“It was all a nothing and man was nothing too”. Ernest Hemingway’s modernist short fiction and its bounds to modern philosophy

Term Paper, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Ernest Hemingway and the period of Modernism

2. The contemporary side of Hemingway’s writing
2.1 The Iceberg Theory
2.1 Connections to the works of Freud and Nietzsche

3. Despair and emptiness of modern life: Analysis and comparison of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Killers”
3.1 The Fear of Nothingness: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
3.2 Coping with Nada in “The Killers”

4. Old and Modern

5. Bibliography

“It was all a nothing and man was nothing too” - Ernest Hemingway’s Modernist Short Fiction and its bounds to Modern Philosophy

1. Ernest Hemingway and the period of Modernism

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”[1] This quote of Ernest Hemingway already is a portent of what his writing is about. It is personal; so very personal that he even uses the metaphor of his own blood for describing it. Deep in meaning, it emerged out of his inner life and was brought to paper just like that. And his style is reflecting this perfectly- it is plain and easily readable with a much broader and more complex meaning underneath the surface. However, before bleeding, one had usually got hurt, for there must be a wound. This wound can be seen as the background of his writings, namely the Modernist era with its fundamental uncertainty of the individual, its threat of the First World War, its new theories in psychology and its complex philosophical basis. This work is concerned with how Hemingway adapted to this time and its changes and how he was influenced by the contemporary philosophy; all in all: with the ways in which Hemingway is seen as a Modernist author.

2. The contemporary side of Hemingway’s writing

“He looks like a modern and he smells of the museums”[2] Gertrude Stein, a famous author herself, once said of Ernest Hemingway. And she was right- his themes were old, but still part of his writing was modern. “I could have written the old prose as it should be written” he wrote. “But it had been done so well and I thought we needed a new prose to handle our time[…]”[3] How he realized this and what accounts for this “new prose” will be demonstrated in the following paragraphs.

2.1 The Iceberg Theory

This New prose, as Hemingway calls it, is especially marked by what became famous as the “Iceberg Theory of writing”. It is a theory of omitting things the writer himself is aware of, “and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”[4] It is this kind of writing that makes Hemingway’s prose so pleasantly easy to read but still evokes unprecedentedly intense feelings, for an implication that is percepted by the reader is often more persuasive than a writer’s statement. As he himself puts it: “[…] The omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”[5] He left out relevant information, used extremely reduced and emotionless language and often a superficial description of the fictional world. He “[provided] blanks in the textual surface that have an appellative function”.[6] This new story resembles the tip of the iceberg, visible above water, which is only one eighth of the whole, for there are hidden meanings and depths to the plot that are not explicitly stated but still perceived by the reader. Like Zapf writes, it is “The strange emotional intensity of his fiction vis-à-vis the objective decidedly nonemotional quality of his style”.[7]

According to Johnston, Hemingway’s fictional characters and their experiences were not thoroughly made up. Rather, it was partly the author himself and his emotions concealed behind the figures even though Hemingway himself had denied these claims. His Iceberg Theory of writing “permitted him to tell the real story, to bare his soul, yet at the same time to mask the truth.”[8]

2.2 Connections to the works of Freud and Nietzsche

The Austrian Sigmund Freud developed the theory of psychoanalysis as a model of the human psyche. Particularly his theory of repression and the unconscious was influential for Modernist fiction. According to him, social norms lead to the repression of the individual’s mass of desires and drives.[9] In “The interpretation of Dreams”, published in 1900, he put up a theory as how to access the unconscious by analyzing the subject’s dreams. The repressed dream thoughts, he says, in condensed and displaced appearance, form the dream-world.[10]

In terms of literature, Freud was especially concerned with “the unconscious as a revelation of the author’s core psychological conflicts”, which made him see parallels between literature and dreams: to him, both have an obvious, overt meaning which conceals the covert.[11] Johnston has amplified this thought and applied it to Ernest Hemingway’s new prose, which was to “communicate on two levels simultaneously: the explicit and the implicit; and as the iceberg metaphor suggests, the deceptively simple surface of the story rested upon a broader, more complex, ‘hidden base’.” The latter being the counterpart of what Freud titled the unconscious, in which latent emotions and particularly traumatic experiences were repressed.[12] He stated: “Real art begins,[…]with the veiling of the unconscious. . . . The poet’s art consists essentially in covering up.”[13]

