31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 14: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

May 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” – Ernest Hemingway on William Faulkner

Although his assessment was a tad arch (as we saw earlier in the week, Faulkner himself abandoned the ornate, high modernist style on occasion), Hemingway certainly did not need big words to tackle big ideas. Nor did he need a voluminous numbers of pages. “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of Hemingway’s masterpieces of short fiction (and one of the best American short stories, period) runs to four pages, and yet manages to carry more impact than most novels.

Told mostly in dialogue, it’s the story of an American man and a girl who stop for a drink at a Spanish railway station. They are waiting for the train from Barcelona, heading to Madrid. While they wait, they drink beer and engage in what appears to be innocuous badinage:

“Oh cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”

“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”

“That was bright.”

“I wanted to try this new drink: That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”

“I guess so.”

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

“Should we have another drink?”

“All right.”

The two talk about beer and anise, a drink the girl has never tasted. They bicker back and forth the way that couples do, but in the early stages of the story, their conversation sounds entirely unremarkable, even boring. The only slightly discordant note is the girl’s insistence that the hills in the distance look like white elephants. She appears to mean this literally, referring in the passage above to “the coloring of their skin through the trees.” However, with Papa Hemingway, things are never just as they appear on the surface, and the choice of white elephants in this context is absolutely deliberate.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “white elephant” as: “an item or property that is no longer useful or wanted, especially one that is difficult to maintain or dispose of.” At first, this seems like a strange association for the girl to be making on a symbolic level, but the metaphoric import becomes staggeringly clear a few lines later:

“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.

“It’s lovely,” the girl said.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

With the mention of the operation, which the man goes on to say is “just to let the air in,” the entire tenor of the conversation changes. All of a sudden, what was light and quotidian becomes fraught with unspoken tension.

“Hills Like White Elephants” was published in 1927. At the time, Spain was a devoutly Catholic country and abortion was illegal. Although it is never explicitly mentioned in the text, it is clear from the ensuing dialogue that this is the nature of the operation the girl is travelling to Madrid to undergo. “I don’t care about me,” the girl insists, and later the man tells her, “I don’t want anybody but you.” Though they circle around the subject, they never address it head on; nevertheless, the import of their conversation is abundantly clear to the reader.

The dialogue is shot through with irony, especially in the argument the man uses to try to persuade the girl that having the abortion is the best thing for her:

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve know lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

One of the reasons Hemingway’s writing is so brilliant – and so difficult for students being exposed to it for the first time – is that he never directs his readers as to how they are meant to feel at any given time. A less confident writer would have written, “‘And afterward they were all so happy,’ she said sarcastically.” Hemingway leaves off the final dialogue tag, expecting his reader to figure out the tone in which the girl has spoken. Reading a Hemingway story involves a process of plumbing the depths, searching beneath the surface of what is being said for the buried meaning.

The opening line of the story reads, “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.” People unfamiliar with Spain’s geography will not realize that the hills Hemingway is referring to, when viewed from afar, take on the shape of a pregnant woman reclining on her back. It is not necessary to know this to appreciate the story. However, it is yet another level of insinuation the author has built into his carefully constructed, wickedly executed text. It’s true that Hemingway did not need big words to convey his big ideas. In many cases, the big ideas exist in the interstices between the words, waiting for the reader to come along and excavate them.

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