the whittling man said

Here’s a sentence from the second chapter of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”:

“Don’t leave it so close to the cave,” the whittling man, who had blue eyes in a dark, good-looking lazy gypsy face, the color of smoked leather, said. “There’s a fire in there.”

It’s an unusual sentence because the description of the speaker is so long that it nearly disconnects him from his verb (“said”). By the time we read that someone’s said, we risk forgetting who that someone was. Physical descriptions seldom interrupt like this. Descriptions of actions sometimes do—”Like whatever,” the bimbo, twirling the telephone cord around her finger, said. “You are, like, so dumb.”—but, even then, contemporary writers tend to use dashes and other devices to mark their interrupters.

Hemingway could have written his sentence like this:

“Don’t leave it so close to the cave,” the whittling man said. He had blue eyes in a dark, good-looking lazy gypsy face, the color of smoked leather. “There’s a fire in there.”

Or this:

“Don’t leave it so close to the cave. There’s a fire in there,” the whittling man said. He had blue eyes in a dark, good-looking lazy gypsy face, the color of smoked leather.

So why did Hemingway take the sanctity and simplicity of the whittling man said and stick a bunch of adjectives between the man and the said? Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it was to highlight that the book’s narrator, Robert Jordan, notices all these features of the whittling man’s face in a single, brief instant.

Writing, by its nature, is sequential. Unlike a painting, writing is experienced word by word. Even when the words describe one thing at one time, the reader processes the information in sequence. The pot is simultaneously large and round, but, to you, its size comes before its shape.

Writing also has trouble with scale. “He said” and “It decomposed” are two words separated by a space, yet it takes less time for the whittling man to say than for a tomato to decompose. Keeping that in mind, compare the original sentence with:

The whittling man, who had blue eyes in a dark, good-looking lazy gypsy face, the color of smoked leather, ate supper.

Because eating supper takes longer to do than saying, sticking a description between that particular subject and verb doesn’t give the same sense of the narrator’s lightning quick perception. Anyone would have noted the whittling man’s face over supper. Robert Jordan noted it between thoughts. And Hemingway told us this by taking a construction we’re used to seeing as one element (“he said”) and breaking it in half.

In high school, his teacher might have commented “awkward, rephrase”.

Good thing we’re not in high school any more.

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