Hemingway's Iceberg Principle in The Killers
by Ying Liu (Jianghan University)
Hemingway is famous for his Iceberg Principle, that is, to present the
story with simple sentences and dialogues and leave a large space for
readers to explore, to reflect. It was just like the iceberg, which
had only one-eighth part on the water and seven-eighths part under the
This essay discusses how the iceberg principle was used in the short
story The Killers. It analyses the characters respectively: the two
killers, George, Nick and Sam. It also penetrates through the nature
of the society. It shows that we can deeply understand Hemingway's
works with the help of the Iceberg Principle.
Key words: Iceberg Principle
The Killers characters
The famous American novelist Ernest Hemingway was well-known for one
of his particular styles: Iceberg Principle. He once drew an analogy
between his works and the iceberg floating on the sea. Only one-eighth
was on the water and the other part couldn't be seen. Hemingway
thought that his writing was just like the iceberg.
He simply described the scenery, the action, or the dialogue and
didn't give any commentary. That is, he presented the readers
one-eighth of the iceberg and left a large space for them to imagine
what the seven-eighths part left should
be like, including the setting, the background, the characteristics of
characters, the relationships between the
heroes and other characters, even the ending. What he tried to achieve
was "the vivid picture obtained through the
direct communications between the eyes and the reference and that
between the reference and the readers". For
this purpose, he deleted the explanations, the inquiries and the
comments; he eliminated the superfluous words,
and only kept the concise, refined language. He regarded it important
for a writer to give the readers enough space
to imagine by themselves. He believed that a writer knew what he was
writing about, he could omit some details,
and, if the writing was good enough, the readers could figure out what
the writer had omitted in his writing.
2. The Application of Iceberg Principle
In Hemingway's short story The Killers, we can see his Iceberg
Principle being applied. In this story,
conversation is the most important element and the most important
source for the readers'imagination .
2.1 About the killers
Not like the traditional novel, there wasn't any description about the
setting at the beginning. We readers
were directed to a lunch-room and read a short dialogue. We
couldn'tfind any words about the appearance of the
three characters, but we could find something from their talk.
"What's yours?" George asked them.
"I don't know," one of the men said. "What do you want to eat, Al?"
"I don't know," said Al. "I don't know what I want to eat".
Obviously, George was a waiter. And one of the two strangers was
called Al. Both of them came to the
lunch-room not knowing what to eat. It showed that eating was not
their only purpose of coming here. This kept
the readers in suspense: what did they come for?
Afterwards, the writer provided something about their appearance
generally. Al's face "was small and white
and he had tight lips. He wore a silk muffler and gloves". "Tight
lips"usually indicates that a person is determined,
brave, stubborn or cruel. Which type did Al belong to? In America,
"muffler"is the typical costume of cowboys.
What were these cowboys going to do here? "Their faces were different,
but they were dressed like twins". Why
did they have the same clothes? On what condition could people have
the same clothes? Generally, workers,
soldiers or policeman have the same clothes because of their special
occupation. And these two men had the same
clothes because they had special task now. Here, Hemingway didn't give
any commentary on their appearance.
But the objective description was informative enough for the readers
to find out what the writer wanted to say.
When they ate, "Both men ate with their gloves on". Was that their
habit? Why did they have such a habit?
We couldn't find an answer here. But when we read the latter part, we
got that they were killers, so it was their
professional habit to do everything with their gloves on lest they
would be caught because of their fingerprints.
Hemingway didn't give any explanation on the gloves. The readers have
to figure out the complicated factors that
have been concealed behind the simple plots and this makes the reading
more meaningful and enjoyable.
When the two men finished their meal, they didn't leave. They still
had some work to do. Hemingway didn't
point it out directly. A short dialogue indicated something:
"What are you looking at?" Max looked at George.
"The hell you were. You were looking at me."
"Maybe the boy meant it for a joke, Max." Al said.
It seems that Max was finding fault with George. But why? Because they
wouldn't leave and they tried to
find some reason to stay. For the poor-educated guys, this was the
only method they could think of in order to
achieve their purpose.
Why did they want to kill Ole? No one knew exactly. Even the killers
themselves didn't know why. In their
dialogue, we can see the cruelty of the society. To the killers, Ole
was not a lively man as any of them but just a
Swede. They said, "We're killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a
friend". If a person could commit the most
extreme crime --- killing --- just to oblige a friend, what else
couldn't he do?
Before Ole came, the killers made some preparation. They tied Nick and
the cook in the kitchen. And they
were joking as if they were playing games or doing an ordinary job. Al
said, "The nigger and my bright boy are
amused by themselves. I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends
in the convent". They didn't regard it as a
brutal activity. They even thought it "amused". When telling George
that they would kill Ole, Max said, "I got to
keep bright boy amused". When they left, they declared, "We got to
keep amused, haven't we?" And in fact, they
were amused by the murder.
