Introduction to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Bryant Mangum, “Ernest Hemingway,” in Critical Survey of Short Fiction,” ed. Frank Magill. Salem Press, 1982. pp. 1621-28. Reproduced from Critical Survey of Short Fiction. Copyright, 1981, by Salem Press, Inc. By permission of the publisher, Salem Press, Inc.


Principle short fiction
Three Stories and Ten Poems
, 1923; In Our Time, 1924 (enlarged edition, 1925); Men Without Women, 1927; Winner Take Nothing, 1933; The Fifth Column and the First forty-nine Stories, 1938; The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, 1961; The Nick Adams Stories, 1972.

Other literary forms 
In addition to the novel, novella, and short story, for which he is best known, Ernest Hemingway wrote poems, a treatise on bullfighting (Death in the Afternoon, 1932), two plays (The Fifth Column, 1939, and Today is Friday, 1926), an account of big game hunting (The Green Hills of Africa, 1935), nonfictional sketches of Paris in the 1920’s (A Moveable Feast, 1964), and newspaper dispatches and essays. There were in his lifetime, and have been since his death, various screen adaptations of his stories and novels.

Hemingway, who himself owes a debt to, among others, Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Stein, has exerted an influence on the direction of American fiction which is perhaps greater than all of these other writers combined. His greatest contribution, as the Nobel Prize committee acknowledged, was in the area of “prose style.” In his use of the “zero ending,” which goes counter to the traditional “well-made” ending, Hemingway has influenced the form of the modern short story. Finally, by depicting the plight of the disenchanted, lost group of post-World-War I expatriates, he influenced an entire generation of writers and artists, bringing into print for the first time, in the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises (1926), the phrase “The Lost Generation.”

Story characteristics 
Hemingway’s stories run counter to the traditional nineteenth and early twentieth century stories described as “well-made.” They are usually elliptical in form, rarely tying up details in a neat bundle in order to bring the stories to a conclusion. The type of story Hemingway wrote, as Sheldon Grebstein has noted, reflects a belief in Anton Chekhov’s “dictum that in both scene and character the selection of significant details, grouped so as to convey an image, is the vital thing.”


Ernest Hemingway was the second of six children of Grace Hemingway, a Christian Scientist, and Clarence Edmonds Hemingway, a medical doctor who loved hunting and fishing. As a high school student at Oak Park High School. Hemingway was active in athletics and journalism, writing for the school newspaper, The Trapeze. Unable to from high school into the war because of his poor vision and age, Hemingway became a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. Finally in 1918 he joined an American ambulance unit in Italy, where he was wounded. In a Milan hospital he met Agnes von Kurowsky, who became the prototype for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms (1929). In 1921 he married Hadley Richardson and they moved to the Left Bank in Paris, during which time Hemingway met Gertrude Stein, began his career as a literary artist, and accumulated experiences for The Sun Also Rises. In 1927 Hemingway divorced Hadley and married Pauline Pfeiffer, a fashion editor for Vogue magazine in Paris. Their marriage lasted until 1940, the year of the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and in that year he married Martha Gellhorn, a newspaper correspondent. In 1945 he divorced Martha and married, the following year, his fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh. In 1954 Hemingway received the Nobel Prize, partly because of his splendid contribution of The Old Man and the Sea (1952) to his canon. He died at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

After the publication of his last major work, The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway explained his “iceberg” theory of fiction writing in a Paris Review interview:

If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

It is indeed of use on several counts to the Hemingway reader to approach any Hemingway story with an understanding of this “iceberg” theory, the principles of aesthetics that it embodies, and the assumptions about life that it entails. The stories, if read carefully, will reveal these assumptions, but to bring them to a work in advance often provides the key that unlocks what may at first appear to be the mystery of a Hemingway story, revealing the fourth and fifth dimensions that he usually achieves.

What is below the water level of the Hemingway iceberg? First, there is a conviction that man’s awareness of death is one of the guiding forces in life. Beneath every surface activity, then, is the awareness


of death. There is also the notion that conventional and traditional ways of coping with the fact of man’s mortality are based on romantic illusions which cause one to avoid thinking about the central fact of existence: that one must eventually die. It is with man’s attitudes toward life in the presence of death that Hemingway is most concerned. The surfaces of his stories, the tips of the icebergs, most often show individuals whether in war, in the bullring, in a big-game hunt, or in some other life-threatening situation–dealing either gracefully or in a cowardly way with death or nada.

