Ernest Hemingway – Every Word Tells

This short passage (Chapter VII from In Our Time) 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.

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These short interludes, neat little blocks of prose, interspersed throughout the longer short stories are so powerful. They’re a great example of William Strunk’s famous phrase when describing the importance of omitting needless words: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Let’s start with just the first 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?

Ernest Hemingway, September 1918, Milan, Italy
Credit: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston. WikiCommons.

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?

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