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Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, is a classic example of a minimalist work. It is of the traditional length (250-350 pages) and expresses efficiency in literature. The work makes use of every page that is in the novel. As an example of a classic piece of literature that contrasts sharply with Hemingway’s book, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is much more complicated in the way that it is written and this allows the savvy reader to pick up on illuminating details that Steinbeck adds. The Steinbeck portions of this essay will focus primary on the use of interchapters that create the illumination of detail. The book be used to provide a clear contrast to Hemingway’s minimalist style. While both these authors effectively communicate their storylines to the reader, each uses a different technique. Hemingway effectively uses the minimalist style to achieve his goal of allowing the reader to create much of their own story, while Steinbeck reveals his purpose of guiding his audience by explaining many specific details.
Hemingway is successful at creating a story while wasting little space to ineffective components of the plot. His minimalist style is expressed in many capacities, particularly in his short sentences throughout the novel: “I did not say anything. ‘I didn’t know about anything then. I thought it would be worse for him” (11). The short passage is extremely simplistic, and the style is consistent throughout the book. Furthermore, Hemingway often leaves out extensive background information about the characters, while other authors can go on for pages about the history of the character. In Grapes of Wrath, this is particularly evident in the description of characters that do not have a considerable role to play in the outcome of the story. For example, extensive commentary is given about Muley Graves, a minor character and one of Tom Joads neighbours. This details that Steinbeck uses in the description of the character’s history helps to communicate the issue that Tom’s family faced. Steinbeck goes on for seven pages explaining the ordeal that sent Muley into hiding in Tom’s abandoned home, and this provides valuable information for the reader to come to a better understanding of the situation many Oklahoma farmers were in during the Great Depression. “Only kind a gover’ment we got that leans on us fellas is the ‘safe margin a profit.’ There’s one thing that got me stuped, an’ that’s Willy Feeley – drivin’ that cat’, an’ gonna be a straw boss on lan’ his own folks used to farm” (37). This passage explains the demolition of Muley’s family’s home and the takeover of the family land. This detailed explanation is needed because it reveals the Joad family’s situation – the family later becomes the central characters in the story. This detail contrasts sharply with the way that Hemingway writes A Farewell to Arms.
Perhaps the most noticeable element of Hemingway’s minimalist style is his word choice. He does not use very complicated words in his passages. “I had been driving and I sat in the car and the driver took the papers in” (7). By keeping the language simple, he is arguably able to communicate his ideas much more clearly to the reader. Ultimately, this is the goal of writers, is to communicate the idea that is in their own head, and place that into the head of the reader. The better they are at accomplishing this task, the better job they have done at writing, (Hacker, 1999). Hemingway’s priority is in the story, and less so in showing off of his writing flair. He keeps true to his minimalist style, and accomplishes developing clear pictures without the needs to use complicated language. While the eloquence is words that are lesser known is sometimes needed for writers to improve the flow of sentences and paragraphs, Hemingway manages to still convey his ideas clearly for the reader while keeping every component basic, and brilliantly minimalist.
The minimalist style does not require the reader to be troubled by complication, and it allows for the easy flow of information. Hemingway makes the reading experience as efficient as possible, and the story that he forms is easily digested by the reader. In contrast, one could argue that much of the language in Steinbeck’s work can be over-inflated, and grandiose, making it less interesting to read, according to John Barth of Weber State University. Rather than communicating the information clearly and concisely, Steinbeck develops a surplus of words, but not to the extent of a writer such as William Faulkner (Barth, 2013). While Barth makes an interesting point, in analyzing The Grapes of Wrath, it is challenging to find fault in Steinbeck’s masterpiece. Barth may have been referring to some passages in The Grapes of Wrath that are not communicated as clearly as Hemingway’s work. For example, the following passage could have written with a minimalist approach: “Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here ‘I lost my land’ is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate – ‘We lost our land” (101). While some of these words, and the relatively confusing structure of the passage, are likely excessive to readers who prefer the minimalist style, such as Barth, they are also extremely captivating for those who enjoy the art behind writing, and there is no denying that Steinbeck is an incredibly gifted writer. There is room in this world for minimalists like Hemingway, and those who guide the reader more, such as Steinbeck.