With the example of Hemingway in mind, it is obvious that Freud has influenced fiction and its interpretation essentially, “with characters, for instance, tending to be more multilayered and internally contradictory[…] their speech or actions, […]can both be understood in terms of unconscious desires and repressed motivations”.[14]

Another source of philosophical change in modern times and especially for Hemingway as an author was Friedrich Nietzsche. The work of the German philosopher strongly influenced art in general and particularly literature in the modern era. He theorized that social values had been worn off in these times, and his argumentation finally peaked in the statement that “God is dead”, basically meaning that even religion as a basis for ethic behavior and morality has passed. What is left when objective truth, morality, and immortality have vanished is a great nothing. This worldview called nihilism rejects ultimate meaning and purpose in life, which brought a new seeking for new forms in arts.[15]

In order to be able to comprehend the rise of nihilism as a critical flow in the Modernist era, it is necessary to illuminate the background and happenings at that time. Contributing to the theory, for instance, was the Darwinian evolution theory that took away mankind’s unique status in the natural order and in the world. Further, nihilism was intensified by Freud’s psychoanalysis that left man underlying his desires and drives. And finally, the vision of senseless nothingness was topped off by the First World War, with its incomprehensible death toll and terror, which resulted in the decline of the Christian faith in the Western world and therefore took away religion as a moral grounding. “And looming over everything like a great, gray thundercloud was the solemn declaration of Nietzsche, ‘God is dead’.”[16]

In this depressing period, the Modernist authors and Hemingway amidst saw themselves concerned with questions like how this could have happened and what would become of mankind in these difficult and dark times following the war.[17] One of Hemingway’s probably best known short stories underlying the problem of Nihilism is “A Clean, Well-Lighted place”, which will be taken a closer look on in the next paragraphs.

3. Despair and emptiness of Modern life: Analysis and comparison of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Killers”

With Hemingway as a Modernist author being confronted with the situation that is dealt with in the preceding paragraph, the following part is to show in which ways he introduced Nihilism to his famous stories “A Clean, Well-Lighted place” and “The Killers”. In addition, similarities and differences between both will be carved out.


[1],Delisle, Deb and Jim Delisle. Building Strong Writers in Middle School (Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing Inc., 2011) 141.

[2] Johnston, Kenneth G.: The Tip of the Iceberg: Hemingway and the Short Story (Greenwood: The Penkevill Publishing Company, 1987) 5.

[3] Johnston 2.

[4] Johnston 2.

[5] Johnston 2.

[6] Zapf, Hubert. “Reflection vs. Daydream: Two types of the Implied Reader in Hemingway’s Fiction.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005) 153.

[7] Zapf 153.

[8] Johnston 4.

[9] Meyer, Michael: English and American Literatures (Tübingen: Narr Atempto, 2011) 165.

[10] Paddy, David Ian. “Key Critical Concepts and Topics .”. The modernism handbook. Ed. Philip Tew and Alex Murray (London: Continuum, 2009) 130 ff.

[11] Johnston 3.

[12] Johnston 3.

[13] Johnston 3.

[14] Paddy 130.

[15] Stinson, Emmett: “Literary and Cultural Contexts: Major Figures, Institutions, Topics, Events.” The modernism handbook. Ed. Philip Tew and Alex Murray (London: Continuum, 2009) 52.

[16] “Josh”. Much Ado About Nothing: Nihilism and Modernist Literature. Quadrivium. 27. 25 January 2008. 27 August 2012.


[17] „Josh” 1.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


“It was all a nothing and man was nothing too”. Ernest Hemingway’s modernist short fiction and its bounds to modern philosophy
University of Würzburg  (Philosophisches Institut 1)
Modernism, Amerikanistik
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
516 KB
ernest, hemingway’s, modernist, short, fiction, modern, philosophy
Quote paper
Laura Kossack (Author), 2012, “It was all a nothing and man was nothing too”. Ernest Hemingway’s modernist short fiction and its bounds to modern philosophy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/214752


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