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A Farewell to Arms

by Ernest Hemingway

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How does Hemingway apply the "Iceberg Theory" in A Farewell to Arms?

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"Iceberg theory" refers to Hemingway’s notion that stories could be made stronger by omitting key pieces of information. In Hemingway’s view, the writer should have a complete understanding of his characters and their motivations, but the story, as written, should include only the surface facts of the action (the "tip of the iceberg"). In this way, he believed, the reader could "fill in the gaps" of his understanding by paying close attention to the events that are described. The "truth" of the writing would necessarily reflect the deeper emotional or psychological qualities of the characters without having to explain them.

One example from Farewell to Arms that illustrates this principle can be found in Chapter 27:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain...There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Henry objects to the expression "in vain" because it is an abstraction that tries to refer to the unsaid struggle of the soldiers—it is trying to make the invisible part of the iceberg visible. For Henry and Hemingway, discussing such things does not make them clearer; on the contrary, such words are "obscene"—the sense is, that talking about such things only degrades them.

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"Iceberg theory" originated from Hemingway's belief that if the writer knows what he is writing and writes truly enough, the readers will understand the story the same even when the writer omits some parts.

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway writes about the single life of Lieutenant Henry in World War I, although there were thousands more soldiers who attended the war. Here Henry represents the tip of the iceberg; Hemingway is trying to convey the lives of many soldiers through the story of just one.

In another perspective Hemingway describes Henry's emotions as confined as possible but in reality there is a whole iceberg of emotions underneath the surface. When Cathrine dies after the child birth Hemingway says “It seems she had one hemorrhage after another... I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died.” Hemingway does not explicitly describe Henry's grief here but readers can still sense the sorrow beneath the surface.

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