Famous for his distinctive writing style that strips sentences down to their bare components of noun and verb, Ernest Hemingway has maintained a volatile reputation into the early 21st century.

On the one hand, his novels tend to stick to the same themes over and over–war, bravery, and lots and lots of alcohol drowning every page–and compared to contemporaries like Faulkner, Cather, or Fitzgerald, I wouldn’t put Hemingway in the same league when it comes to descriptions, which mainly comes down to that bare-bones style I mentioned.

At the same time, there’s no denying the author who gave the world my favorite closing lines (“isn’t it pretty to think so”) of a novel dramatically changed literature, especially American literature, and has a Nobel Prize in Literature to prove it. With all that in mind, what follows is a less-than-definitive ranking of Hemingway’s work, spanning the 1920s to the 1950s.

#4. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

Robert Jordan. Has. No. Personality. He has to be one of the dullest protagonists I’ve ever encountered in literary fiction. The motifs running through For Whom the Bell Tolls are ones Hemingway had already covered before: war (this time in Spain), a complicated relationship between a young man and a young woman, and basically everyone trying to act cool and courageous. What’s more, Hemingway’s bizarre penchant for using “obscenity” in place of actual swear words, not to mention the frequent use of “thou” between characters, makes this novel’s dialogue a real challenge. Still, Hemingway’s crisp style still shines through the flaws and, if nothing else, he does build a lot of tension in the whole will-they-destroy-the-bridge-or-not question.

#3. The Old Man and the Sea (1951)

The novel that won Hemingway his Pulitzer and Noble Prizes, The Old Man and the Sea packs in much allegorical and symbolic content–apparently alluding to Christian and Biblical themes–that, let me just put this on the record, went way over my head when I read it last year. The parallels to another American classic, Moby-Dick, seem obvious: a man is determined to slay (or catch) a ferocious sea creature, whether whale or marlin, no matter what the costs. In hindsight, this connection has enhanced The Old Man and the Sea for me because it gives the novel a quintessential feel. On the surface–just look at its title–this is a seemingly simple novel, and it demands multiple readings in order to get into the depths of Hemingway’s brilliance.

#2. The Sun Also Rises (1926)

For a debut novel, The Sun Also Rises is pretty spectacular. While those famous closing lines I referred to earlier have come to define this novel, the thousands of preceding words are just as clear, clean, and still evocative. Jake Barnes’s alcohol-drenched travels in France and Spain stamped Hemingway on the literary map. I would argue this happened not so much because of what happens in The Sun Also Rises more than how Hemingway so effectively uses his celebrated journalist-based writing style. Of course, without Lady Brett Ashley, this novel would fall apart, so she deserves kudos for driving the story so well.

#1. A Farewell to Arms (1929)

The impending sense of tragedy that runs throughout this novel made it an instant-favorite for me. Of course, the heartbreaking–and yet stoic–finale–is what really made this a classic for me. Who knew Hemingway was capable of expressing such immense emotion with his trademark concise language! (Also, keep in mind that Hemingway apparently rewrote this ending some THIRTY-NINE times!)

Yes, this features the same themes (war, a troubled relationship) that I complained about with my #4 pick. Yet in A Farewell to Arms, these components don’t override the characters presented here. They’re allowed to grow on their own, which makes the interactions between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkely so realistic. Outside of several of his short stories, this novel is the definitive Hemingway work.


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