The best stories by the American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) are written in spare, clear prose, using short sentences and plain dialogue. This is a trademark feature of Hemingway’s style in his short stories and novels.
But what are Hemingway’s very best stories? He wrote dozens of short stories across his career, especially in the early years of his career in the 1920s and early 1930s. Some of his stories reflect his experiences living in Europe as one of the ‘Lost Generation’ of US expatriates in France and Spain after the end of the First World War. Below, we select seven essential Ernest Hemingway stories which provide a great way into discovering his fiction. All of these stories are available in the collection The First Forty-Nine Stories (Arrow Classic): Ernest Hemingway.
1. ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’.
This 1936 short story is probably Hemingway’s best-known and most widely studied short story; it is also one of his longest. Originally published in Esquire magazine, the story focuses on a writer, Harry, who has travelled to Africa and is trying to change careers, from writing to painting. However, he fails to treat a wound and gangrene sets in, slowly eating away at him.
This story is about a myriad things, but one of the prominent themes is that of the artist, and how an artist (in this case, a writer) deals with failure, with all of the works that he knows he will never write, and with losing a handle on his craft. Hemingway wrote the story when he had fears about his own writing productivity and the story is, in some respects, autobiographical.
2. ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
This 1936 story is another one set in Africa, where a married couple are on a big game hunt, accompanied by Robert Wilson, their English guide. The marriage is not an especially happy one, and there’s a suggestion that the wife, Margot, has a liaison with Wilson while the three are out camping. But things are going to get much worse for Francis Macomber, as the story’s title suggests. The story is noteworthy for its inclusion of the lion’s perspective of the hunt.
3. ‘Hills Like White Elephants’.
This 1927 story – which we have analysed in detail here – is one of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known and most critically acclaimed short stories. In just five pages, Hemingway uses his trademark style – plain dialogue and description offered in short, clipped sentences – to expose an unspoken subject that a man and a young woman are discussing.
The title of Hemingway’s story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, is fitting for a number of reasons. It denotes not the main and most pressing topic of the two main characters’ conversation – the unspoken ‘it’, the girl’s ‘operation’, which the man is trying to encourage her to have – but one aspect of their small talk, the hills outside the window of the bar in which they sit, as they skirt around that topic. The girl’s comment about the Spanish hills looking like white elephants is mere filler, an example of ‘treading water’ as she and her male companion summon up the courage to address the dread topic of their conversation.
4. ‘Big Two-Hearted River’.
This 1925 story is unusual in that it contains no dialogue. One of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories (Adams being the protagonist of many of the stories in Hemingway’s early collection, In Our Time), the story sees Adams, recently demobbed following the end of the First World War, seeing the river near his home in Michigan and being drawn to the trout within it. The river seems to be a symbol of life itself, following the sterile desert landscapes Adams had passed during his train ride home.
5. ‘Cat in the Rain’.
Some of the best Hemingway stories take a very simple and ordinary setup for their plots. This very short story was published in his early 1925 collection In Our Time. It was supposedly inspired by a specific event in 1923 when, while staying at the home of Ezra Pound (a famous cat-lover) in Rapallo, Italy, Hadley befriended a stray kitten.
An American couple are staying at a hotel in Italy. It is raining heavily one day, and the wife, looking out of their hotel room window, spies a cat under one of the tables outside, trying to shelter from the rain. She wants to go and get the cat and bring her indoors. She fails to find the cat, and returns up to her hotel room, disappointed, but there’s a surprise development at the end of the story.
Hemingway’s stories often seem direct and matter-of-fact, as though they simply mean whatever they say, but there is, in fact, symbolic resonance to many of the ordinary and everyday details he builds his stories around. The cat in the rain is not just a cat: she clearly symbolises something more to the wife.
6. ‘Soldier’s Home’.
This 1925 story is perhaps Hemingway’s best story about the lasting impact the First World War had on his generation, and all of the men who had served in the war.
Critics often draw attention to what’s known as Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ technique, whereby the feelings and motivations of the characters in his work are largely beneath the surface, much as only the tip of the iceberg is visible above the surface of the water. This story is a good example of that. Harold Krebs has returned from the war and can no longer relate to the people in his hometown. Alienation is a key theme of this classic Hemingway story. You can read our analysis of the story here.
7. ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’.
This 1933 story uses its spare, direct dialogue to hint at the relationships between the characters and the themes the story is delicately and obliquely exploring. The story is about an old man who frequents a Spanish café at night, and the two waiters who discuss why the old man comes to sit there every night and is always reluctant to leave.
‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ is like many of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, in that the action – what little ‘action’ there is – doesn’t generate the meaning of the story. Instead, it’s through the conversation between the two waiters, and then the older waiter’s ruminations as he leaves the café, that the meaning emerges. We discuss these aspects of ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ in more detail elsewhere.
If this has whetted your appetite for Hemingway, these stories are available in the collection The First Forty-Nine Stories (Arrow Classic): Ernest Hemingway.
While I am fond of The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, I tend to enjoy Hemingway’s novels far more than his short stories. I feel like a bit of an outlier in this, as it seems so many people with whom I converse on the subject feel the opposite. But, for me, this author who is so famous for his terse, declarative sentences (his “mistrust of adjectives”) is ironically far more interesting when working in long form. That said, I appreciate this list as a reminder of his shorter work and may give some of the stories cited another try.