If you appreciate words, stories and style, there’s nothing quite like sitting down and reading Ernest Hemingway, who died on this day in 1961. His opening passages in particular were simply masterful – so here are 6 of his best, and why…
Revered for his economy of words, Hemingway’s writing style has been widely imitated over the years but never quite matched.
In much the same way that an elegant Roger Federer backhand makes playing tennis look easy, Hemingway’s polished, understated prose makes the art of creative writing look simplistic, when of course it’s anything but.
The deceptive ease and rhythmic control he had over his craft is evident from how he started his works. The beginnings of his short stories and novels give you an instant feel that you are about to read something special from a unique and authoritative voice. Here are my top 6 Hemingway opening lines:
It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. A Clean, Well-lighted Place
This graceful short story, first published in the New York-based periodical ‘Scribner’s Magazine’ in 1933, depicts how two waiters – one old, one young – gossip about a deaf old man who doesn’t want to leave their café as closing time passes. The haunting loneliness of the old man, and the intrusive scrutiny his life is about to come under from the waiters who want to close up for the night, is immediately made clear, igniting a vivid narrative to come.
It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
Wow, something clearly has just happened (an event which threatens to mark the proud, high-society protagonist as a coward, as it turns out) in this safari trip tale laced with fear, adultery and tragedy. Hemingway, who loved hunting in Africa, knew all the technical details to make this fascinating but vicious terrain his natural home, and in this short story he lets the pressure build to an exquisite climax.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. The Old Man and the Sea
So we have the central protagonist, his main problem and his objective all in the first line. Not bad, eh? This is a prime example of Hemingway’s economical style. Each word is given its appropriate weight as he cuts to the bone of the story and the human condition about to be explored. What Hemingway often had to say wasn’t simple – but had to look it, and this unembroidered opening line is a perfect way of introducing us to what unfolds as a nuanced, emotive struggle of a Cuban fisherman. This short novel, the last major fictional work of Hemingway’s published in his lifetime, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and a year later was a contributing factor to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farmhouses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river. A Way You’ll Never Be
What I love about this intro is the simple picture it paints, and although it’s in the past tense it feels charged with motion. Hemingway liked to cut the adverbs and any superfluous flourish in order to detach himself from his stories, to let them radiate purity and speak for themselves. This opening line to a short story set in World War One achieves a beautiful balance of the descriptive and the plain. Even in tales like this where Hemingway dealt with the impact of war and violence, springing from his military experience (he served in the Great War for the ambulance service on the Italian front aged 18), he managed to use few words – terse ones at that – to convey themes of life and death.
He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. A Day’s Wait
A fine example of an intriguing opening line that hooks us into a story of a nine-year-old boy’s escalating illness during a cold winter, and his father’s difficulty in convincing his son that he will recover. Once again each and every word delicately states its own case. Like much of his work related to death, Hemingway’s writing in this piece carries no sentiment whatsoever, the prose always lean and hard (but never stretching into hard-boiled) and leaving so much of the father-son relationship unsaid, thereby intensifying the emotion.
It wasn’t about anything, something about making punch, and then we started fighting and I slipped and he had me down kneeling on my chest and choking me with both hands like he was trying to kill me and all the time I was trying to get the knife out of my pocket to cut him loose. After the Storm
Hemingway often liked to repeat the word ‘and’ in close succession rather than employ a comma. The effect this had was to convey immediacy and to portray a series of startling images at pace, which is particularly the case in this starkly visual opening line. The almost childlike vigour of this sentence leaves us little room to breathe, heightening the drama and the curiosity.
Another link to Ernest Hemingway on this site can be found in my article 7 of the most underrated short stories ever, which features his work, The Killers.