within the demanding restriction of six words or less. Perhaps the other man was not a true friend after all – anyone who knew the author well enough knew that he built his reputation and style on saying more with less, and any limitations placed on word count would do little to impede his vast story-telling abilities. The end result of this creative impetus was, indeed, a notorious six-word story — “For sale: baby shoes; never worn” — and a collection of well-earned money by the American author from his gullible “friend.”
Ernest Hemingway, Wrestling With Life (documentary)
One cannot link all short stories together in a generalization about what they are meant to do or provide. What Hemingway had done with that particular story was follow to the absolute limit what he always intended for his short fiction — that is, express the maximum amount of story, development, and emotion (or pathos) with the least amount of forthright description and exposition. In this way, Hemingway was creating puzzles as much as he was creating linear stories to follow. He would say exactly enough about a person or a thing or a scene to allow the reader to critically think and glean everything he or she needed to know and understand about him or it. The meanings were often indirectly approached. One of my favorite examples of this comes towards the close of the short story “The Battler,” in which the young protagonist Nick Adams faces one of the (numerous) traumatic and pathos-laden moments of his life: a threatening, nearly-violent encounter with a deranged ex-boxer. Hemingway never directly explains to the audience that Nick is swimming in fear; instead, he uses subtle linguistic clues to evoke the feeling of numbness and dread that the boy is trapped by after the event. He has been clearly given a sandwich by a friendly man just seconds before, and yet Hemingway connotes that he is so traumatized that he does not even recall this act of kindness in his passion: “He found he had a ham sandwich in his hand and he put it in his pocket.” The key word is “found”; it is a discovery for Nick, who does not truly recognize what is happening to him through his fear.
This form of writing is so much more interesting in so many more ways than explicitly stating something like, “Nick was tremendously frightened because he was almost killed by a crazy person.” Instead, we have an evocative action that more completely and subtly betrays Nick’s sense of being and emotion. He is numb to everything at the moment, in shock. We have all been here before. The great brilliance of Hemingway is how he manages to do this in all of his short fiction. In doing so, he creates puzzles to be unlocked by the observant reader. The reader becomes a detective. If one does not put the Holmes-ian effort into searching for clues, one is staring at a blank and empty (and extremely boring) scene. The true emotion of Hemingway’s stories comes in precisely what the characters say, and leave unsaid; and precisely what the narrator chooses to explain to us, leaving in just the perfect amount of details to construct an entire life or world of joy and discontent. The word “abortion” is never once uttered in “Hills Like White Elephants,” and yet the story is dripping with its haunting specter, and the same pitiful emotion is felt for the man trying to artfully convince his wife, and the woman who is so unsure of the dire situation, as they sit tensely in an empty, humid town. One who is not scouring for clues is utterly lost within this scene.
Knowing this, one could use the understanding to try to compose his or her own six-word stories (or puzzles), such as: “Shoe store failed; American dream dead”; or “One set of footprints, ocean-killed.” What they need to do is paint a picture of an aspect of life lived, and an emotional event that we can all in some effect relate to, a theme perhaps. So many authors attempted to imitate Mr. Hemingway’s terse style in his wake that he is probably the most influential American author of the century. But very few were able to penetrate the mysteries that he concocted, and adapt the style for themselves. People are so keen on reading conventional, straight-laced mysteries that populate libraries and bookstores because they offer a clear and predictable solution in the end, often explained rather turgidly, so that no deducing is required on the part of the reader. But if we are so fond of detective-work, why should we not become one ourselves, and follow the clues that Hemingway so brilliantly laid down for us? It is far more rewarding in the end to discover the answer and meaning for yourself, rather than be bluntly told; I can assure you that.