Hemingway’s “Iceberg” Principle of Writing in Relation to The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway is one of the most famous American writers widely known for his unique style and writing techniques. His novel The Old Man and the Sea reflects his genius via the language which seems to be simple, but bears many implied meanings, being the perfect example of the “iceberg” principle widely used by the author in his works. The basic concept of the ‘iceberg’ principle implemented by Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Old Man and the Sea is that each character on the page is only 10% of who they actually are, and the other 90% is implied and inferred within the mind of the reader.
There is no doubt that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s masterpiece. The simple story about a fishermen turns the minds of people upside down, and reveals the nature of a seemingly ordinary person. Readers learn about Santiago, who tells the story and reveals himself as a character towards the end of it. For eighty-four days he fails to catch at least one fish, but his spirit does not fall, and he keeps on going into the sea and trying to catch a big marlin. When he finally manages to catch the fish, he faces one more threat on his way home – sharks that eat up the marlin leaving only a skeleton. With the usage of the language, Hemingway implements his most famous writing technique known as the “iceberg” principle. He successfully implemented it with his minimalistic style and focused on the details that are left on the surface leaving the understanding of the underlying themes to the reader. As an author, Hemingway believed that the core meaning of a literary piece should never be evident, but rather hidden beneath. He stated: “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” (Plimpton, 1958).
Being a writer of short stories, Hemingway was able to get as much effect as possible even from the smallest amounts of information (Smith, 1983). He stated that the tip of the iceberg in a short story is what the reader gets, and the rest of the information about a character will never actually appear in the story, but should rather be imagined by the reader. Thus, he believed that the usage of the iceberg principle is able to make a story stronger and more efficient (Plimpton, 1958).
The Old Man and the Sea is the best example of the “iceberg” principle usage by Hemingway. He uses simple and natural language to tell the story making it direct and clear with the help of specific details and uncomplicated syntax. Hemingway himself stated that while he was writing, he left seven-eighths of the story below the surface for the reader yet to discover. He does not give long descriptions of the town and culture, but he provides short images and allusions that align into one picture giving a clear sense and a feeling of the Cuban culture, social circumstances, and even economy. The character of the fishermen Santiago is developed using the iceberg principle. At the beginning of the story, he is the one that can not catch any kind of fish for eighty-four days, but as the story progresses towards the end, the reader learns that Santiago is strong and persistent and able to achieve his goals. When describing Santiago, Hemingway only tells the reader that he is a weak old man. However, it is possible to decode from the story, judging only by his deeds, that he is youthful and courageous. What is more, towards the end of the book, Santiago becomes a real kind father-figure for the boy, and this is also understood by the reader without Hemingway giving direct pointers.
The “iceberg” principle of writing was introduced and widely used by Ernest Hemingway. Being an author of short stories, he was famous for his concise language and short semantics. The novel The Old Man and the Sea is one of the best examples of the “iceberg” principle in action. Therefore, the reader, while exploring the novel, discovers that the character’s true identity is not described by the author directly, but rather hidden beneath the narrative for readers to explore and learn on their own. This is why Hemingway is well known throughout the world as one of the best short story writers who was able to not only convey the actual descriptions on the pages, but also the complex images of a human being and their surroundings that are left to be discovered by the reader’s imagination.
Hemingway, E. (1995). The Old Man and the Sea. NY: Scribner.
Plimpton, G. (1958). Ernest Hemingway, the Art of Fiction No. 21. The Paris Review. Retrieved from http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4825/the-art-of-fiction-no-21-ernest-hemingway
Smith, P. (1983). Hemingway’s Early Manuscripts: The Theory and Practice of Omission. Journal of Modern Literature, 10 (2), 268-288. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831126
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