The Iceberg Theory

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The Iceberg Theory (also known as the “theory of omission”) is a term used to describe the writing style of American writer Ernest Hemingway. The theory is this: The meaning of a piece is not immediately evident, because the crux of the story lies below the surface, just as most of the mass of a real iceberg similarly lies beneath the surface. For example The Old Man and the Sea is a meditation upon youth and age, even though the protagonist spends little or no time thinking on those terms.In his essay “The Art of the Short Story”, Hemingway is clear about his method: “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” From reading Rudyard Kipling he absorbed the practice of shortening prose as much as it could take. Of the concept of omission, Hemingway wrote in “The Art of the Short Story”: “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” By making invisible the structure of the story, he believed the author strengthened the piece of fiction and that the “quality of a piece could be judged by the quality of the material the author eliminated.” The iceberg theory points to the literary technique of suggestion which means implied expression rather than explicit statement or a subtle hinting at something by creating an impression by suppression. When carried further it leads to symbolism. Symbolistic writing is thought-provoking and makes possible the reader’s active participation in the business of literature. Symbolism is like an invisible bridge between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown. The old man and the sea is most convincing of this point. According to Hemingway, this 30...
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