One of the most often-discussed aspects of Ernest Hemingway’s writing is his distinctive style. Whereas many writers of his day were still heavily influenced by the verbose, extremely descriptive style of English and American authors of the nineteenth century such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Herman Melville, Hemingway was not. His literature is free of the extensive use of adjectives common in the work of many earlier writers, and of many of his immediate contemporaries. As a result, his work has often been described as sparse, objective, and journalistic. It’s also been called original, so much so that even readers who would not consider themselves scholars can immediately recognize a book, a story, or even a paragraph that he has written without knowing beforehand that he was its author. His style is so singular, in fact, that to this day there is an international writing contest held every year in which writers are asked to submit a short story in his style. Knowing full well that the results will most likely be second rate, the contest is called the “Bad Hemingway Competition.” The winner is awarded a free trip to Italy which includes a complimentary dinner at Harry’s Bar in Venice, one of Hemingway’s old hangouts.
The fact that Hemingway worked throughout his life as a journalist clearly influenced his spare prose style. In fact, before he had published any fiction, Hemingway, upon his graduation from high school, took a job as a junior reporter at the Kansas City Star. Only eighteen years old, and still developing his authorial voice, Hemingway was clearly inspired by the Star’s guidelines which demanded compression, selectivity and precision for their news stories. Though his background in news writing was an undisputed influence on his writing style, there is another strong influence that guided it as well: the movies. This is not too surprising; Hemingway was born just before the start of the twentieth century, the same time mass motion pictures were invented.
At the time that Hemingway began writing prose seriously, just at the end of World War I, in 1919, and up until the time he was considered an important writer some seven years later, movies were the most popular form of entertainment throughout the western world. This was more than three decades before television overtook motion pictures in popularity—in fact, television as a technology as we now know it had not yet been invented. Many people commonly went to the cinema several nights a week in the 1920s (even more so in the 1930s and early 1940s). The movies these large audiences were watching were, of course, silent movies.
Films with synchronized sound were not introduced to mainstream audiences until 1927, when The Jazz Singer, which included several musical numbers with synchronized sound, revolutionized the industry. That film’s astronomical success led movie studios, within the year, to stop producing silent films. Because the sound technology was so new, these early “talkies” became more stagebound, featuring longer scenes with actors clustered around flower vases and table lamps that hid strategically placed microphones. Movies had, for a time, lost their visual flair. The word overtook the image as the prime focus of filmmakers. Silent film, starting in the late ‘teens, and up to 1927 (the same years Hemingway began seriously writing fiction), had matured; film language, dependent on the visual image to tell its story (with the exception of a few inter titles for important dialogue), had hit what many film scholars consider an artistic peak that was not found again for many decades to follow.
One of the ways in which the best silent films of the time communicated their narratives and the emotions that they wanted their audiences to experience while watching them was through a technique called “montage.” Montage is when several unrelated images are edited together to create a desired effect. For instance, if one sees an image of a man turning his head suddenly, then to one of a gun being aimed in his direction, to a shot of a tree falling in a nearby forest, the audience instinctively knows that the man has been shot, even without the sound of the gunshot. If we see several shots of an impatient crowd, followed by an image of a raised fist, we know that the fist represents the angry emotion of the mob without having to be told this. Hemingway makes subtle use this same montage technique in his writing.
An example of this can be seen clearly in the story, “In Another Country,” especially the first paragraph. “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows.” This establishes the setting and context of the story. Hemingway follows with a series of images which collectively create a mood and develop the story’s themes. ‘ “There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers.” We can feel the approaching winter through these details, and may start to subliminally sense that the details are also showing us, as opposed to telling us, that death, too, is approaching. Winter is the time when the life that bloomed in spring, thrived in summer, and weakened in fall, is taken away. We may also feel that a life-changing transition is also coming, and that, like the coldest of seasons, it will be a chilly reminder that the life we innocently enjoyed during the warmer months will be gone.
This montage technique is also prominently used in the story’s important climactic sentences when the Italian Major returns to the hospital after hearing of his wife’s sudden death from pneumonia. “Then he came at the usual hour, wearing a black band on the sleeve of his uniform . .. there were large framed photographs around the wall, all sorts of wounds before and after they had been cured by the machines. In front of the machine the major used were three photographs of hands like his that were completely restored.” Hemingway then interjects his own equivalent of a silent film’s inter title,’ T do not know where the doctor got them. I always understood we were the first to use these machines.” But the major, he tells us in the last sentences, is not moved by the photographs; instead, in the story’s final, telling image we are told that the major “only looked out the window.” Again, image builds upon image to create a final impression of existential despair, a message artfully expressed without being directly stated.
Is it any wonder, then, that Hemingway’s works were quickly scooped up by movie studios? However, this did not occur until talkies were already in place and most of these adaptations, critics argue, lack much of the visual expressiveness present in Hemingway’s writing. In fact, the film version that is considered most successful on an artistic level is the first, A Farewell to Arms of 1932. Though it has its share of characters sitting in rooms talking, like most films of its period, even these scenes are punctuated with what one critic called “a strange, brooding expressionist quality,” which other adaptations of his writing lack.
It’s important to note that Hemingway was clearly a filmgoer. According to his letters, published in a thick volume under the title, Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters: 1917-1961, the author writes many times about film stars, some of whom he had met, as well as discussing in some detail his involvement in casting choices and screenplay ideas he had contributed to several of the films made from his work. Films clearly played a role in his life and, to some extent, played a part in his work as well.
One of the things for which Hemingway has been criticized, particularly in the decades following his death, is his portrayal of macho characters. Many scholars and feminists have commented that Hemingway’s work has embraced the stoic, unfeeling masculine stereotype. However, though his heroes are nearly always strong men who are not weepily sentimental, Hemingway has usually found a way to show the pain these men feel. In fact, part of his interest in writing about these characters is so he can use them to comment on their macho posturing. Again, “In Another Country” can serve as an example of this. Hemingway shows the story’s narrator spending time with a group of young Italian officers who are proud of the masculine bravado they have demonstrated in battle. He writes, however, that they are emotionally “detached,” unable to express their innermost feelings about the tragedies they have witnessed and experienced. He contrasts their behavior with that of the Italian major, a man who, in the end, is held up as a braver man for giving up his controlled facade, for coming to terms with the deep loneliness and isolation of death and the loss that it entails. Even when the major cries, that most unmacho of acts, the author does not criticize him; in fact, Hemingway seems to be rather approving, as long as the tears do not relate to cowardice.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Ernest Hemingway, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Michael Zam, “Overview of ‘In Another Country,'” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000