Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory

by Ryley Harris

One of the things that makes Ernest Hemingway such an amazing fiction writer is his use of ambiguity. “Indian Camp,” one of his famous earlier stories, is especially difficult to figure out at first. This is due to the fact that Hemingway writes according to what he calls the iceberg theory. As he explains in Death in the Afternoon,

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows 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. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

This approach can lead to some difficulties since Hemingway omits some useful information that would help advance the reading to fill in the gaps. On the other hand, omitting the information makes the readers infer what is happening and create new theories or ideas of what’s happening. One notable instance of the iceberg theory in “Indian Camp” has to do with Nick’s Uncle George, whose connection to the native woman in labor is suggested in several ways.

There are several different moments in “Indian Camp” that suggest that Uncle George is actually the baby’s father. The first moment occurs when Nick and his father come to the camp to help the pregnant woman give birth. When they arrive, we read that “Uncle George gave both the Indians cigars.” Traditionally, this is something a father would do. The second moment occurs when everyone is holding down the pregnant woman, and “[s]he bit Uncle George on the arm…” This action could be read as revenge against the man who impregnated her. This reading can be supported by the fact that the “father” of the baby killed himself when the baby was born, as if he knew that the baby was not his own. The last bit of evidence that supports Uncle George

being the father of the baby is that he stays behind at the Indian camp, which can be seen as a sign of fatherly love or obligation .

A story written according to the iceberg theory creates a lot of ambiguity. If the writer knows what they are doing—it can lead to fascinating fiction that makes the reader more involved.

If you want to read “Indian Camp,” click on this link:

Click to access Hemingway%2C+Indian+Camp.pdf

If you want to read Death in the Afternoon, click on this link:

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