The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
by Ernest Hemingway
Analysis: Writing Style
Direct… but also Indirect
Bear with us.
Give it to Us Straight, Hem
Hemingway was a true prose stylist, which is to say that the man took writing seriously. He thought that if you wrote one good sentence per day, you would be golden. Oh, how we wish that were true for homework. He also believed that really good writing could be read many times, and that you would always be amazed by the craft. The sentences, as much as the story they tell, were his focus. Finally, he was a big believer in keeping it simple.
In "The Short Happy Life," a lot of basic actions can go far. The sentences are certainly not fancy, but they reveal a lot about the characters. Take this sentence for example: "The mess boy had started them already, lifting the bottles out of the canvas cooling bags that sweated wet in the wind that blew through the trees that shaded the tents" (1.6). Here, Hemingway speaks volumes in one sentence: we get the feeling in the air, he sets the visual scene, and he conveys ideas of class and environment. We know where we are, and what kind of people we're dealing with.
Hemingway also lets the dialogue do a lot of the work. That way we get to know the characters through what they say instead of having ol' Hem tell us what to think. Take the story's opening, for example, where Margot says, "I'll have a gimlet too. I need something" (1.4). This unadorned expression gives us our initial impression of Margot: She will drink because she needs something – but something for what? Something, we soon find out, to dull the rage and disappointment over Macomber's failure and something as in "my husband gave me nothing, so give me something." Lastly, this short sentence says "Macomber's wife," not Margot, so we know that this man's wife needs something, and she needs it because of him. That's a whole lot of meaning for eight short words.
Let Us Do the Legwork
Which brings us to a little something we, and just about every Hemingway scholar ever, like to call "The Iceberg Principle." Hemingway himself called it the "Theory of Omission." Let's hear it from the horse's mouth:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
He wrote these words in his nonfiction homage to bull fighting called Death in the Afternoon, and they can definitely help us understand a bit more about the style of "The Short Happy Life."
What Hem is saying here is that writers can leave things out, as long as they know what exactly it is that they're leaving out. That means that Hemingway knows whether or not Margot's shooting of her husband was an accident. He's just not telling us. Rude.
It also means that Hemingway packs a lot of unsaid things into the actual words on the page. Much as there is only a small percentage of an actual iceberg visible above water, for every word we get to read in "The Short Happy Life," there is a ton of other stuff floating just below the surface. He omits things because he trusts us to be active readers, and to understand what he is saying indirectly. It's a tricky style, and it asks a lot of us. But we think we are totally up to the challenge.