What evolves, then, over the course of Hemingway’s forty-year career as a writer is a comprehensive code for living which acknowledges death as the end point in life. The characters to whom Hemingway is most sympathetic are those who exhibit grace under the pressure of an acute awareness of death. These characters usually live life in the present and live it to its fullest extent, enjoying the sensual pleasures that life has to offer; characters who are eating, drinking, and being merry with the knowledge that tomorrow they may die. It is no simple matter to pass into the knowledge of one’s mortality, however, as the characters in Hemingway’s early stories do, nor is it easy to learn how to live life fully. To accept death requires that one perfect the art of living; and, just as the cornerstone of the art of writing to Hemingway is economy (which the iceberg theory itself suggests), the art of living by the Hemingway code is based on economy of emotion and gesture. To follow the Hemingway hero throughout the short stories from his earliest example, Nick Adams, to his later portrayals, such as that of Francis Macomber, is to see the step-by-step development of Hemingway’s code for living in the modern wasteland, as well as the refinement of his aesthetic theories.

The stories about Hemingway’s thinly disguised persona, Nick Adams, which were interspersed through early collections of Hemingway’s stories and which are now collected under the title of The Nick Adams Stories, chronicle the movement of the code hero from a condition of innocence, a kind of pre-Adamic state during which he is unaware of his mortality, into a condition of experience or knowledge. The stories which perhaps best suggest this movement are “Indian Camp” and “Big Two-Hearted River.” Both of these stories–in the process of bringing Nick to the threshold of initiation into life in the presence of death and thus demonstrating the earliest stage in the gestation of the Hemingway code–clearly illustrate the iceberg theory in the deceptively apparent simplicity of their story lines.

“Indian Camp” on the surface appears to be a straightforward narrative about a boy who goes with his doctor-father on a trip into an Indian village to deliver a baby. The delivery is a difficult one which finally must be accomplished by Caesarian section and which causes so much pain to the mother that her screams cause her husband, who is on the bunk above her, to slit his own throat as the new baby is brought into the world. In the hands of a less skillful craftsman, the central facts of the mother’s painful ordeal and the


father’s violent death would overshadow any of the story’s other concerns. For Hemingway, the events offer an opportunity to present a miniature study of the relationship of the seasonal cycle to the human life cycle. A close analysis of the story reveals that all of the details conspire to that end; and no detail is wasted. The scene begins in early morning before sunrise, when Nick and his father cross the water to go to the Indian camp–symbolically, the early morning of Nick’s life. His father takes him to witness the delivery of the baby ostensibly to show Nick more of life and the living. Perhaps also, it is suggested, the father takes his son to demonstrate the heroic power that enables him to bring new life into existence.

The father, with his knowledge of science, represents the intrusion of knowledge into the relative innocence of the primitive Indian civilization. While it is true that the knowledge which enables him to conduct the operation allows a new baby to be born, the pain that the operation cause brings about the death of the Indian father. After the ordeal, the doctor says to his son, “I’m terribly sorry I brought you along Nickie….It was an awful mess to put you through.” The words are resonant and apply to the story’s central theme: in the middle of life there is death, and while one might wish to show a child the beauty of life (birth), there is always the risk that it will be accompanied by its counterpart (death).

On the way back, trailing his hand in the chilly water–archetypally the symbol of death and life–Nick denies the lesson he has learned: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he [Nick] felt quite sure that he would never die.” The surface of the story, the events of that morning whose focal point has been life on the bottom bunk and death above, has suggested the iceberg, which is the human condition as it is inextricably woven into the birth-death phases of the seasonal cycle. After such a morning, Nick may hold onto his romantic illusions of immortality a while longer, but he has moved very close to the knowledge of life in the presence of death which will necessitate the forming of a code by which to live his life.

In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick, as an older boy on the edge of manhood, returns to the once-idyllic place where he has fished in his youth. He discovers the town has been burned and that the surface of the land all around him has been destroyed by fire. He hikes toward the river, where he catches fish, and, at the end of the story, looks toward the swamp, which he decides he will fish one day. Dean Gauss reported in a letter to Carlos Baker that he [Gauss] and F. Scott Fitzgerald accused Hemingway of having written in “Big Two-Hearted River” “a story in which nothing happened,” a reaction that might be common to one who approaches a Hemingway story without an understanding of the iceberg theory. The fact is that, in a sense, everything of importance to Nick, or anyone at his stage of awareness, happens in this story. Symbolically, it is a story of the construction of a value system after


all the traditional values which one was taught as a child have been burned away. The process is a lonely one and necessarily must be undertaken in solitude–a fact which explains why in this long, two-part story, there is only one character.

