~5 Minute Read
Feel free to read this very short story ahead of time here!
https://faculty.weber.edu/jyoung/English 2500/Readings for English 2500/Hills Like White Elephants.pdf
In his minimalistic story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway produces a compelling image and story grounded in realism through almost purely dialogue. He masterfully creates tension and drives naturally speech patterns for a character pair reaching the end of their relationship. The dialogue never directly states any of the conflict between the couple but infers their problems through unreliable speech and an argument over control.
This first thing to extrapolate from the speech is that it is likely about an abortion that the man is attempting to convince the woman to have. Hemingway gives the reader hints to this power struggle throughout. The man states that “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” clueing the reader in that he wants her to go through with an operation that she isn’t keen on doing. The woman also questions the man saying, “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” This implies that something happened between the two that’s causing concern for the man. The most likely thing would be that she was pregnant, and that he would like for her to have an abortion. The man spends the majority of the story trying different tactics in order to convince her, including heavily attempting reverse psychology. In fact, the reliability of what he says is often to be viewed as disingenuous.
Early in the story, Hemingway let’s the reader in on the man’s direction by showing the reader his ability to say whatever he thinks she wants to hear. After the girl asks him if her comment on the hills as bright, he agrees with her immediately just to keep her happy. But after she becomes pleased with herself and her comment, the man switches to talking about operation. Hemingway is clever in doing this because it is exactly like a man trying to convince a woman to get an abortion for a baby he doesn’t want. He tries to sneak it in after she feels a bit calmer with some alcohol and agreement. To Hemingway’s credit, this is an associable pattern of speech to the reader. The man is clearly pushing for the operation, as he says opposites such as “I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.” The woman understands this false direction behind his speech. She recognizes that the child is leverage she has on him, as he seems intent on leaving her after the operation. So, she plays along with his game in a manner of acting oblivious.
This is where the real power struggle comes in between the two, which is orchestrated entirely through a dialogue between the pair that plays out like a battle of wits behind words. A prime example of this parrying of blows starts off with the man saying that he “won’t worry because it’s perfectly simple,” implying that he is softening up the abortion process for the woman to make her feel more comfortable to get his way. Then she strikes back cleverly with the retort “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” Here the reader understand that she has the power because it is her body and choice. The woman knows how to push the man, so she puts the fear in him that she’s falling into a self-hatred cycle, which may cause her not to get the operation. His answer is expected and obvious: “Well, I care about you.” This allows her to play him right into the trap of “Oh yes, but I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.” She’s shaming him in a way, since she knows what he’s up to. But they’re landlocked in the power-struggle. She wants him to love her and be with her, and he wants to leave. The unborn child is all that’s keeping them together, and they both know this. They play against each other in a verbal battle, but Hemingway cuts the reader out from hearing the actual outcome. For all the reader knows, it could have gone either way.
The beauty of this story is in its spoken complexity. Weight lies heavily behind the characters’ words and are filled with double meanings. Both are unreliable in literal speech, but fight viciously in a silent way in public. Hemingway masterfully conducts a dialogue for the reader that feels both completely natural and painfully articulate in laying out an unresolved conflict, almost purely through the way of spoken dialogue.