The art of omission—more commonly known as the theory of omission or iceberg writing—was coined by Ernest Hemingway:
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 iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
The author choses to omit explanations and refuses to state or dictate what the reader should interpret; she or he shows but does not tell. By omitting or leaving out details that the writer knows and the reader should be able to feel and understand, the writer allows the reader to draw conclusions. The formation of these interpretations by the reader creates a deeper impact by stressing the significance of the complete yet hidden backstory (i.e., the larger, submerged portion of an iceberg). In “Hands,” Sherwood Anderson utilizes the art or theory of the omission to emphasize the taboo of homosexuality and the waste of compassion and dreams.
Protagonist Wing Biddlebaum is a lonely, frightened, elderly man haunted by his past. His constantly moving hands reveal his unending discomfort and anxiety. He always fiddles with them or rubs them together to expend nervous energy. Living secluded from the public, Wing comes alive when speaking to young reporter George Willard about his earlier days. He begins
talking excitedly. The voice that had been low and trembling became shrill and loud. The bent figure straightened. With a kind of wriggle, like a fish returned to the brook by the fisherman, Wing the silent began to talk, striving to put into words the ideas that had been accumulated by his mind during long years of silence.
His silence or omission of facts over many previous years builds up suspense. The reader wonders what Wing has been hiding. George gradually learns more as the old man reveals his past both verbally and physically.
Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands. The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.
While closing them into fists, beating them on a table, and pounding them on a stump, he feels comfortable to express himself openly, no longer concealing his story and emotions. Noticing their movements, George wants to ask about Wing’s hands.
At times an almost overwhelming curiosity had taken hold of him. He felt that there must be a reason for their strange activity and their inclination to keep hidden away and only a growing respect for Wing Biddlebaum kept him from blurting out the questions that were often in his mind.
Anderson does not allow George to confront Wing about his hands; instead, the author creates tension and leaves George to wait for and interpret any significant meaning behind the hands’s movements. On day, Wing suddenly grabs George by the shoulders and admonishes him for fearing his dreams and trying to fit in with the townspeople. Wing implores George to ignore others and pursue his own dreams. Then
he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.
With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes.
Once again, Sherwood omits the reason for Wing’s sudden breakdown and does not allow George to ask about Wing’s hand movements. George notes
the terror he had seen in the man's eyes. "There's something wrong, but I don't want to know what it is. His hands have something to do with his fear of me and of everyone."
Until this point, the reader wonders about the significance of Wing’s hands but knows it must be related to Wing’s unspoken past. The narrator then reveals Wing’s history. Long ago, his “hands were but fluttering pennants of promise.” Formerly known as Adolph Myers, Wing was a sensitive, compassionate teacher who
was one of those rare, little understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness. In their feeling for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men.
And yet that is but crudely stated. It needs the poet there.
Instead of “crudely” stating what happened, Anderson calls for a poet to explain past events. The narrative requires sensitivity and gentleness in order to present details with subtlety. It does not need lurid and graphic words. Wing felt for his male students what women feel “in their love of men.” While talking to them, he caressed their shoulders and played with their hair.
In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.
Because specific detail is omitted, the reader can only interpret—but not confirm—that Wing had homosexual feelings toward the boys. What is apparent is Wing’s nurturing compassion for them; his voice and touch released them of their doubts and inspired them to dream. Unfortunately, one student accuses Wing of sexual advances and turns the town against him.
Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men's minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.
Ultimately, hands are used against Wing; the father of one of his students beats him and men go to his house—one carrying “a rope in his hands”—to hang him. The men hurl sticks and mud at Wing as he flees. Hands become as weapons and tools of violence and oppression, not compassion and nurturing.
Later, any mention of homosexuality is omitted.
Again and again the fathers of the boys had talked of the hands. "Keep your hands to yourself," the saloon keeper had roared, dancing with fury in the schoolhouse yard.
Notice that the fathers do not tell their boys why they should keep their hands to themselves.