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Two Modernist Perspectives: Comparing Hemingway and Woolf

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Although Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf belong to the same literary period, Modernism, their styles are quite different. Modernism is a literary period characterised by variety of ideas, styles, techniques, theories, and tendencies that result from the epoch’s social and cultural reality. Thus, we can find many schools or artistic movements in the same period, such as Impressionism, Symbolism, and Expressionism. While Hemingway can be considered a representative of Symbolism, Woolf is a major Impressionist writer. A close analysis of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and of Woolf’s “The String Quartet” may help us illustrate these authors’ differences as regards style, methods or technique, and theme.

In ”The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Ernest Hemingway’s style is marked by his use of symbols of associations, (e.g. the snow, the summit, the carrion eaters, and the leopard) and by the use of the third person omnipresent narrative device, plus the insertion of dialogues and flashbacks. The theme in this short story is an ethical one; in the words of Carlos Baker, the story deals with “the achievements and loss of moral manhood” (Weeks 118), or spiritual death and rebirth. The Snows of Kilmanjaro is the narration of the last days of a dying author, Harry, in a camp near the edge of the Tanganyika plains country. He is a failed artist, who procrastinated writing because he was too lazy, and has exchanged his artistic talent for luxury, money, and comfort. Having married a wealthy woman without loving her is what caused Harry’s spiritual death; and now that his physical death is near, he tries to make up for all those opportunities that he has lost. Hemingway uses simple and clear words and sentence structures, but he transmits meanings through symbols. From the beginning we are faced with one of the most important symbols in the story, the frozen carcass of a leopard, which represents all the ideals that Harry has never been able to achieve. The next symbols are the vultures that fly “obscenely” around their heads because of Harry’s rotten leg. These birds of prey are commonly related to death since they are carrion eaters; in the same way, the presence of the hyena in this story is related to Harry’s spiritual death and personality: living upon others.

Other symbols are the snow and the summit of Kilimanjaro, which are closely related to each other. The snow is a recurrent image in Harry’s first flashback: “That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaria and Nansen’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow.” Snow was always associated with episodes in his life that meant the loss of opportunities to write, opportunities for artistic expression. Now that he is short of time, he sees the snows of Kilimanjaro as a symbol of oblivion. Finally, the summit of the mountain symbolises the doors of heaven, peace, and perfection. For Harry, reaching the top of the mountain means fulfilling his works as an artist and recovering his lost morality, or as I mentioned before, it means Harry’s spiritual re birth, because achieving his ideals secures his access to heaven.

Virgina Woolf is well known for her obscure narrative style, which is clearly exemplified in “The String Quartet” by means of sensory impressions, stream of consciousness, discontinuity, and minimising of plot. As an impressionist writer, Woolf tries to “retain the impressions that an object makes on her”(Aguirre, 8); in this case, she is trying to capture a moment, a concert of music by Mozart, but through her conscience and by evoking whatever comes to her mind during that moment. Her words are “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight and incident scores upon consciousness.”(Muller, 318). We can see in this short story that there is not a linear thought to follow, and thus it is very difficult to understand what it is about. For example, in the first sentence – “WELL, here we are, and if you cast your eye over the room you will see that Tubes and trams and omnibuses, private carriages not a few, even, I venture to believe, landaus with bays in them, have been busy at it, weaving threads from one end of London” – the author begins without making clear what she is talking about and does not finish her idea. This lack of coherence is a common feature of Modernism, and it is achieved through the use of complex syntax. Linguistically, Woolf uses “disjointed language structure, (“the first violin counts one, two, three-/ Flourish,…”), telegraphic dialogue, (“seven years since we met…”); syntactical compression, and condensation of juxtaposed images, ( “Flourish, spring […] from under the plane…”) (Aguirre, 11) among other devises, to achieve the snapshot effect that is typical of Impressionism. This effect aims at projecting a moment not as it is objectively perceived, but as it is seen by the artist. As regards the theme in “The String Quartet,” Woolf deals with abstract topics such as melancholy, sorrow, joy, and whatever feeling the music she is hearing provokes in her. The most outstanding feature of this story is the subjectivity that permeates the whole picture that the author projects to the reader, so much so, that it is almost impossible to catch it.

The main difference between Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway is related to the methods used to create the plot: she creates imaginary or unreal places, times, and events in her mind, while he is closer to realism in his simple way to describe the scenery and characters of his story. All things considered, we can see how these two exponents of Advance-Guard Literature exploit different techniques of Modernism successfully; thus, illustrating the fact that “extreme diversity” (Aguirre, 1) is commonplace in this period.


Works Cited

Aguirre, M. E. Manual de Cátedra: Modernismo. Facultad de Lenguas(UNC): Córdoba. 2006.

Muller, J. H.. Modern Fiction: A Study of Values. McGraw-Hill Book Company: New York. 1937.

Weeks, R. P. “Hemingway: A Collectin of Critical Essays”. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N. J.. 1962.

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