Friday, 9 May 2014

Ernest Hemingway's 'Hills Like White Elephants'

Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is perhaps best known for its unique narrative structure. The scant descriptions are in third person and throw light only on details regarding the place and setting where a small, deceptively simple incident takes place. The entire theme of the story is unraveled through the passionate dialogues between “the American” and “the girl”. However, these dialogues are a bit demanding since they could make sense only if the readers put together the bits and pieces that refer to something about which the girl is apprehensive and her partner is clandestinely forcing her to undergo. Hemingway does not use the crucial word in any part of the story, but the context, dialogues, and the behavior of the two main characters would make it clear that they are planning to travel by train to Madrid to abort their child.
     The most intriguing aspect of the story is its terse narrative structure that leads readers slowly to the core of the issue dealt with. The third person narrative serves the functional purpose of describing the mise en scene and filling in the unavoidable details of action. Each word has its weight and significance in the story for the same reason. Moreover, the story makes use of symbolic representations through every image that appears in it. The protagonists have a few drinks in the train station in the Ebro River valley of Spain and speak about the hills in the background, the drinks, their shared life, the abortion and their future. The varying viewpoints of the man and woman regarding the abortion are cleverly revealed through their conversation and action.


     Hemingway presents a fragment from the life of the protagonists, but this throws light on the effects of time and space on the quality of their life. They are presumably the representatives of the ‘roaring twenties’, who led a hedonistic life after the First World War. The crumbling social values and family structure have led to a freewheeling life where men and women lived for the moment, and tried to get rid of commitments and responsibilities. The tension felt through the curt dialogue shows how the attitudes to such a life differ drastically between the man and the girl. The man is obviously distracted by the prospect of getting rid of their child because he is forcing the girl to do it. He forcefully brings the subject during the conversation and says, “That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy”.  He neglects the attempt by the girl to bring to his notice that the hills in the background look like white elephants. He says that he can’t think about the imagery then because “you know how I get when I worry”.  

     The dialogue structure is powerful in depicting the power relation between the couple as well. It is made clear from the beginning that the man is the decision maker, and the girl is relevant to him only to the extent of providing him pleasure through companionship. When she looks at the hills and says “they look like white elephants”, he dismisses the thought by saying “I’ve never seen one”. They even get into an argument at this point when she says “No, you wouldn’t have”.  He claims that “[J]ust because you wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything”. This could be linked to the different levels at which they perceive the issue of a baby growing in her womb. The figure of an elephant could also suggest the image of a pregnant woman’s swollen abdomen and breast. The man fails to experience the significance of the very physical presence and essence of having a child, as much as the girl does. Even though they could be leading a hedonistic life on mutual consent, the element of doubt at the moment of a major decision like this reveals the girl’s longing for permanence and stability in life. If she decides to discard the child, it could only mean that she does not care for herself anymore. 

     The lifestyle of the couple is hinted at only through passing references to trying out everything that could lead to pleasure, including drinks, and ‘absinthe’, which is an aphrodisiac. But the girl’s disappointment is evident when she says that everything ends up “tasting like liquorice”. Such brief references are a powerful means in the structural pattern of the story to reveal one by one the differing outlooks to life that the man and the girl have. The symbolic references to the train track that cuts through differing landscapes and the bead curtain that separates the place where the couple sits and the interior of the bar adds to the conflicts and collisions in their relationship. It is also evident from the topics they choose to talk about that they inhabit entirely different worlds. The girl focuses on the landscape and perhaps avoids eye contact with the American, who is fully preoccupied with the task of persuading her to agree for an abortion and to make it feel normal. 

   Hemingway leaves the story open ended, allowing the readers to fill in the gaps with their subjective viewpoints. The authorial voice is very strong indeed, but it does not impose a specific ideology through interpretations. He just describes the scene and presents the story through the dialogue between the protagonists.    


  1. This is one of my favourite Hemingway stories and one I use when teaching students the 'iceberg theory'. The details and the language are so spare and crisp, and what is left unstated is at least as important as what is stated.

  2. Very true, Loree. I made my students read this story as well, before discussing on how well dialogues can be used.