Sunday

Repetition and Resonance in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms

The blurb on the cover of my copy of A Farewell to Arms says that Hemingway wrote in “short, declarative sentences and was known for his tough, terse prose.”  Although this is certainly one way to describe his writing, I don’t entirely agree with it.  During long descriptive or ruminative sections where nothing much is happening by way of action or dialog, Hemingway varies the length of his sentences quite a bit, and also employs something called poetic anaphora:
I had wanted to go to Abruzzi.  I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting.  I had gone to no such place but to the smoke of cafés and nights when the room whirled and you needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with you, and the world all unreal in the dark, etc, etc, . . . He had not had it but understood that I had really wanted to go to Abruzzi but had not gone and we were still friends, with many tastes alike, but with the difference between us.  
The repetitions and variations in the above passage approximate the sound of internal monologue without slipping entirely into stream-of-consciousness; the poetic anaphora (repetitions and variations on the phrase “I had gone”) is a rhythmic marker that gives the mind a chance to rest during what might otherwise be a fairly dense and rambling passage.

Here’s another example of a Hemingway sentence that is neither short nor terse:
Because we would not wear any clothes because it was so hot and the window open and the swallows flying over the roofs of the houses and when it was dark afterwards and you went to the window very small bats hunting over the houses and close down over the trees and we would drink the capri and the door locked and it hot and only a sheet and the whole night and we would both love each other all night in the hot night in Milan. 
One of the things that stands out in the above sentence—which in this case does approximate stream-of-consciousness—is the repetition of words.  Since it is a rule of thumb in writing not to use the same words too close together if you can avoid it, one has to assume Hemingway had a specific purpose in mind in using repeated words, especially since he does it again and again in this book.  For me at least, the device gives the repeated word greater resonance, fixing its image clearly in my reading mind.  In the above sentence, for example, the resonant words “houses,” “hot,” and “night” contribute to the sentence’s mood of feverish nocturnal fantasy.

In A Farewell to Arms Hemingway uses a lot of simple nouns, and he frequently repeats them in the same passage.  This usually occurs in a chapter’s opening paragraphs, as in the following examples:
The forest of oak trees on the mountain beyond the town was gone.  The forest had been green in the summer when we had come into town but now there were stumps and the broken trunks and the ground torn up, and one day at the end of the fall when I was out where the oak forest had been I saw a cloud coming over the mountain.  It came very fast and the sun went a dull yellow and then everything was gray and the sky was covered and the cloud came on down the mountain and suddenly we were in it and it was snow.  The snow slanted across the wind the bare ground was covered, the stumps of the trees projected, there was snow on the guns and there were paths in the snow going back to the latrines behind trenches. 
The room was long with windows on the right-hand side and a door at the far end that went into the dressing room. The row of beds that mine was in faced the windows and another row, under the windows, faced the wall.  If you lay on your left side you could see the dressing-room door.  There was another door at the far end that people sometimes came in by.  If anyone were going to die they put a screen around the bed so you could not see them die, but only the shoes and puttees of doctors and men nurses showed under the bottom of the screen and sometimes at the end there would be whispering.  Then the priest would come out from behind the screen and afterward the men nurses would go back behind the screen to come out again carrying the one who was dead with a blanket over him down the corridor between the beds and someone folded the screen and took it away. 
In the first paragraph, the nouns forest cloud and snow are repeated three two and four times, respectively.  If you were to read the paragraph quickly and then close your eyes, the chances are the image that would stick with you would be a forest (in this case a devastated one) that is overcast and covered with snow.   So the words ground the reader in a scene, and they also create a certain mood: forest, cloud, snow, silence, winter, death. 

In the second paragraph, which has a similar structure, the main repeating nouns are room, row, door, windows, and screen.  The shift from the repetition of room row windows door to screen screen screen gives the reader the sense of turning, within the interior of the room, to eventually settle on the screen.  This creates a strong impression of foreboding if you consider that the subject of the paragraph is death, which, as the narrator points out, occurs behind the screen. 

It’s worth noting that in the two paragraphs above the repeating nouns shift focus, settling almost obsessively on one noun, snow in the first and screen in the second.  In both cases a strong mood is created: call it recognition, claustrophobia, or even suffocation.  For me a more compelling use of noun repetition occurs in descriptive passages where the repeated nouns do not settle exclusively on one “main” noun, as in the following example:
Mrs. Guttingen came into the room early in the morning to shut the windows and started a fire in the tall porcelain stove.  The pine wood crackled and sparked and then the fire roared in the stove and the second time Mrs. Guttingen came into the room she brought big chunks of wood for the fire and a pitcher of hot water.  When the room was warm she brought in breakfast.  Sitting up in bed eating breakfast we could see the lake and the mountains across the lake on the French side.  There was snow on the tops of the mountains and the lake was a gray steel-blue.
If you contrast the above passage to the two cited earlier, you’ll see that the repeated nouns are more balanced in terms of frequency of repetition (room fire wood lake mountains—and of course Mrs. Guttingen) and that they are nicely interlaced, creating a more fulsome and perhaps less calculated-feeling effect. 
           
This is all quite subjective and vague, I realize.  Although Hemingway was a skillful and deliberate stylist, it could be that he simply liked the sound of the nouns he repeated. Or maybe he was focusing on some other effect and didn’t think about them at all, though I doubt that. Or maybe he had some purpose in mind that I’ve missed entirely.  But it is an interesting technique. 

I guess the takeaway lesson for writers is that if you are going to repeat nouns you should do it with an ear to the effect you will achieve. Because intentionally or otherwise, repeating a word within a paragraph draws attention to that word.   Whether or not the word resonates with the overall mood or imagery of the story, of course, is a matter of art.