A Simple Enquiry by Ernest Hemingway, 1927
The magic trick:
Brilliant setting of the scene
I took a class about short stories when I was an undergrad at Miami University. Nineteen-year-old me would probably find it equal-parts hilarious and incomprehensible that I was now reading this stuff for fun. I’m pretty sure I avoided most of the assignments and skated my way to a solid C-minus. But, present-day me is happy to note that I do remember a key concept our professor taught us that semester. Every sentence in a story, he said, should be contributing only to one of two things: establishing the setting or pushing the action forward. Every word that failed to do either of those things was weak, unnecessary and doomed to be deleted. Not sure why that stuck but it did, and I’m reminded of that concept today with “A Simple Enquiry.”
Hemingway doesn’t push the plot along a whole lot in this one. There isn’t much plot to push. But he does do a magnificent job of setting the scene. Really, this story isn’t much more than scene, and it’s beautiful. All it takes is the first two paragraphs. Hemingway doesn’t use fancy language. He simply is describing what the room looks like. But it’s the details he selects that make the difference. The snow, the sunlight, the barren décor. You can feel the bright chill as you read. And that’s quite a trick on Hemingway’s part.
Outside, the snow was higher than the window. The sunlight came in through the window and shone on a map on the pine-board wall of the hut. The sun was high and the light came in over the top of the snow. A trench had been cut along the open side of the hut, and each clear day the sun, shining on the wall, reflected heat against the snow and widened the trench. It was late March. The major sat at a table against the wall. His adjutant sat at another table.