Below the Surface: Hemingway’s “Iceberg” Method in A Moveable Feast
Once, in a physical science class, my professor showed the students a picture diagram of the three-pronged iceberg that sank the Titanic. A peer of mine immediately said, “How did that small iceberg sink a huge ship?” My professor let the class debate back and forth for awhile before she zoomed out of the diagram to reveal a hulking mass of ice below the surface of the water. She then went on to explain that less than 10 percent of an iceberg rests above the water’s surface. Ernest Hemingway models his writing in the form of an iceberg. Hemingway’s style of writing, called the “Iceberg Theory,” divulges the facts essential to understanding the plot without explicitly stating the underlying structure, allowing the reader to sense the story’s details. Hemingway demonstrates the “Iceberg Theory” in his memoir Moveable Feast.
In one instance in Moveable Feast, Hemingway uses the “Iceberg Theory” to reveal a character’s disposition through symbolism. This theory prevails in Hemingway’s comparison of Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda to that of a hawk. Hemingway says, “Zelda had hawk’s eyes …” (Hemingway 154). In this reference, Hemingway assists the reader in visualizing Zelda’s physical attributes and mental makeup without directly expressing her appearance or state of mind. Because hawks typically have beady black eyes, the eyes almost give the hawk a sense of emptiness; in the same manner, the reader can picture the gap in Zelda’s mind by visualizing the vacancy behind her eyes. After Zelda’s peculiar statement about a celebrity named Al Jolson being greater than Jesus, Hemingway says, “It was only Zelda’s secret that she shared with me, as a hawk might share something with a man. But hawks do not share” (160). In this passage, Hemingway provides the audience with vital information regarding Zelda’s character. However, the reader has to glance under the surface of Hemingway’s words in order to fully grasp his underlying message. The audience remains unaware of Zelda’s secret, but it proves clear from Zelda’s unusual comparison that her sanity seems to be in question. The reader then deduces Hemingway inferred Zelda’s secret to be her lack of mental stability. Since Hemingway portrays Zelda as a hawk, the audience can interpret the phrase “But hawks do not share” to also be translated as “But Zelda does not share.” In analyzing the chapter, one can see Zelda tremendously hinders Fitzgerald’s work, so the text could mean that Zelda selfishly distracts Fitzgerald from his writing, preventing him from sharing his work with the world. Using the “Iceberg Theory,” Hemingway effortlessly communicates Zelda’s character by simply comparing her to a hawk and leaving the reader to explore the depths of his words.
Hemingway also utilizes the “Iceberg Theory” to disclose concealed tones and messages significant to the story. The theory emerges in one of Hemingway’s discussions with Fitzgerald. After Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s conversation in a café, Hemingway notes, “We both touched wood on the café table and the waiter came to see what it was we wanted. But what we wanted not he, nor anyone else, nor knocking on wood nor on marble, as this café table-top was, could ever bring us. But we did not know it that night and we were very happy” (Hemingway 151). The audience seems left in the dark regarding what Hemingway and Fitzgerald desired, but the passage does emit a detectable sense of hopelessness. This feeling of hopelessness coincides with the emotions of the younger generation who came of age during World War I. Writers during this time period, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were deemed part of the “Lost Generation.” This generation was considered “lost” because of their disillusionment after the War and their unwillingness to settle down in the world. Hemingway perfectly captures this melancholy tone in a few sentences without specifically stating those feelings. The reader gathers from the fact that nothing or no one can quench Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s desire that the desire must be intangible, leading the two men to feel dispirited and restless. In this instance, the “Iceberg Theory” allows Hemingway to reveal the tone and message present beneath the text.
Since Hemingway wrote Moveable Feast as a memoir, he often acts as an observer, relating the events and characters he witnessed in terms the audience can digest and interpret. Without relinquishing too many supporting details, Hemingway uses the “Iceberg Theory” to illustrate Scott Fitzgerald’s attributes. In one particular section, Hemingway describes Fitzgerald’s talent for writing as “natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings” (125). Hemingway knew his audience was likely familiar with the natural beauty of butterflies, so he equates Fitzgerald’s talent to that intrinsic beauty. Hemingway could have simply stated that Fitzgerald was a naturally good writer, but he chose to compare his talent to a butterfly so the audience can participate in the text by looking deeper than surface level and envisioning the butterfly as representative of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hemingway continues his thought about Fitzgerald’s talent by saying, “Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think” (Hemingway 125). Since the wings symbolize Fitzgerald’s talent, the reader can draw the conclusion that his natural talent was altered or damaged, but when he became aware of the damage, he learned to embrace his natural talent and enhance his writing. By applying the “Iceberg Theory,” Hemingway aids the audience’s perception of Fitzgerald’s writing style by conveying his thoughts on Fitzgerald’s talent through symbolism.
Hemingway successfully employs the “Iceberg Theory” in various instances throughout Moveable Feast. Hemingway’s method of concealing the underlying structure of his story permits his messages and characters to be perceived more clearly. By actively engaging the reader’s mind in the text, Hemingway warrants the audience’s attention and encourages the audience to become a part of his story. All words hold more meaning than what prevails above the surface. In order to fully grasp the context of words, it proves important to explore the depths and stretch below the surface.
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