This short passage packed full of poetic prose is a great first lesson on close reading, I have never taught a group who didn’t connect with this powerful block of words, or who were not moved by both the will to survive and the pointlessness of life contained in these lines — as well as the power and complexity that so few words can evoke.
The Power of One Sentence
- Read it a couple of times. Underline all the details you can find about setting, character, and the conflict of the story just in the first sentence. Don’t read ahead!
While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here.
- What details did you find about setting?
- Fossalta (Where do you think that is, Italy?)
- a trench,
- there’s a “bombardment” – a war?
Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I. What do you know about WWI and trench warfare?
You could do a bit of background research if you’d like. One important aspect for this piece is how futile, or worthless and hopeless, soldiers felt; they went to war expecting honor and glory, and they spent their days sitting in trenches waiting to attack or be attacked, with very little movement in contrast with intense moments of mass death and violence. Later in the war, the introduction of poison gases made the deaths they witnessed nearly unspeakable.
- Who are the characters we see already in this first sentence? What do we know about them?
There’s a “he” and a narrator. He “lay very flat and sweated and prayed.” How does he feel? (Consider the information about trench warfare above, in combination with the dialogue “oh jesus christ…” He’s desperate (get me out of here), suffering, praying for his life, scared (lay very flat, sweated).
- Do you notice anything about the sentence structure already that helps create that feeling?
- What about a conflict?
We know he wants to get out, that he’s in a war. It says “the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces.” So the bombardment is acting — not people — so he feels powerless, laying on the ground, sweating. All he can do is pray. What do you think might happen? What are the options here?
See how much we know just from those details in the first sentence, how much we can feel? How was your vocabulary knowledge — did you know most of the words? It’s “simple” language and yet contains so much. Amazing!
Middle Section: Power of Dialogue
Dear jesus please get me out. Christ please please please christ. If you’ll only keep me from getting killed I’ll do anything you say. I believe in you and I’ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus.
Wow. This middle part is so powerful. Have you ever been in that kind of situation — where you’re praying for your life, or even something more minor, like a test, asking God for help, promising that you’ll believe or you’ll be a good person if He’ll only help you?
It’s definitely a relatable human sentiment. And we know he is in a life or death situation (after probably days or weeks just sitting in that trench, powerless).
- What do you notice about the language and structure of this middle section? What is it composed of? How is it written?
One thing that stands out to me is how much space in this very short paragraph is devoted to this dialogue. Hemingway gives us exactly what the character says. And there’s so much repetition. Someone could ask, “Why can’t he just say it once — we get the point?” Especially notice repetition like “please please please please” …
- What effect does that repetition have? What about the overall sentence structure of this dialogue? Why give us exactly what the soldier says in his voice?
To me, hearing exactly what the solider says, the repetition, makes this so heartbreaking. The repetition just increases the feeling of desperation and fear, and the ultimate human want of survival. We’ll promise anything to keep our lives. And we want help in those moments; we hope there’s God listening. Through the dialogue, we — readers — hear and feel that desperation. Remember, this takes up most of the whole piece — that is where we really get pulled into the life-or-death emotion of this story.
Final Third: Power of Shifts
Suddenly, after this ultimate desperation, there’s a very short, matter-of-fact sentence, a shift:
The shelling moved further up the line.
Wow. Such a contrast from the pleading desperation of this last several sentences. One short sentence. The characters are still powerless. The actor is “the shelling: The shelling moved…” It’s an unfeeling, straight reporting of what happened. Just like that, after this intense brush with death.
And we move on.
We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet.
- Any new characters?
Now we have a “we.” Who is the “we”? The soldiers! So now we know the narrator is one of the soldiers, is right alongside the praying “he” soldier. We don’t get any “I feel” statement of the narrator.
- What do you think the effect of that is — seeing it from his point of view and not even knowing the point of view until this late in the piece?
He’s just as powerless. Maybe he feels just as resigned — and seeing, reporting the man’s experience next to him reflects how he himself feels; yet, he doesn’t have the “agency” to say “I feel.” It makes feeling so detached — I see that the soldiers don’t know how to feel in this situation. They can only observe what’s happening and go from these extremes of boredom and threat to their lives.
- What else has changed?
Setting. It’s the next morning. And how does he describe it? Hot. Muggy. Cheerful. Quiet. Cheerful? The sun came up? Again, such a contrast from the night before. It’s just another day. It’s quiet. It’s hot. Every word is so carefully chosen. We have the sentence structure of And ___ and ___ and ____. All our narrator can do is lay out what it was – this and this and this – there’s nothing else left to say. How can one make sense of this? Back to work.
And then we end with this last sentence:
The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.
Another Change? Setting?
The next night back at Mestre. Another night: look how much we have traveled in this short paragraph! Three days?
Here, we get an insight into another aspect of the soldier’s experience – going upstairs with the girl, never mentioning Jesus, moving on, never mentioning the intense trials of war.
- What is the feeling here? What do you make of this ending?
I’m left feeling a weight, through that intense dialogue that takes up so much of the paragraph, we hear and experience the soldier’s pleading, what it feels to almost lose your life, laying in a trench in a war over which you have no control, no real will. And the shelling just moves on. Not, even “the men shot at us.” The shelling, this unnameable force, moves on. This is the soldiers’ perspective in this war: The inhumanity, the humanity (desperation for life) in the midst of the inhuman forces.
- What are you left with? How would you describe the impression this paragraph makes? What does it show about life, war, human conflict?
A Question for Any Ending
Remember the question about your prediction for this story? He could have died; he could have become very faithful starting the next day; he could have been joyful and thankful, missing people at home. The fact that things just move on, that there’s this feeling of what … futility? What does that ending say, thematically? This is a good question to ask yourself about any ending — poem or story — you encounter.
I hope you see how much every word can matter in literature, especially in short prose and poetry — and how much we can gain from being close, careful readers and taking time to reflect on what we’re experiencing as we read. This is why I read literature! I hope you found something useful and beautiful in this exercise.
Teacher Note: I use this as a whole-class introduction to the power of a short passage and how to close-read. I model going through every sentence like this, word by word. I annotate the passage on the board and ask them to annotate as well, and to keep discussing the intricacies and implications of each word or shift or sentence. Then, I’ll give them a short passage like “The Cough” (lesson to come on this site!) and put them to work practicing annotation and close-reading skills on their own. I have done this lesson with all sorts of age groups and English levels, and I’ve found it very effective no matter the English level (even for advanced learners) because the most important lesson, I think, to get from this exercise is that every word can say so much.
Hemingway’s Complete Short Stories contains other very short passages like this one. They serve as interludes between longer short stories. These small blocks of prose, on their own page in between longer stories, help build the feelings of futility of this time period and the soldiers’ experience that are themes throughout the stories.