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Friday, April 14, 2017

“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

David Elish

What You Don’t Know is The Most Important Part: Hemingway’s Use of The Iceberg Theory in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

            The iceberg theory refers to a style that offers little context, where only the surface elements are evident. This is a style that is attributed to Ernest Hemingway. The effect of the style on the reader is that they begin to think about what they are reading. So the act of reading a Hemingway story, like “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, is not only an exercise in receiving information, but also a thinking exercise. This is not to say that it is a painful exercise, it is actually the opposite. It is a pleasurable experience, because when we begin to understand the story.  Hemingway’s use of the iceberg theory only serves to heighten the beauty of his stories. This makes his stories beautiful, because they ask the reader to think. Hemingway’s style is deceptively simple, and yet there is a lot of information to process. Reading Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a joy for readers, because it not only tells a story, but also poses questions. Despite being a short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” presents us with a story that showcases Hemingway’s use of the Iceberg Theory. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, we find that what we do not read in the story are actually the most important parts, leading us to think about the story in the process. Essentially, it is what we do not know that is important to the story, and this is left for us to find out, which makes reading , “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” a pleasurable and fulfilling experience.
            The Iceberg Theory is a style of writing that is attributed to Hemingway. Coupled with his minimalistic style of writing, this serves to distinguish Hemingway from other writers. It is called the iceberg theory or iceberg principle because it seeks to omit as much as possible from a story so that the reader will have to imply as much from what they read as possible. This results in a story that is deceptively simple, but has many layers that can be uncovered. As a writer, Hemingway assumed that the “author should write straight and individual, his descriptions must be rich and earthy, and his words simple and forceful” (Darzikola 8). Nevertheless, he was not one to spoon-feed his readers with all the details. This means that the reader should also do his part when reading a story. They should also be thinking in the process of reading. To do this, Hemingway employs the Iceberg Method to “to depict definition and complexity to a character without straight stating what the person who reads should be thinking” (Darzikola 8). In a sense, this is a very democratic style of writing, because the reader is also involved in the process of unfolding the story. Like an iceberg, only the tip is visible above the water, but we all know that there is more at the bottom. In fact, it is not the tip that will cause the problem, but what lies at the bottom. In Hemingway’s stories, like “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, it is not what we know and what we read about that is the most important aspect of the story. It is what we do not know, which surprisingly complex for such a short story that is important.
            The essence of the Iceberg Theory is what is omitted, as opposed to what is presented. In this manner of writing, majority of the story must be inferred by the writer, just like an iceberg whose mass is hidden below the surface. This then leads to a style of writing that is more suggestive, and not too direct. This leads the reader to use their imagination so that the subtler parts of the story are not lost (Tyler 22). The reader in this case is an active participant in the storytelling process. They are not merely passive participants whose only job is to decipher the written words. A reader of Hemingway’s stories, such as “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, is presented as story that is deceptively simple, and yet after reading, there are a lot of questions that need answered. In reading a Hemingway story, the part that is written is actually the least important part (Strychacz 59). By doing this, Hemingway allows the reader to feel the whole story, as opposed to being a passive reader. This allows the story to shine, not only while it is being read, but even after the one is finished reading the story. The story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is an example of the how Hemingway created a story that adheres to the Iceberg Theory. It is sparse, and yet offers the reader a lot to think about afterwards.
            “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a story about an old deaf patron in a café and two waiters. As simple as it may sound, the story serves as a foundation for thinking about the details that Hemingway omitted, which have been discussed by many thinkers ever since it was published. An important issue to point out in the story is the dialogue between the younger and older waiter. It is here where Hemingway leaves out an important aspect of the story, and how the dialog unfolds. It is the fact that early on in the story, the reader does not know with absolute certainty which dialog is being said by the younger and the older waiter. In the story, the dialog starts with “Last week, he tried to commit suicide” (Hemingway, 5). In this dialog, we find that the banter of the waiters is about how the old deaf patron is initiated, but we do not really which is being said by the older waiter or the younger waiter, we can only assume. Hemingway makes this even more complicated because all that comes after the first utterance is “one waiter said” (5). It is at this point that the reader can only guess who said the first words. Kerner tells us that “no one, when first reading the story, can know which is saying” the first lines of dialogue (561). Indeed, in omitting the details about which waiter said what, Hemingway directs the reader to think and formulate the story in their heads as it unfolds. However, a peculiar aspect of the story is that the reader is led to believe that they know which part of the dialog is said by whom. This confusion has led many to try and decipher where the mystery of the dialog,
