illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

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What is Hemingway trying to say in his iceberg theory?

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In a famous quote from a 1958 interview with the "Paris Review," novelist Ernest Hemingway used the iceberg as a metaphor to explain how he achieved his terse style and exactly what details he had omitted from his most recent book, The Old Man and the Sea:

Interviewer: So when you're not writing, you remain constantly the observer, looking for something which can be of use.

Hemingway: Surely, if a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Perhaps that would be true at the beginning. But later everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen. 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 . . .

To write in this elliptical manner, Hemingway suggests, is far more powerful, poetic, and evocative, than a literal, all-inclusive record of one's experience could ever be. But at the same time, he cautions, it's still vital to be aware of all aspects of a given experience, even those one eventually chooses to omit when writing; the falsity of writing only pretending such awareness or knowledge will be quickly intuited by readers.

What is the purpose of writing this way? What did Hemingway believe was the function of his art?

Hemingway: . . . you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and . . . if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.

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Ernest Hemingway's "Iceberg Theory" deals with the basic principle that "less is more." Instead of stating the obvious, Hemingway attempts to use dialog and subtext to convey his themes. In revision, cutting becomes more important than adding material. Needless repetition and irrelevant information should be avoided. Hemingway likens this style to an iceberg since only a fraction of it lies visible above water; the rest--the greater mass--is unseen below. A savvy reader will uncover the missing parts if the story's message is delivered in a short but succinct manner.

If a writer of a prose knows enough about 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 the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.  --Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

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