Steinbeck shows that he thinks lavish sentences are sometimes needed, but not always necessary. Like Hemingway, he knows that the best writers know each letter that is needed to communicate clearly to the reader. For example, when describing the towns at the edges of California, he uses very simple language. “In the towns on the edges of the towns, in fields, in vacant lots, the used-car yards, the wreckers’ yards, the garages with blazoned signs – Used Cars, Good Used Cars. Cheap transportation, three trailers. ’27 Ford, clean. Checked cars, guaranteed cars. Free radio. Car with 100 gallons of gas free. Come in and look. Used Cars. No overhead” (41). This shows Steinbeck uses a minimalist style at points when it fits into his priority of creating the full image for his readers. However, the majority of the time more detail, which is often expressed through his interchapters, are needed to fully convey his story’s image. He typically insists on controlling this image through a considerable amount of detail.
It is not only in the writing of simple concepts that Hemingway succeeds – and often defeats Steinbeck in his ability to better communicate with the reader – it is also in complex scenes that are depicted clearly through simplicity. Many writers would be tempted to show off their descriptive powers by utilizing adjectives of which many readers might not be familiar, but Hemingway resists temptation and continues with his minimalist theme. In the scene where Henry and his fellow ambulance workers are shelled, the violence that is described is very simple. It communicates to the emotions of the reader, rather than the intellect. “The ground was torn up and in front of my head there was a splintered beam of wood. In the jolt of my head I heard somebody crying. I thought somebody was screaming. I tried to move but I could not move. I heard the machine-guns and rifles firing across the river and all along the river” (58). This depicts very clearly a complicated scene where much is going on, but Hemingway does not once divert from his minimalist style. The entire scene needs to be read to fully capture the minimalist nature, and the clarity that results. A vivid image is implanted into the reader’s mind, and this is unabated by more complicated language that many writers choose to employ.
Steinbeck, however, is able to clearly capture many of the scenes as effectively as Hemingway, while using a more complicated writing structure. “A small wooden house dominated the camp ground, and on the porch of the house a gasoline lantern hissed and threw its white glare in a great circle” (125). The sentence is different from what Hemingway would use, because it uses many descriptors. For example, “hissed and threw its white glare in a great circle,” effectively communicates the details of the flame. The personification of the lantern makes its image more vivid than what the Hemingway would do in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway would very likely say something along the lines of, “a lantern illuminated the porch.”
While Hemingway specializes in minimalism in A Farewell to Arms, Steinbeck’s trademark is in his interchapters that are inserted inside more substantial chapters. This complicates the story, but adds a level of detail that allows Steinbeck to have a say on the plot’s many details, rather than leaving it up to the reader like Hemingway does. These interchapters make it more challenging to follow the story’s plot, because they break up the story, rather than having it continue on a linear path. The reader is diverted for various parts throughout the literature and then brought back to the main storyline. This is an appropriate method for Grapes of Wrath, because the interchapters are representational of the challenges that the Joad family face before they were able to continue on the road to (and through) California. Even more appropriately, the interchapters provide the reader with an understanding of the history that this family went through. The reader is able to understand the economic situation in which the family finds itself, and this would not be possible without interchapters, because the plot would be disturbed too much. According to Louis Owens in “The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath,” due to the rich history and the various layers to the storyline that needs explaining, the minimalist style would not be possible in The Grapes of Wrath. In analyzing each story, A Farewell to Arms has a plot that is much more simplistic, and there is no need to communicate the political situation of the First World War, because most readers understand the basics of the conflict, and the basics are all that need to be understood for an accurate understanding of the story. Furthermore, A Farewell to Arms is less about the war itself, and more so on the story between Henry and Catherine. This simple storyline allows Hemingway to stick to his minimalist style in the story’s structure, and avoid the complications of interchapters. However, Owens is correct when she says that Steinbeck’s use of interchapters is needed so that he can reveal to the reader the full story. While most people know what the Great Depression was, they do not understand the context as it applies to farmers, and the reader would not understand the various details in the history of characters in the novel if not for the interchapters.
Steinbeck’s use of interchapters also allows him to dictate the reader’s thinking more, rather than allowing them to come to many of their own conclusions like Hemingway does. While Hemingway controls the basic elements of the present in his minimalist style, Steinbeck controls much of not only the detailed elements of the present – such as what was seen in the lantern description at the campground – but also the current personality and history of the characters, as well as past events. While he is bound to some degree by the historical elements that played out during the Great Depression, he is able to craft the various details of the characters’ history and the familial situation and relationship to the farm. “The tractors came over the roads and into the fields, great crawlers moving like insects, having the incredible strength of insects. They crawled over the ground, laying the track and rolling on it and picking it up (24). This interchapter also conveys the family’s passion towards the land, and their hatred towards the bank. Furthermore, it depicts the tough choices that were made, and the utter powerlessness the family felt from the demolition of what was once their land and home. Steinbeck goes on to explain in this first of the interchapters, the precise details by which the farm was taken over by the bank. The power of this vivid imagery, and the suffering of the Joad family as these tractors stole their land, would likely not have been appreciated by the reader if Steinbeck did not carefully describe the scene where the family’s life would change forever. It was necessary to give the reader this guidance, and for this reason, Steinbeck could not have effectively written The Grapes of Wrath in the minimalist style. These interchapters provide the underlying tone of the story, and they explain how the family ended up the way they did. The type of life that the Joad family lived prior to setting out for California is clearly communicated with this technique.