The process involves Nick’s relishing every sensory detail of his experience. The smells and tastes of his simple meals, pork and beans and spaghetti; the sights of interlocking branches over his head and overlapping pine needles at his feet; the feeling of stiffness that he feels upon waking up after a night on the tent floor–all of these elements are important to Nick and important to the story because it is with this knowledge gained through the senses, the only “true” knowledge on which one can count, that Nick is able to begin the reconstruction of his burned out psyche. In the process, he feels Th. need to become again a creature of nature, to reestablish his contact with natural cycles. Like the grasshoppers who have adapted to the burning of the land by turning brown. Nick sees that he too must adapt in order to survive. He uses bait from the land to fish, and when he catches fish and cleans them, he throws the parts that he will not eat back to the land to be eaten by other animals. What he discovers in the process of his fishing trip is that, while the surface of the land is burned and symbolically the superficial values that he had once accepted have been destroyed, life in the primitive form of the fish in the river, ancient symbols of fertility and life, remain. By reawakening his senses and using them to discover truth, a process which becomes a purification ritual, he can survive. As he says at the end of the story, “there were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp,” an area representing the complexities of life with other people, particularly with the feminine element, missing from his journey and suggested by the swamp.

The Nick Adams stories in particular (“Indian Camp” and “Big Two-Hearted River” are but two of twenty-four) illustrate how deceptive the apparent simplicity of a Hemingway story can be. His novels exhibit many of the same characteristics. The dilemma of Jake Barnes–which arises from his war wound–in The Sun Also Rises, is thematically akin to the psychic wounds of the characters in Hemingway’s short stories. The novels, however, do not offer the infinite variety of situations that the stories do for exploring the nooks and crannies of initiation. That process of initiation into manhood, into life, is finally Hemingway’s solid gold bar, the substance of his iceberg. Yet, as Hemingway himself moves across the threshold from innocence into experience, he does not lose sight of this task, which is to show from different angles and from different vantage points in his stories the many facets of the initiation process.”

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” which comes four years after A Farewell to Arms, shows Hemingway’s attitudes toward the central dilemma of initiation shifting, moving more in line with the “wise-man” characters such as Count Mippipopolous in The Sun Also Rises and Count Greffi in A Farewell to Arms.


The dilemma, however, which is still the necessity of living life fully and stoically accepting the reality of death, has not changed; only Hemingway’s perspective is in the process of changing. On the surface, the story’s situation is simple: it is near closing time in a cafe; there still sits drinking an old man who comes every night to drink, a man who the week before had tried to commit suicide. The young waiter has no sympathy for the man and denies him a last drink in order that he may close the cafe and go home. The old waiter sympathizes with the old man, understanding how important it is that a clean, well-lit cafe be open as late as possible for those who might need it.

The shift in Hemingway’s perspective suggested subtly in the story’s dramatic structure, in which Hemingway often, and quite consciously, omits the dialogue guides, forcing the reader to decide whether the speaker is the young waiter or the old waiter. When one becomes aware of what Hemingway is doing in showing the two very different attitudes, however, the dialogue guides are unnecessary. Their omission becomes part of the iceberg, “the part you can omit and it only strengthens your iceberg.” The young waiter cannot understand the old man’s despair: “He has plenty of money,” the young waiter says. When asked by the old waiter the reason that the old man tried to commit suicide, the young waiter replies that it was “Nothing,” an answer which is right, ironically. The young waiter does not understand the “nothingness” concept that is affirmed in the old waiter’s “Our nada who art in nada” monologue, which indicates his degree of sympathy for the old man. Through the old waiter, who lives his life honestly and cleanly, Hemingway suggests that a life lived with an awareness of death at the end–in other words, with a recognition of nada at the core–will have moments of despair. For those moments, experienced by Jake in The Sun Also Rises, by Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, or the old man in the cafe, the only anodyne is a light bulb at night, a dry place out of the rain, or a clean, well-lighted cafe, in that order.

