Laurie Steed kindly asked me to write something for his wonderful blog. This piece explores one of my favourite short stories, Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway has endured. For almost one hundred years his writing has been praised, imitated, mocked, dismissed, rediscovered, and praised again. Love or hate him – apparently, there’s no other option – Hemingway’s influence on modern literature is undeniable. So large looms his shadow that it takes a brave writer to attempt a simple and direct style, to construct a novel or a story with modest vocabulary, terse description and clipped dialogue.
Novels such as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea are heavyweight classics. But it’s Hemingway’s short stories that many consider the pinnacle of his talent, the distillation of his vision. A series of reflective, semi-autobiographical tales featuring Nick Adams as protagonist were written when Hemingway was in his mid-twenties and living in Paris after WWI. Later, in his thirties, came a couple of unforgettable African stories. Both set on safari and featuring American married couples, they are studies of relationships gone sour and courage under pressure.
Hills Like White Elephants falls within this ten-year purple streak. Written in 1927, it is perhaps one of the most striking examples of what Hemingway referred to as his Iceberg Theory, suggesting that the emotional weight of a story lies more in the writer’s omission of details than what we as the reader see on the surface.
An American man and his female companion – referred to as the girl, and later, Jig – wait for a train to Madrid. They sit at a table in the shadow of the station. In the distance the hills across the valley of the Ebro are long and white. It’s a hot day and they decide to have a drink, order two beers through a beaded curtain hanging across the open door of the bar. A woman answers, delivers the two beers with two felt pads and sets them on the table. The girl looks off across the brown country to the white hills in the sun.
The rest of the story is conducted almost wholly in dialogue. The girl comments that the hills look like white elephants. They discuss Anis del Toro, a liquorice-flavoured drink, and the girl decides to try one. She mentions the hills again, suggests it was a bright observation. The man agrees. They have another drink, a beer, and the man turns the conversation toward the subject of an operation. He attempts to convince the girl that everything will be fine. The operation is perfectly simple, just to let the air in. The girl isn’t convinced. She’s worried it will change things between them. Eventually, the girl refuses to talk about the operation any longer, pleads with the man to quit the conversation, and after a cap-gun parting shot rebuked by the girl, he concedes by carting their heavy bags across the tracks to where the train to Madrid is due in five minutes. When he returns, he asks the girl if she feels any better.
Why It Sticks
At first glance, the four-page narrative appears nothing more than a casual conversation between a man and a woman as they wait for a train to Madrid. No line, no passage, is particularly arresting or brilliant, at least not on the surface. The language is simple, declarative. Mild tension arises early on with a couple sarcastic jabs between the characters, builds to a heated discussion, and ends unresolved.
But this is Hemingway’s genius. Pathos is achieved by repetition and the accumulation of small, often vague details. Omission is crucial. The word abortion never appears in the text, but it’s safe to say that this is the operation the protagonists are discussing throughout the story. Sometimes the abstract idea of space in literature is a difficult concept to grasp. We want minutiae of character and setting, but if the features are painted too thickly, the portrait, as well as the landscape, can be ruined. Hills, like much of Hemingway’s best work, is all about suggestion. The vast majority of the story is dialogue, but the lack of communication between the couple rings true. They talk, but never really understand each other. No internal monologues. We know the characters from their actions, by what they say. The bones are laid bare, only the essentials exist. And if the perceptive reader wishes to construct symbols from the reportage, the conversation, they are free to do so.
There’s space to breathe in Hills. Read the story in a short sitting. Think nothing of it. And a week later, remembering it as you’re sending the kids off to school, feeding the dog, mowing the lawn, waiting for the dentist or driving home from work, it will break your heart.