Ernest Hemingway: A Study of Style and Themes

Categories: Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, a prominent figure in American literature, is renowned for his exploration of the difficulties of life and the human condition in his works. While his subject matter is certainly worthy of discussion, it is his distinctive writing style that has garnered him immense popularity. Hemingway's sparse prose and direct approach have solidified his status as one of the most celebrated authors of the Twentieth century, influencing literature across genres. This essay will delve into some of the recurring themes in Hemingway's short stories and novels, as well as the profound impact of his unique writing style.

The Influence of Hemingway's Early Career

Hemingway's journey as a writer began as a reporter for the Kansas City Star newspaper. This early experience instilled in him the logic of a reporter, emphasizing observation over judgment. The newspaper's style notes provided a foundation for Hemingway's writing: "Use simple, declarative sentences. Avoid adjectives" (Star Style Sheet). This journalistic background influenced his literary style significantly.

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As one scholar and Hemingway biographer aptly noted, "After Hemingway, the American sentence became lean, spare, boiled down to its core. The whole sentence is a verb: declarative, unadorned, and Anglo-Saxon" (Gerard, 6).

While Hemingway continued to produce novels and stories throughout his career, his early short stories are often regarded as some of his finest work. "Hills Like White Elephants," a widely anthologized story, exemplifies Hemingway's spare prose and understated dialogue. What distinguishes this short story is its powerful use of symbolism.

The Symbolism in "Hills Like White Elephants"

"Hills Like White Elephants" tells the story of a young girl and an American man on a journey through Spain, with the intention of having an abortion.

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The story is rich with symbolism, with the central theme revolving around barrenness. The title itself, "Hills Like White Elephants," holds significant symbolism: the hills represent the shape of a pregnant woman, while "white elephants" is an idiom denoting useless or unwanted gifts. Hemingway's narrative is unconventional; it provides a snapshot of the lives of these two characters without adhering to traditional story structure.

Gerard's observation that "People in Hemingway's stories talk elliptically, leaving out most of what's on their minds. The crucial truths lie between the lines" holds true in "Hills Like White Elephants" (Gerard, 8-9). Hemingway employs repetition and ambiguity, as seen in the repetition of words such as "and" and "but," to convey deeper meanings that lurk beneath the surface.

The story's language is a testament to how fiercely the couple's underlying conflict simmers beneath their seemingly innocuous dialogue. Through Hemingway's repetition and the fluidity of his pronouns, the story's emotional tension escalates, as the ambiguity of these pronouns allows for multiple interpretations. This technique underscores the stakes of the unspoken argument between the characters.

The Significance of Character Naming

Hemingway's meticulous attention to naming characters also plays a vital role in conveying the essence of their lives and relationships. In "Cat in the Rain," for instance, the female protagonist undergoes a transformation in her identity throughout the story. She is initially introduced as "the American wife" to emphasize her married status. However, when she discovers her missing cat, she is referred to as "the American girl," indicating a shift in her self-perception and a decline in her sense of self within her marriage (Hemingway, 407-9).

Hemingway's choice of nouns and pronouns is carefully calculated, demonstrating his precision in character development. Author Nadine Devost explains that Hemingway used nouns like "girl" to refer to female characters whose sexual identities were not acknowledged by other characters. This subtle but meaningful choice highlights Hemingway's meticulous word-by-word approach to storytelling (Devost, 7-8).

The Hemingway Code Hero

Ernest Hemingway's writing style also gave rise to a recurring character archetype known as the Code Hero. These characters are characterized by their willingness to risk their lives for a principle and to uphold a personal code of honor. While they may confront challenges, they never compromise their integrity. The Code Hero can be a person whom the protagonist admires or seeks to emulate, or it can represent a principle or idea central to the character's identity.

These heroes often bear a physical wound that symbolizes their tragic flaw, a weakness that underscores their humanity. Key traits of a typical Hemingway Code Hero include an appreciation for stimulating environments, adherence to strict moral principles (including honesty and loyalty), the ability to indulge without overindulgence, and a stoic demeanor. Notably, Hemingway's portrayal of these characters never delves deep into their internal thoughts and emotions but rather presents them from an external perspective, characterized by straightforward dialogue and simple descriptions.

