The three stories I will be analysing are Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Nine
Billion Names of God’, Janet Frame’s, ‘You Are Now Entering the Human Heart’
and Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ and they’re one common
Yet each story is different; Clarke presents a sort of cosmic despair
with an oncoming and unseen apocalypse, Frame gives us a genuine and
non-judgmental look at how everyday human fears can trap us and Hemingway
leaves his characters in an existential crisis bordering a state of depression.
These stories deal with the darkest and most negative parts of human emotion
yet still engage us and encourage readers to draw out meaning from the story.
This begs the question: when does a text become meaningful for us?
This paper will examine how a story’s style, explored through
language’s, and consequently diction’s, effects on compelling storytelling as
well as presenting each text’s types of fears. These are the primary elements
that engage readers by building the plot’s form and atmosphere. However, while
they are necessary, I argue they are not the only elements that make a piece
meaningful or emotionally felt.
This is where Hemingway’s ‘Iceberg Theory’ or Theory of Omission contributes
to a story’s style. Defined by Beegel, the theory explains that ‘the underwater
part of the iceberg is the emotion, deeply felt by reader and writer alike, but
represented in the text solely by its “tip”‘1. The lack of knowledge
the writer gives us creates numerous possibilities of subtext, allowing the
text to become a ‘site for the projections of anxieties and hopes, and is
understood in terms of its therapeutic functions and effects’2.
‘Every word is a site of struggle’3 as Bakhtin observes and the text
becomes a space for competing voices, representing different struggles and
meanings for its readers.
F. Beegel, Hemingway’s Craft of Omission:
Four Manuscript Examples (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1988) (pp. 91)
Pope, Studying English Literature and Language (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), (pp.
The text only creates significance once the reader gives it importance
and empathises with these same emotions. Reader-response theorist Norman
Holland believes ‘it is as much the text which analyses the reader as the
reader who analyses the text’4. Thus, the final element of a truly
meaningful story comes from the reader-response of a text. It’s as essential in
a text’s meaning creation as the writer’s intended style. This literary
framework is rooted in phenomenology, which maintains that ‘objects attain
meaning through their perception in a given person’s consciousness’5.
This paper will analyse the effect of style in creating meaningful texts under
the lens of reception theory and how reader-response evokes the full
significance of a text.
The Effect of Language on Style
One of the most important elements of style is language, which can be
defined by a ‘given system for communicating ideas or feelings’6. In
literature, this is communicated through the use of signs, found in a text’s
diction. The language and as a result diction of the text has a direct
influence on the message of the story as well as the way this message has
reached the reader’s consciousness. To understand this effect, we must first
analyse how the text’s language has done this.
Wolfreys, Ruth Robbins, Kenneth Womack, Key
Concepts in Literary Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)
Robbins, Womack, (pp. 60)
In ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, the diction is complex, with 4-dollar
scientific words used frequently. To ‘modify the output circuits’, ‘systematic
permutation of letters’, ‘electromatic typewriter’ and ‘adapt your Automatic
Sequence Computer’7 are all located in the beginning when describing
the machine or the mathematical procedures that govern it. These are common
elements of a science-fiction story and already set the tone of an unemotional
and straightforward scientific attitude towards the story’s philosophical core.
It’s also heavily descriptive with many instances of personification when
describing the ‘remote checkerboard of fields’ or the ‘never-ending rainstorm
of the keys hitting the paper’8. Readers’ attention is drawn to the
story’s scientific rigour in dealing with the moral and religious dilemma of
discovering God’s name but arguably, only become engaged in these human
elements of the story as placed the casual reader can relate to and visualise.
These personifications can also be analysed as a metaphor for the
story’s motif of the intersection of science and religion, as natural settings
are only highlighted under a mechanical context or through the eyes of the
engineers. The ‘distant mountains’ are only given importance under the
scientist’s gaze as ‘names he had never bothered to discover’.
C. Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God,
(pp. 1) https://urbigenous.net/library/nine_billion_names_of_god.html accessed 4 January 2018
Clarke, (pp. 2-3)
‘You Are Now Entering the Human Heart’ uses shorter and more casual
words, forging a conversational tone between the writer and reader. ‘Were there
not places in the South where you couldn’t go into the streets for fear of the
rattlesnakes’8, almost asking the readers to be more sympathetic to
Miss Aitcheson; which one of us has not felt fear like she has? When
descriptors are used, they’re focused less on conjuring the scene and more on
describing the feeling at that moment. For example, ‘the exit light blinked,
hooded’ and the attendant’s lack of care towards Miss Aitcheson’s terror was
described as if his ‘perception had grown a reptilian covering’9,
both of which are direct references to the coldness of the snake wrapped around
Miss Aitcheson’s neck. While Clarke focuses on describing the scene, Frame’s
heavy use of metaphors shows us what the human consciousness looks like during
a moment of fear – ‘She was evicted from them and from herself and even from
her own fear-infested tomorrow’ and at that moment had nothing but ‘the small
canvas chair by the Bear Cabinet of the Natural Science Museum’10. The
language here can only be analysed under the light of Robert Lamb’s comment on
the short story’s lack of space that relies heavily on suggestiveness and
implication, where the reader has a larger role in bringing the narrative to
life11, a response to a subtext that would intrigue them.
