Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants

hemingway-deskErnest Hemingway has a style of writing that invokes as many senses as possible in readers. In his story Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway grabs readers instantly with scenic imagery of the “hills across the valley” of a Spanish River that were “long and white.” The contrasting shade and heat in the scene set up for the contrasting characters in the story, who wrestle with their white elephant in the room and the environment. The man is described as American, but the girl is not described, she is possibly a local to the area or their destination, Madrid.  While the characters discuss an issue back and forth without saying what it is out loud, their interactions with the environment give clues to how the characters are feeling about their white elephant in the room.  The beaded curtain is often brought up and described as a means to “keep out flies.”  First the curtain catches the girl’s attention because it has an ad painted on it for a local drink.  As the two sit in the train station waiting for their next train, they drink. The characters mention that drinking is something they do often. Initially readers believe drinking was something to do because of the heat driving their interest in cooling off. Soon readers find out that drinking is one of two things the couple do and their relationship isn’t built on much else. The next time the bead curtain shows up it is when the girl picks up two strands and asks “and you think then we’ll be all right and be happy?”  The girl is testing the man and fate by creating a space for the flies to come in. Flies develop around things that are either dying or fecal in nature. The beaded curtain is intended to keep them out, but the girl seems intent on letting in negativity into their relationship. The man tries to reassure the girl that everything is fine and she has nothing to worry about. The girl is indeed worried.

The girl sits down at the table to look outside the window a few times in this story.  She makes remarks on the hills of the valley, the clouds moving across the “field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.” There is a saying about seeing a river through the trees, meaning she could now see the path she needed to take through all of the obstacles in her way blocking her from seeing it before. It is at this moment in the story that the girl cosigns to agree to the plan her and the American have. Whatever that white elephant is in the room, she decided that she was on board, both literally and symbolically.  The girl begins to say her and the man could have everything, the world is theirs, even though he is disagreeing with her, she seems to block out his words of negativity, despite the fact that she was creating a crack earlier to let it in. The man tells her to come to the shaded areas, as if he were worried that the blazing sun was affecting how she was thinking.  They resolve themselves to silence, as she continues to gaze out into the open plains. Once they resume talking the readers gets more insight into what exactly the white elephant is in the room.  Whether it is getting married, having an abortion in the big city of Madrid, or running away together in general, the white elephant is a little more defined than it had been throughout the story.

Once an agreement has been reached the American takes the bags to the train platform and engages in drinking again, without the girl. The bags are heavy, so readers get another clue, the couple is taking a lot with them, maybe everything they own, and maybe the girl is going to America with the man.  Once again the beaded curtain is breeched and he finds her smiling on the other side. The girl tells him she is fine, but also remarks “There nothing wrong with me. I feel fine,” which may be a line to convince herself more than him.  By the end of the story, Hemingway convinces readers that the couples problems will be alleviated by leaving the hot, almost sauna like environment with vast open plains of white elephants.  He also uses the word “fine” to describe the girl’s character, but since fine is not a feeling and often used to brush off any further questions about how someone is feeling, readers are left with more questions.  Hills Like White Elephants invokes aggravation in readers through the description of the environment, but also through the caddy back and forth bickering the two characters have.  It is possible that the bickering wouldn’t have taken place if the couple were in a French Café on the Riviera or in a Log Cabin in the Antartica trying to catch a train instead. The heat may be causing the bickering, but the bickering could just be them regardless of where they were. The urgency of the “express from Barcelona” that the characters were taking, also invokes the urgency the readers have to figure out the white elephant. Hemingway tells readers that the train only stops at that junction that the couple is at, for two minutes and was due to arrive in forty minutes. Readers now know they have forty-two minutes to figure out what the white elephant is. The river of Ebro was “long and white,” the tale of the white elephant was also long and white.  There were two sides to the setting, “on this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between the two lines of rails in the sun,” and on the other side resides the shadow, relief from the sun.  The couple had two choices to make and two sides of the white elephant. One side was happy and sunny and the other side was clouded in shadow but brought relief.  The couple chose to ride off into the sun.

Hemingway, Ernest.  Hills Like White Elephant” by Ernest Hemingway  from Charters, Ann, Ed. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th Ed.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.