Hemingway’s mastery of understatement as a controlling literary device is evident throughout “After the Storm.” Akin to the understatement is the strong irony within the story. Events that have cost the lives of all the people on the sunken ship are minimized by Hemingway’s choice of narrator. Because the narrator’s focus is self-serving, materialistic, and essentially meretricious, the information given about the shipwreck is minimal, and its scope is limited by the vision of the low-life person who tells it. The secondary action of the story, that of the actual shipwreck, is the larger, more dramatic action of the two story lines Hemingway develops here, but by downplaying it, he asserts his stylistic control.
The story’s narrator is a crude, brutalized person, someone who will fight over nothing and whose moral code is as debased as his speech, which throughout the story gives subtle insights into his personality. The birds flock around the ship to eat carrion because they must live; they are morally neutral. The narrator, however, does not have their moral neutrality and is, hence, more culpable than they.
Despite the ironic contrast between the main action and the secondary action, in fact, perhaps because of it, the reader develops a growing sense of horror at what happened. This sense of horror continues to develop in one’s mind long after one has read the story. The impact is remarkably long-lasting because the reader keeps supplying details from an imagination that Hemingway has piqued and set in motion.
Hemingway’s language in this story, as in most of his work, is simple and direct. His sentence structure is unornamented. The ironies of the story are convoluted and intertwined with one another. Hemingway controls them with precision, as he controls the two story lines with a deftness and economy that one finds in few other authors.