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“Hemingway’s art,” Alan Pryce-Jones asserted, “especially his innovative dialogue, might turn out to be his enduring memorial as a writer” (Pryce-Jones 21). While there has been much criticism on the biographical content of Hemingway’s work, Pryce-Jones was one to notice the art of Hemingway’s dialogue. However, there is not much sustained analysis of this element. This paper explores Hemingway’s dialogue and in doing so an interesting detail has been found. Hemingway utilizes the device of compression in writing his dialogue, constructing minimal language, but somehow powerful meaning is generated. This is clearly evident in Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in which he “for the first time employed the characteristic devices that distinguish his dialogue” (Pryce-Jones 21). Through a close examination of passages from “Indian Camp,” Hemingway’s narrative technique will be revealed to show his dialogue being simple and laconic, yet powerfully meaningful and artistic. However, the entire contention of this paper is not simply pointing out Hemingway’s simplistic dialogue in these works, but asserting how Hemingway uses it to make maximum meaning. This is done through Hemingway’s use of omission, indirection, and irony.
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Before delving into the analysis, it is necessary to explain the literary device of compression in dialogue. In “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Elizabeth Bowen cut to the crux of exactly why modern dialogue is so difficult to write. She stated it must be “pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize the situation. It must express character. It must advance plot” (Bowen 255). Hence, each piece of dialogue has an exact calculated purpose. However, such things should be implied subtly, suggestively, and never through direct statement (Bowen 256). When this is the case, what they intend to say, rather than what they are actually saying, is more striking because of its greater inner importance to the plot (Bowen 256). For instance, a character could say, “Sally isn’t that pretty, but she isn’t ugly either,” or the character could say, “She’s ok.” While the first quotation has a straightforward meaning, the latter could suggest many things. One could ask; what does the character mean exactly by “ok,” and so forth. Here, with the use of precise suggestive language, there is a lot more room for analysis and connotations. Therefore, characters should be under, rather than over articulate, with language that is simple, calculated, and loaded with deep meaning.
Now that an understanding has been given to explain why Hemingway would write such basic passages, an analysis can be given on how Hemingway was able to compress his dialogue, but create maximum meaning. For many authors this is a difficult task, but Hemingway was able to use a number of literary devices that allowed for simple, but significant language. First, the literary device of omission will be considered. In many instances, a narrator is used in a work to convey necessary information. However, to expose details of the story, Hemingway often turns away from narrative commentary and instead makes use of compressed dialogue (Lamb 456). This form of omission is evident in Hemingway’s short story, “Indian Camp.” Young Nick Adams has a vague fear of death. One night, when left alone in the woods, he hears a noise and summons his father and his Uncle George. When Uncle George expresses his contempt, Nick becomes embarrassed. The next day, a conversation takes place between Nick and his father. His father tries to find something that might create the same noise that Nick heard. He asks, “Do you think this is what it was, Nick?” and Nick replies, “Maybe” (15). In two brief quotations, readers can be aware that the “it” denoted is suggesting the noise that Nick heard the night before. Hence, the events of the previous night are referred to, but are never explicitly mentioned (Lamb 456). This is a clear example of how Hemingway crystallizes a situation by using omission in compressed dialogue.
Hemingway also creates deep meaning in his deceptively simplistic dialogue through another literary device which is indirection. In “Indian Camp,” Nick’s father attempts to find a calming solution as to what could have made the noise that scared his son. Hemingway states that to direct the conversation away from his son’s embarrassment, his father “found” two trees rubbing together that made a noise similar to the one Nick heard. Then, he tells his son, “There is nothing that can hurt you” (15). For starters, the use of the word found (instead of saw) is suggestive that his father deliberately sought out a forest noise to console his son and to indirectly show he believes his son was telling the truth about the noise, despite what others think. Also, when the father states that “nothing can hurt you,” the “you” refers to Nick, but implies the more general sense of “one.” The father swayed from the embarrassing incident to the general topic of how nothing in the woods can hurt anyone. Hence, because the father addresses the topic indirectly, the boy no longer feels embarrassed. Author H.K. Justice asserts, “In the dialogue, Hemingway displays calculation and the characters both experience involuntary self-revelation” (Ciardi 32). Clearly, Hemingway’s use of indirection in compressed dialogue has magnificently aided in expressing character.
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Also, Hemingway uses the literary tool of irony in “Indian Camp” to create maximum meaning in his compressed dialogue. In the story, characters often experience miscommunication in their laconic dialogue, but the failure to communicate has an ironically successful result. When Nick asks his father a series of questions about the suicide of an Indian boy’s father, only by use of irony in the simple dialogue, can the deeper message be understood. The conversation goes as follows:
(1) “Why did he kill himself, daddy?”
(2) “I don’t know…”
(3) “Do many men kill themselves, daddy?”
(4) “Not many.”
(5) “Do many women?”
(6) “Hardly ever.”
(9) “Is dying hard, daddy?”
(10) “No, it’s pretty easy. It all depends”
Because Nick’s first glimpse of death deals with that of a father, he expresses anxieties about absent fathers. We can see this with the term “daddy.” He asks a series of questions focusing on death. His father can draw on his medical knowledge to answer the questions, but his father does not see Nick’s intent and gives answers to the questions on the surface. For the first question, perhaps what Nick subconsciously wants to know is whether he will suffer from the same fate as the boy who lost his father. However, Dr. Adams only views the question, paradoxically, as a psychological one in which he is not equipped to answer unless it was a medical question. Then, when Nick asks about the frequency of male and female suicide, it could be that he wants to know about his own father and mother. His father’s answers are comforting in their briefness of “hardly ever” and “not many.” Finally, this leads to his last question that serves to ask about the probability of his own father’s death (Ciardi 33). Ironically, his father misunderstands the question, to be about whether the act of dying is difficult to face and he gives the chilling answer of “it depends.”
Just what it depends on is revealed in the subsequent final two paragraphs. In this scene, Uncle George is not with the father as usual. The story reads, “In the early morning on the lake sitting on the stern of the boat, with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die” (19). The first part of the sentence, an objective correlative for Nick’s sense of immortality, juxtaposed with Uncle George’s absence as a representation of death, triumphs over it. The antecedent to the final “he” could be Nick’s father, a less likely possibility, but one purposely left open by Hemingway. If this is the case, then all miscommunication between the two and the disquieting responses by the father have inadvertently comforted Nick. On the other hand, if the antecedent is Nick, then another irony is created by the disjunction between “Nick’s sense of his own immortality and the readers’ knowledge that it is otherwise” (Lamb 461). Moreover, it means that what Nick was really asking about all along concerned his anxieties about his own finitude, not his father’s. This means that what the whole story is about is not the Indian’s suicide or the probability of Dr. Adam’s death but, Nick’s first realization of one’s own mortality (that Hemingway had Nick deny throughout). All of these matters are compressed into a few “simple” sentences in which two characters thoroughly miscommunicate in the subtlest way. Therefore, plot was advanced, character was expressed, and the situation was crystallized through Hemingway’s use of irony in suggestive compressed dialogue.
Clearly, the innovative dialogue in “Indian Camp” is a prime example of Hemingway’s superlative use of compression. Through compression and the literary devices of omission, indirection, and irony, Hemingway was able to create powerful meaning with his dialogue. One cannot help but wonder the groundwork behind Hemingway’s utilization of compression. Actually, Hemingway’s text is the result of a painstaking selection process where each precisely calculated word performs an assigned function in the narrative. Author Aundre Hanneman maintained, “The main working corollary of Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle is that the full meaning of the text is not limited to moving the plot forward: there is always a web of association and inference, a submerged reason behind the inclusion, or even the omission, of every detail” (Savage 11). Hanneman is indicating that words are full of associations linked to other words, ideas, and suggestions. Hence, one simple word in Hemingway’s dialogue can serve the functions that Elizabeth Bowen stated are necessary to write modern dialogue; it “crystallizes the situation, expresses character, and advances the plot” (Bowen 255).
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