The Other Seven-Eighths of the Iceberg

At the height of his celebrity in the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway gave a now‐famous interview in which he credited the emotional power of his fiction to what he called “the principle of the iceberg.” An iceberg, he noted, floats in the Arctic with only one‐eighth of its mass above water while the greater, more potentially devastating portion hides beneath the surface and attracts our concern precisely because it is hidden. In the same way, he reasoned, the drama of a story can attract our concern if  we  are  allowed to glimpse  only  a fragment  of  visible  action that implies  an earlier, unseen experience of far greater magnitude and emotional significance. In other words, Hemingway would rarely detail a  sequence of narrative events  so that we may witness a drama, but would more often depict only the consequences of such events in a single representative scene from which we then infer the drama. In story after story, he effectively positions his readers as voyeurs eavesdropping on the aftermath of a dispute between two lovers, or as snoops lingering alongside some lonesome individual whose company we have entered by illicit means. He draws our attention to a dramatic scenario by carefully denying us a clear view of its  causes. He  concentrates our  concern on the dramatic tensions that he keeps outside the story by meticulously foregrounding their deliberate absence.

I have a short article on Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory and the resurgence of interest in his notorious six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”) in the latest issue of Philament.

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