            The dialog is another example of Hemingway making use of the Iceberg theory. It is difficult to attribute “by the omission of all identifying tags” (81). However, there is a way to attribute the dialog. The method that we can use is to look at the patterns by which they speak. It is also important to point out that it can also be used to decipher the attribution of the dialog in the first exchange. Hurley proposed that the younger waiter and the older waiter play a role in the dialogs, one asks the and the other provides “terse answers that are that, as we shall see momentarily, have meanings known only to himself” (83).  Indeed, with this in mind, we find that finding out who is speaking is a little bit easier. For example, in the first exchange, we can say that the older waiter is the one who said, “Last week he tried to commit suicide”, when the younger waiter asks why, the older waiter answers “He was in despair”, and the older waiter says nothing (Hemingway). This idea that the older waiter is providing the answers is logical. One can even assume that the reason why the older waiter is giving out the brief answers that are a mystery in themselves is that he is trying to teach the younger waiter to think more profoundly, as opposed to being spoon-fed all the answers. We can even assume that this is exactly why Hemingway made the dialogs in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” this way is for the reader to think. Hemingway wanted the reader to make doubt himself, and try to discern patterns and unravel the web of his story. Aside from discerning patterns in the way each wait speaks, we can also make use of another type of analysis to make attribution easier.
            The structure of the story holds the key to understanding which of the dialog each waiter said. Bennet argues that “the story is based on constant polarity” (71). The polarity is divided between despair, and confidence. In the story, there is an opposition between the two, with despair referring to the “depth of feeling and insight into the human experience,” and confidence “characterized by a lack of feeling and therefore, a lack of insight” (71). With this in mind, we can say that the older waiter is the one who displays despair in the dialog, while the younger waiter is the one who displays confidence. A way of applying this way of thinking is when one of the waiters takes the deaf old man’s order for brandy, where he says “I'm sleepy now. I never get into bed before three o’clock. He should have killed himself last week” (Hemingway 6). This shows that whoever was saying this did not display an understanding for the deaf man’s predicament. All he wanted was to get things done and go home. The older waiter on the other hand could not have said that dialog, because first is that he already knew that the old man tried to commit suicide, and that he had an understanding of the what the man was going through. So once we know that the older waiter is the one who know about the deaf man, then we can attribute the dialogs to the younger and the older waiter. Going through all of this unscrambling can take more time than reading the whole short story, but in many ways it gives the story a more profound depth than it already has. Indeed, going through the story without knowing who said what is a bit confusing. Some might even fault Hemingway for this, but it is what he meant it to be, as opposed to a problem on his part as a writer.
            Aside from the dialog, there is another aspect of the story that the reader is given a minimum of information about, the deaf man’s suicide attempt. However, there is a way to find this out as well, because Hemingway does this through the old waiter. In the first dialog, when the younger waiter asks why the deaf man was in despair, the older man says “nothing” (Hemingway 5). The word nothing and “nada” is repeated all throughout the story. At first a reader might ignore this, but it really does help in understanding the story. For example, when the younger waiter says “What did he want to kill himself for?” we understand that the younger waiter does not know why the deaf man would kill himself if he had all the money a lot of money (Hemingway 7). However, it is the older waiter who understands that money is not everything. The older waiter muses the deaf man “had a wife once too” (Hemingway 7). So this means that the wife is already dead or gone. The concept of nothing is evident here because in reality, even though the old man had money, he had nothing to live for anymore. So the older waiter understands this. The deaf man’s suicide attempt then is caused by the feeling of nothingness, or emptiness that he is feeling. There is even more proof of this, because the deaf man spends most of his time getting drunk. In picking up clues from the story, we can find answers to things we do not know. The process itself is as fulfilling as finding out the answer.

            The Iceberg Theory is based on Hemingway’s penchant for omitting what many believe are the most important details of a story. For some, this can be a frustrating experience, because instead of being absolutely sure of what is happening in the story, the reader is left with a feeling that they did not fully understand the story. In reality, this is a misnomer, because one reading Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, and understands that they did not fully comprehend that whole story is a reader who is thinking. This facet of Hemingway’s style is what makes it pleasurable to read his stories.  This means that they did merely comprehend the story at face value, but also understood that Hemingway wanted the reader to take part in the process of telling the story. In many ways, this turns the reader into thinking individual who seeks out clues and details to satisfy the questions that inevitably pop up in reading   Hemingway’s stories. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is deceptively simple, in fact, one can read it in a few minutes, but afterwards many questions appear. The words that we read in the story are merely the tip of the iceberg so to speak, it answers to questions like who is saying what and why the old deaf man attempted suicide that are important. Once we find out the answers, the story becomes even better. The joy of fully understanding the story is what makes Hemingway’s style enjoyable, because it is only then that we fully appreciate the story being told. 

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