Not only these two killers, but also all the other criminals were
amused by their wrongdoings. Because in that society, the people the
law protected were not those who observed it, but those who
controlled it and were rich enough to lay down the law. The two
killers'talking gave us a hint to explain Ole's
aloof and indifferent response when Nick told him that he was in
danger --- he had no way out. In that society, the
poor people had no way to escape from the suffering. This was the
brutal nature of the society.
The conversation between Nick and Ole indicated something.
"Don't you want me to go and see the police?"
"No." Ole Andreson said. "That wouldn't do any good."
"Isn't there something I could do?"
"No. There isn't anything to do."
Hemingway didn't make any comment about the society. All he did was to
let the characters express their
despair through simple dialogues. But the readers can penetrate into
the deep nature of the society and to explore
what Hemingway intended to mean behind the dialogues: the
seven-eighths of the iceberg.
2.2 About George
As for another character George, Hemingway also gave us some hints.
George lived in this quarter for a long
time. He saw the crimes and the murders everyday and could face all
the unfair things calmly. When Max found
fault with him, he was not surprised, he "laughed"and said "all
right". But it didn't mean that George hadbecome
indifferent to the world. He could see the situation clearly and knew
exactly what to do. To Hemingway, George
represented a large portion of the ordinary people in the war. They
were against the war but they couldn't stop it
because they didn't have enough military power. They were in sympathy
with the victims in the war and were
willing to help them all the time. When the two killers left, George
told Nick, "You better go see Ole Andreson."
He could guess what had happened to Ole with his knowledge about the
society. He told Nick that Ole had
"Double-crossed somebody. That's what they kill him for. "When Nick
said that he wanted to get out of the city, he
commented: "That's a good thing to do." But being in the city and
being unable to change the actual situation, no
one could escape from their destiny. So he told Nick "you better not
think about it".
2.3 About Nick
Now let's discuss another important character, Nick. Nick was a kind
and unsophisticated boy. He was not so
experienced as George. The two killers surprised him, and what's more,
Ole's indifferent response shocked him.
Nick had never had a towel in his mouth before. When the killers left,
he wanted to show his bravery and tried to
"swagger it off". When he saw that Ole refused to escape, he couldn't
figure out the reason because of his lack of
experience. And he didn't know what he could do to change the
situation. To him, it's "damned awful". He simply
had such feelings and couldn't see too much into the affair. Such
experience could be a beginning point of his
understanding of the world. He had two choices: to "get out of this
town"or to accept all this calmly and "not (to)
think about it". We say that Nick was an important character because
Hemingway put his hopes on this boy. When
George asked Nick to tell Ole what had happened, he went immediately
without any hesitation. Nick might
represent the young generation of the American society. They were
kind-hearted and had a sense of justice. They
hated the cruelty of slaughtering and were against the war. They would
control the world one day in the future
because they were young. Though they couldn't change the situation at
that time, they would definitely take the
responsibility when they had enough ability. Hemingway hoped the
master of the future world would be clear of
their responsibility, just like Nick, and would struggle for the
justice. But he didn't talk about his hope in the novel.
His hope was also in the seven-eighths part of the iceberg, so we have
to figure it out by themselves with the help
of our knowledge of the American society at that time.
2.4 About Sam
There was another character that was not so noticeable as Nick or
George, but who represented a class ---
Sam, the cook. Sam's status had been indicated when he was first
mentioned. He was called "The nigger".
Because of his color, he was regarded inferior. He accepted the
reality and tried to assure himself a rather safe life.
In Hemingway's idea, Sam was a representative of the poor people.
Their life was ruined in the war, but they
didn't want to make any effort to get back what had lost. They just
wanted to survive in the war, and even if they
were pushed into the lowest part of the society, they wouldn't fight
back. That's why Sam tried to avoid taking any
action with Nick or George. He said, "I don't want any more of that",
"I don't like any of it at all". Out of good
intentions, he also advised Nick not to get into the affair. "You
better stay out of it."When Nick and George were
talking about how to go and inform Ole, Sam "turned away". He was just
doing this to protect himself. With Sam,
Hemingway gave us a complete picture of the American society after
World-War I. We cannot blame Sam. He
came from the lowest class. Being a colored man, he had to be
cautious. All he needed was enough food and
safety. He didn't have the equal right as the white people, so he was
used to keep silent and be tame. When Al
ordered him to stand there, he said "Yes, sir."without any inquiry.
The Killers is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of modern
American short stories. Hemingway
used a large number of simple dialogues to make up a story and to
display different characters, which is the
difference between Hemingway and the traditional writers. Hemingway
set up the typical Iceberg Principle. He
intended to eliminate those gaudy, superfluous words and reserve the
simple and brief sentences. He got such
habit when he was a journalist. In his novel, he tried to convey his
attitude towards life and society through simple
and plain sentences. The readers have to read attentively and to
reflect carefully, then they will explore the
mysterious beauty of the seven-eighths of the iceberg that is deeply
hidden under the water.
Ying Liu (1974- ), female, M.A., lecturer of School of Foreign
Languages, Jianghan University; Research fields: literary criticism,
translation; Address: School of Foreign Languages, Jianghan
University, Wuhan, Hubei Province, P.R.China; Postcode: 430056.