In the moments where Miss Aitcheson’s fears are exposed, the audience
too experiences both her paralysis and aftermath of being gripped by fear. The
narrative’s language suggests that the journey through the human heart was an
exploration on the nature of fear, revealing the story’s emotional core at the
climax just as the audience completes the journey alongside the protagonist.
8-10 Janet Frame, You Are Now Entering
the Human Heart (pp. 2-4) http://moodle.nottingham.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/4147580/mod_resource/content/1/YouAreNowEnteringTheHumanHeart.pdf accessed 4 January 2018
11 Robert Lamb, Art Matters (Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010) (pp. 34)
‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ utilises brief and concise language and
heavily contrasts the previous stories with its lack of descriptors and complex
diction. Yet the characters’ existential crisis and depression is conveyed just
as clearly as the fears in Frame’s and Clarke’s pieces. The few descriptors
used are purposeful, as they describe the actions of each characters – the old
man ‘sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light’
and this phrase is repeated once again when readers visualise the ‘terrace
where the tables were all empty’12. At once in just two sentences,
the shadowy darkness of the night is emphasised and vivid while the loneliness
of the café is highlighted by the sole man that stays up ordering more brandy
to drink. We know he is deaf but this only becomes significant at night where
‘it was quiet and he felt the difference’13. The lack of description evokes the reader’s
imagination and they build on this nuance; the old man prefers the solitude and
quiet of night where during the day all we can imagine him “hearing” are his own
chaotic thoughts, a recall of the story’s motif about what it means to despair.
Macherey states that the primary focus of a textual study is what the
text does or does not say14; it becomes the role of the critical
reader to read between the story’s expressed subject matter (presences) and
suppressed subtext (absences) and fill in the pregnant silences. This
could explain why the heavily descriptive language in Clarke’s story helped to
visualise the vast landscapes of the Himalayas and the apocalyptic terror of
the world ending yet the sparseness of language in Hemingway’s piece served am
equally important but very different function.
12-13 Ernest Hemingway, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place (pp. 1) http://www.url-der.org/a_clean_well_lighted_place.pdf accessed 4 January 2018
14 Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (1966)
The despair of human existence is much closer to home than the distant
fear of an apocalypse. Readers can empathise and relate to this emotion despite
the sparseness of language Hemingway uses in describing ‘nada’, thus evoking
the same fear of nothingness. In fact, it’s only because of the omission of
descriptive language that the piece becomes emotionally felt. The author
doesn’t tell them what the characters feel, thus controlling what the audience
knows about the story. Upon the Lord’s Prayer parody of nada ‘Hail nothing full
of nothing, nothing is with thee’, the story can be an interpreted as a looking
glass into the pits of human despair. The theme of the story becomes clear and
readers sympathise with the older waiter, understanding now the importance of a
‘clean, well-lighted place’.
Language is the author’s treatment of and attitude towards the subject
of the story. While the subject of fear is prevalent in all three stories, the
meaning readers derive from these fears are varied: ‘The Nine Billion Names of
God’ is shrouded in an intellectual atmosphere that arguably, distances the
readers from the real fear of the world ending because of its science-fiction
element. While the other two stories are also fictional, the treatment of both
Miss Aitcheson and the older waiter are more pronounced; their fears are drawn
out and focus on the moment of terror and their consciousness. This is
explained with economised, metaphor-rich language, whose sparseness makes
readers pay closer attention, allowing them to catch the text’s double
meanings. This particular method of style will be analysed with respect to its
effect on reader-response in making certain pieces comparatively more
The Effect of Omission on
Gestalt psychology attempts to understand our ability to acquire and
maintain meaning. It argues that ‘the human mind does not perceive things in
the world as unrelated bits and pieces but as configurations of elements,
themes, or meaningful, organised wholes’15 This is the basis of reception
theory, where the text is not one original meaning but a ‘succession of moments
of reception, each one affected by the expectations, tastes and aims of the
receivers’16. Thus, we can deduce that some of our most meaningful
moments in a text can be derived in those moments of reception. The question
remains: what style must a story affect to create moments that trigger our
reception the most?