In the stories and novels through 1933, the date of publication of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” there is a distance between the code heroes and the thing itself, death. True, death is very near to the heroes in such stories as “The Killers,” where Ole Andreson is literally waiting to be killed; but this situation and situations like it are generally viewed from the perspective of a Nick-like character; by one whose days are not yet numbered, or they are seen by people such as Frederick Henry, who is watching death actually happen to other people. In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the code hero moves a step closer to death, finally embracing the thing itself.

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” can be viewed thematically as the last phase of the initiation of the code hero, a phase whose echoes are heard in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and, in one form or another, in For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. The at-first cowardly Francis Macomber and his symbolically castrating wife are being


guided on a big-game hunt by a professional hunter and code initiate, Robert Wilson. Macomber repeatedly shows his cowardice and is verbally chastised by his wife, who sarcastically responds to his assertiveness late in the story with the line, “You’ve gotten awfully brave, awfully suddenly.” Ironically, Macomber has, in fact, become brave, as he demonstrates by standing his ground and firing at a charging buffalo, “shooting a touch high each time and hitting the heavy horns, splintering and chipping them like hitting a slate roof….” Margot grabs a gun, ostensibly to get the buffalo, and shoots Macomber through the skull.

The literal reader will find a number of questions about this story, at the level of plot, nagging. Why does Macomber, if he is a coward, go on a big-game hunt in the first place? Why does he, when in the company of Wilson, allow his wife to badger him? Of what is he actually afraid and how does he overcome his fear? Finally, does his wife shoot him intentionally? None of the questions is answered explicitly in the story, and yet the reader familiar with Hemingway’s aesthetic theories can make good guesses at the answers. Moreover, he knows that the unstated answers tell what the story is really about. Macomber, although a coward, goes on a big-game hunt because of his craving to break free of the oppressive forces, represented by his wife, which bind him. Perhaps the fear is, on one level, of castration; perhaps on another, it is a fear of being forever bound to woman, a condition which keeps his identity as a male and as an individual in eclipse. On the deepest level, as the text of the story indicates, it is a fear of death, which because of the heroic Wilson’s presence and with his guidance, Macomber overcomes. The title of the story suggests that every moment Macomber lived in fear was not actually life at all; only in overcoming the fear of death did he escape the suffocating attachment ot Margot and actually have a life, although the life was only of a few seconds’ duration. Whether Margot shot Macomber intentionally or not makes little difference, because when the code hero embraces death, that, for him, is the end of the story.

With Francis Macomber the code hero finally reaches the point of full initiation toward which he has been moving since the early Nick Adams stories. In his first form, as in “Indian Camp,” the hero becomes dimly aware of the central dilemma of life: to face his own mortality. Once he accepts this call to adventure, he begins his pursuit of experiences which will reveal to him, at least symbolically, the truth that in life, death is always present. It becomes the hero’s task to accept it stoically. Seeing death, calling it by various names like nada or nothingness, empathizing with those who are close to it like the old man in the cafe–it remains only for the code hero to grasp the thing itself. When he does, as Francis Macomber does, embrace death without fear, the cycle is complete; the initiation is accomplished.

From the beginning, the dominant concern of Hemingway’s short stories is with initiation; the mythic pattern of the heroic quest, whose end point is


death. His triumph, however, is the knowledge that it can be faced gracefully and with courage. That is the boon that the Hemingway hero finally, often through his sacrificial death, gives to those with whom he is associated and to the Hemingway reader. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Hemingway concludes with these words: “A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.” Through the short story, the genre by which Hemingway learned to practice his craft, he wrote what he had to say–perhaps until he had too few things left on the surface that he did not know about and which did not go without saying. After that, what remained for him was to embrace the thing itself in his suicide. “But not before, in William White’s words, “he had written a shelf of some of the finest prose by an American in this century.”

Bryant Mangum

Virginia Commonwealth University

Major publications other than short fiction

NOVELS: The Torrents of Spring, 1926; The Sun Also Rises, 1926; A Farewell to Arms, 1929; To Have and Have Not, 1937; For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1940; Across the River and into the Trees, 1950; The Old Man and The Sea, 1952; Islands in the Stream, 1970.

PLAYS: Today Is Friday, 1926; The Fifth Column, 1938.

NONFICTION: Death in the Afternoon, 1932; Green Hills of Africa, 1935; A Moveable Feast, 1964.

Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story.
____________. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist.
Hanneman, Audre. Ernest Hemingway: A Comprehensive Bibliography.
Hotchner, A.E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir.
Rovit, Earl. Ernest Hemingway.
Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway.