The Iceberg Theory

Many first-time readers read “Hills Like White Elephants” as nothing more than a casual conversation between two people waiting for a train and therefore miss the unstated dramatic tension lurking between each line. As a result, many people don’t realize that the two are actually talking about having an abortion and going their separate ways, let alone why the story was so revolutionary for its time. In accordance with his so-called Iceberg Theory, Hemingway stripped everything but the bare essentials from his stories and novels, leaving readers to sift through the remaining dialogue and bits of narrative on their own. Just as the visible tip of an iceberg hides a far greater mass of ice underneath the ocean surface, so does Hemingway’s dialogue belie the unstated tension between his characters. In fact, Hemingway firmly believed that perfect stories conveyed far more through subtext than through the actual words written on the page. The more a writer strips away, the more powerful the “iceberg,” or story, becomes.

Hemingway stripped so much from his stories that many of his contemporary critics complained that his fiction was little more than snippets of dialogue strung together. Others have called his writing overly masculine—there are no beautiful phrases or breathtaking passages, just the sheer basics. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” for example, both the American man and the girl speak in short sentences and rarely utter more than a few words at a time. Hemingway also avoids using dialogue tags, such as “he said” or “she said,” and skips any internal monologues. These elements leave the characters’ thoughts and feelings completely up to the reader’s own interpretations. Hemingway’s fans, however, have lauded his style for its simplicity, believing that fewer misleading words paint a truer picture of what lies beneath.

Read more about Hemingway’s writing style through his well-known novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.