In comparing the two styles, the interchapter technique provides for a much more subjective role as storyteller. Steinbeck is able to add his own perspective of the struggles that the Joads faced in having their farm ripped from them, and then having to look for very low-paying work in California. Through the depiction of the Joad family, Steinbeck demonstrates his respect for the perseverance and hard work of the Oklahoma farmers who migrated to California looking for work during the Great Depression. The family was willing to work for five cents a box, and none of the fruit could be bruised. Even with this low rate of pay the family did not give up, and they continued to work hard just so that they could eat a bit of food for the day and receive housing. Through the story, as communicated in the details of many of the interchapters, Steinbeck is able to have a detailed commentary on the struggles that each member of the family went through, and the strength that they showed to overcome the challenges. “’You wouldn’t think jus’ reachin’ up an’ pickin’d get you in the back,’ Pa said. ‘Be awright in a couple days,’ said Tom” (258). This line represents the struggle that the family faces throughout the novel. Each member of the family struggled on a daily basis, but they always seemed optimistic that a better day was just around the corner. They never seemed to give up, even though it often seemed as though they had nothing left to hope for, and this is a point Steinbeck needed to communicate through immense detail that was facilitated by the interchapters.
But it was not just through the interchapters that Steinbeck was able to detail his story. Due to the fact that he took a different approach than Hemingway, and chose not to use the minimalist style, Steinbeck can delve into the psyche of his characters. For example, during Chapter 7, Steinbeck uses a newsreel technique to write, which included parts of conversations and partial thoughts of the characters in the novel. This depicts the chaos and confusion that many of the people during this time were in. “Put in that dumb cell. Christ, what they want for six bits? Roll up your sleeves – pitch in. This ain’t gonna last. If I had enough jalopies I’d retire in six months” (42). The chapter goes on in a similar manner. While the language and simple sentence structure that is used in the chapter is relatively minimalist, the fact that Steinbeck chooses to reveal the psyche of his characters is truly not minimalist. Conversely, in Hemingway’s work, he would leave it up to the reader to decide what the characters were thinking. Even though the story is in the first person, Hemingway leaves the vast majority of the character description up to the reader. In true minimalist style, he only communicates the necessary information needed to reveal the most basic actions that were being taken. “I ate the end of my piece of cheese and took a swallow of wine. Through the other noise I heard a cough, then came the chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh – then there was a flash, as when a black-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red and on and on in a rushing wind” (58). This passage provides an example of the minimalism that is consistent throughout the book, and it allows the reader to decide what Henry is feeling. It does not say in the passage when Henry and his fellow combatants are under attack whether he is scared, or that he is only concerned about helping those around him, for example. The majority of Henry’s feelings are hidden, and he appears to be simply concerned with the love that he has. “She looked at me, ‘And you do love me?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You did say you loved me, didn’t you?’ ‘Yes,’ I lied. ‘I love you,’ I had not said it before” (31).
Not all readers prefer to fill in the blanks themselves, and would rather have the writer explain objects and situations more clearly; however, Hemingway gives the reader the basics of the scene, and allows them to fill in the gaps. This is Hemingway’s purpose – to provide the frame, and allow the reader to be the carpenter. With Steinbeck’s style, he can help improve the understanding for the reader. Minimalism allows the reader to be more involved in the story (which Hemingway achieves), but Steinbeck’s purpose is to orchestrate the story to the very last detail, which is necessary due to the historical complications of the Great Depression and the fact that Steinbeck uses The Grapes of Wrath as a tribute to the 1930s Oklahoma farmers. He needed interchapters, so he could be more subjective in his writing and guide the reader to develop a respect for the challenges during the Great Depression.
Barth, J. (2013). A Few Words About Minimalism. Weber State University.
Hacker, D. (1999). A Writer’s Reference. 4th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. Print.
Hemingway, E. (1957). “A Farewell to Arms.” New York: Scribner. Print
Owens, L. (1989). “The Culpable Joads: Desentimentalizing The Grapes of Wrath,” in Critical Essays on Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, edited by John Ditsky, G. K. Hall. Print.
Steinbeck, J. (1939). “The Grapes of Wrath.” New York: Viking Press. Print