John Pidgeon, in his analysis of Hemingway's writing, points out that Code Heroes are emotionally restrained, exhibiting their feelings only beneath the surface. While sentimentality is present in Hemingway's characters, it is concealed rather than overtly expressed. Pidgeon argues that Hemingway's heroes are defensively detached, protecting themselves from emotional vulnerability (Pidgeon, 2).

Hemingway's belief in a character's resilience in the face of life's trials is central to his existential message. He viewed life as a force that inflicts violence and pain on individuals without reason. Gerard notes that Hemingway's stories are marked by a fascination with death, violence, survival, and a unique code of conduct conveyed through understated prose (Gerard, 8).

Hemingway's Existential Views

Existentialism is a significant component of Hemingway's fiction, reflecting his belief that man confronts an indifferent and seemingly hostile universe. This existential view portrays a world without inherent meaning or order, where individuals must create their own essence and make choices in the absence of supernatural guidance. Hemingway's characters grapple with the idea that the world is ultimately devoid of purpose and value.

Love, a theme explored by Hemingway, is seen as both powerful and dangerous. Love makes individuals vulnerable to fate, risking the loss of profound connections. Hemingway recognized the significance of love in human existence, stating that it "enlarges the scope of the mind, enhances the mental faculties, and gives poise to enthusiasm" (Wagner, 22). However, he remained cautious about the inevitable loss associated with love and other aspects of life.

Within Hemingway's fictional universe, the world lacks order and meaning, presenting an existential perspective that emphasizes humanity's confrontation with the absence of God and inherent meaning. Despite this bleak outlook, Hemingway's characters navigate their existential challenges with grace under pressure, embracing life's uncertainties and vulnerabilities.

The Complex Persona of Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway's persona is as intriguing as his literary works. He embodied the archetype of masculinity, engaging in activities such as hunting, fishing, bullfights, and boxing. He presented himself as the quintessential man's man, challenging others to seek adventure and embrace life's challenges. Yet, he exhibited contrasting traits, from shyness and diffidence to incorrigible boasting. Hemingway took great pride in his celebrity status while also harboring envy and occasionally making biting remarks about fellow writers.

His personality oscillated between stoicism and vulnerability, fearlessness and sensitivity. Hemingway's complexity extended to his friendships, marked by generosity, and his rivalries, characterized by ruthlessness. He was a man of action and a man of words, embodying both aspects within a single individual. These dichotomies defined Hemingway as a distinctive writer, evident from his earliest stories to his final published novel.

Ernest Hemingway's enduring themes and motifs, explored through his enigmatic Code Heroes and articulated in his signature style, continue to captivate readers and writers around the world. His contributions to literature, marked by brevity and depth, serve as a testament to the enduring power of his storytelling.


Ernest Hemingway's literary legacy is characterized by his unique writing style and exploration of existential themes. His spare prose and minimalist approach have left an indelible mark on American literature, influencing writers across genres. Through his use of symbolism, repetition, and precise character naming, Hemingway crafted narratives that delved into the complexities of human existence.

The concept of the Code Hero, a recurring character archetype in his works, reflects Hemingway's belief in the resilience of individuals facing life's trials. Hemingway's existential views underscore the idea of a world devoid of inherent meaning, where love and vulnerability are inextricably linked. His complex persona, marked by contrasts and contradictions, mirrors the multifaceted nature of his storytelling.

Ernest Hemingway's enduring themes and enigmatic characters continue to resonate with readers, serving as a testament to the enduring power of his literary contributions. His impact on American literature remains profound, and his legacy as an iconic author endures.

Updated: Nov 08, 2023
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Ernest Hemingway: A Study of Style and Themes. (2016, Jul 05). Retrieved from

Ernest Hemingway: A Study of Style and Themes essay
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