This style is Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, which elaborates the
importance of omission as it would ‘strengthen the story and make people feel
something more than they understood’17. This theory can be
understood if we look at Macherey’s notion of gaps and silences in a text18,
areas of indefiniteness analysed through a psychological lens. Readers practice
affirmative negation, the activity of meeting these blanks and vacancies
creatively; by relating to what is said in the text through their own
perceptions of the world and similar human emotions. In doing so, ‘readers make
sense of themselves instead of making sense of the text as an ‘other’19.
Selden Raman, A Reader’s Guide to
Contemporary Literary Theory, Great Britain, 2005 (pp. 12)
16 Pope, (pp. 273)
Lamb, (pp. 41)
18 Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (1966)
19 Pope, (pp. 274)
I argue that this connection with a text upon identifying with it is
when it actually becomes “meaningful”. Omission is utilised in all three
stories but to different extents, conveying corresponding types of fear and
evoking various levels of engagement in readers. We’ll compare examples of
omission in the stories in the character’s speech. In Clarke’s story, there’s
frequent turn-taking in conversation between the lamas and modern characters. The
dialogue’s purpose is mainly to reveal plot points – the lama reveals the
purpose of the machine, ‘We have been compiling a list which shall contain all
the possible names of God’, the ethical core of the story ‘there is a
philosophical problem of some difficulty here’, what is supposed to happen when
the computer finishes working ‘it will be the end of the world’ and the climax,
‘Wonder if the computer’s finished its run. It was due about now.’ The dialogue
and scenes can be seen as transitions focused on advancing the story which
builds up the oncoming dread but the numerous details tell the story for us,
lacking subtext and not allowing readers to derive their own meaning or
significance from the story’s apocalyptic fear.
Silence is more powerful in conveying subtext and deeper meaning. It can
indicate power balances in a story; a character is powerful if there’s no need
to speak and powerless if they’re unable to speak. In Frame’s story, the most
important characters are those that hardly speak. The narrator does not
converse but is powerful because she takes the role of astute observer,
noticing the Miss Aitcheson’s underlying everyday fears like being ‘afraid to
answer the door’ and ‘to walk after dark’. However, Miss Aitcheson’s powerlessness
can be seen through her inability to speak when she is forced to hold the
snake. Characters like the museum attendant and schoolchildren may not be able
to see this but only readers will put together the depth of her emotion when we
couple her terrified speechlessness with her sharp denial, ‘No, I’m not afraid.
Of course not.’ Readers begin to place their own meaning in the story – is
pride part of the journey through the human heart? And is it this same pride
that leads to our downfall at the hands of fear?
While there’s certainly an emotionally felt element in Frame’s story,
allowing readers to derive meaning by relying more on subtext, the reader is
still not responsible for bringing the narrative to life. This is more obvious
in Hemingway’s story where the theory of omission is heavily utilised,
especially in regard to dialogue. The use of omission, and leaving nothing for
the readers is ironic and a call back to the story’s despair revolving
‘nothingness’. Omission proves to be a dynamic technique whose role here
becomes less about form and more of a thematic concern.
The reader immediately visualises the characters of the older and
younger waiter. The younger waiter is arrogant and mean, taking out his
frustrations on the old man by saying, ‘He should have killed himself last
week’ and ‘I don’t want to look at him’. However, it isn’t because he’s
inherently a bad person, simply that he and the older waiter are ‘of two
The older waiter knows what the old man is going through but doesn’t
explicitly show it or talk about it. ‘I am of those who like to stay late at
the café’ is his sign of solidarity with the old man. He belongs with the
people who understand despair, ‘with all those who do not want to go to bed’.
The younger waiter doesn’t understand this but he doesn’t explicitly say it
either. His ‘confidence’ doesn’t allow him to and as the older waiter tells him
of the importance of a clean, well-lighted place to old men who despair, he
shuts him down with a ‘good night’.
The omission of additional details about the origins of both these
waiters, where their sorrows come from and even a lack of temporal framework or
sense of place doesn’t disrupt the meaning of the story. Rather, it organically
shows character revelations and observations about the people in the setting.
With the omission of extra detail or descriptors, readers can impose their own
ideologies or meaning on a text or constructing the scene as a whole, using the
bits and pieces of essential information.
It’s this very lack of detail that makes the story more universal by
underlining the general existential anxieties suffered by the old man and the
older waiter. This is the point at which the felt element becomes most obvious and
readers can extract or implement a variety of meaning from the text.