What I learned from Ernest Hemingway.

A quick Google of the title The Sun also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, brings me pages upon pages of articles. With scads of information and opinion out there, what can I possibly add?

But before I answer that question, here is a photograph of the River Seine in Paris which I took in 2004–just to set the mood for the book set in Paris in the 1920’s

Most critics discuss at great length themes and characters of this novel. But my question is this:  how does a writer create such a palpable, all pervasive mood in a novel.

What is that mood? One of quiet desperation and frustration. But despite the characters’ ennui with life itself, we are captivated, fascinated with every detail of the story.

It is hard to imagine the psychic state of those who served in and lived through the First World War, which was the bloodiest of wars. The words, shell-shocked come to mind to describe the survivors. Millions of lives were lost and the lives of those who survived were shattered. At the end, most people wondered what on earth had been gained. But then, I suppose one can say that about many wars.

In this period, existentialism took root. According to that philosophy, man lived in a hostile, random universe and his only hope was his ability to make rational choices. Going another step further, nihilism became part of the mindset of many. No wonder!

And so, in The Sun Also Rises we have a protagonist, Jake Barnes, who tells us the story of life in Paris after the war and a drunken, almost pointless trip to the bullfights in Spain. In one way, we are eager to join in the partying but on the other, we are saddened by the hopelessness in the characters’ eyes.

Poor Jake is himself a symbol of the times-impotent like everyone in some way or another. But his impotence is literal. His genitals were destroyed in battle. He is desperately and hopelessly in love with a woman, Lady Brett Ashley, who has her own problems. She is compelled to sleep with any man she can find. Perhaps she is so driven because of a need to feel something-anything at all.

Although Jake is impotent, he loves Brett and has a compassionate understanding for her. She is desperately in love with him. Since their emotions cannot be physically expressed, they are completely frustrated.  Although sex is easy for her to find elsewhere, she is on a poignantly hopeless quest for love and sex and he is adrift, trying not to think about it.

With this extreme frustration, their world really is hostile and random. Who dealt these cards? One might ask. But then, that is not a question an existentialist who believes in a random world would ask because there is no being above dealing the cards. A mood of hopeless frustration, along with sadness and ennui, is conveyed.

But how does Hemingway do this? This is what I, as a writer, want to know.

Here’s what I think. Because Hemingway tells the story in the first person through Jake Barnes, he can convey a sharp immediacy of emotion. Every word in the book is from the mouth of Jake. Thus, all his painful thoughts, feelings and attitudes are expressed first hand. Hemingway is such an artist that he mutes the pain much of the time but then suddenly brings it full force to the reader.

“Which person” is a choice a writer must make almost right away? Will it be first person, third person-omniscient [voice over of God]?  Personally, I rarely write in the first person, usually preferring the flexibility of “the voice over of God”. But if you do use first person, then you can intensely convey one person’s feelings and control them throughout the novel.

By identifying entirely with his protagonist, the writer can set whatever moods he wishes to give to that character and convey to the reader. He has complete control of the fluctuations and pacing of mood. Had the novel been written from different viewpoints, we would then be going into the heads of other characters in the book, such as Lady Brett or Jake’s friend, Robert Cohn. Undoubtedly, they would have different points of view, thoughts, feelings and moods.

So, I suppose that, if you wish to create a story where one person’s mood is consistently expressed, along with all its different shadings, it may be an idea to stick with the first person telling.

On more technical matters, much of the story is written in the passive voice for which Hemingway is famous.  Actually, he is famous for his mixing of active and passive voices all in a few sentences. Here is an example straight from The Sun Also Rises, a scene in which Jake is feeling “rotten” about his situation.

We went into the dining room. I took up the brandy bottle and poured Brett a drink and one for myself. There was a ring at the bell-pull. I went to the door and there was the Count. Behind him was the chauffeur, carrying a basket of champagne.

This is just a tiny example, but when this technique is used throughout a novel, the writer can create a variety of moods and shift their pace.

Hemingway is also known for his short, declarative sentences, but here is one of the longest sentences I’ve ever read. It describes a road in the Spanish countryside.

After awhile we came out of the mountains, and there were trees along both sides of the road, and a stream and ripe fields of grain, and the road went on, very white and straight ahead, and then lifted to a little rise and off on the left was a hill with an old castle, with buildings close around it and a field of grain going right up to the walls and shifting in the wind.

What is achieved?  By the time I’ve reached the end of the sentence, I have really seen the fields of grain and heard the rippling stream. I may also have been lulled into a siesta, which would be appropriate for Spain. Particularly when Hemingway slows the pace way down, he creates the feeling that Jake is a detached observer rather than an active participant in all of life. And isn’t that the way a shell-shocked person might feel?

I love Hemingway’s dialogue. He really lets the words of his characters carry the scene. When I first began writing, an editor said to me that I should avoid editorializing. It took me a while to figure out what she meant. Here is an example from a first draft of Conduct in Question, the first in The Osgoode Trilogy which I began writing many years ago.

Harry Jenkins, thinking that Albert Chin must be a crook said, “Why didn’t you return the money?”

Certainly now, I can see how much better it would be to simply write

“Why didn’t you return the money?” asked Harry.

If Harry didn’t think Chin was a crook, why would he ask him such a question in the first place? It’s as if you were at a play and a very annoying director kept coming onto the stage and saying to the audience. “See how Harry thinks Chin is a crook?”

And so, Hemingway lets the words of the characters carry the scene-the meaning, the emotion-everything.  Here, Jake is lying on the bed and Brett has been trying to comfort him. He is terribly in love with her and they both know, because of her nature and needs, she can’t stay with him.

Why are you going away? [Jake]

Better for you. Better for me. [Brett]

When are you going?

Soon as I can.


San Sebastian.

Can’t we go together?

No, that would be a hell of an idea after we talked it out.

We never agreed.

Those few lines would be ruined, I think, had the writer added in such things as he said sadly or she said with determination. And so, the scene is stark and desolate, as it was intended to be, because the words, all by themselves, convey their sense of futility and hopelessness.

Just try to write like that!

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2 Responses to “What I learned from Ernest Hemingway.”

  1. Peter Says:

    That’s a really interesting take on the novel. Thanks for pointing out Hemingway’s techniques.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for reading it Peter. I hope to do a number of articles looking at different author’s techniques. Take a look at “No Man’s Meat” on this blog, in which I talk about Callaghan’s use of images.

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