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"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, how does the setting develop the...

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tbabygirl83 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Honors

Posted September 9, 2011 at 12:00 PM via web

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"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, how does the setting develop the central idea?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted September 9, 2011 at 6:26 PM (Answer #1)

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It is with dialogue and setting that the minimalist Ernest Hemingway skillfully creates his powerful tale of two people together, yet separated ideologically. For instance, with her perception of the white hills as elephants, Jig's preoccupation with her pregnancy becomes apparent. Also, her more sensitive nature and intuitive mind are evinced in her remark,

"They're lovely hills,...They don't really look like white elephants.  I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.

Her ability to interpret nature allows Jig to internalize and perceive the operation as a life-changing event. Considering what is involved, she looks around and notices

fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro.  Far away, beyond the river, were mountains.  The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

Just as she can observe nature and its movements, Jig can conceptualize the "simple" operation of which the man speaks as a momentous, an act that will leave them not, as the man argues, "just like before." Thus, in contrast to Jig, the man does not perceive the hills as white elephants; and, even when he looks down the railway, he cannot see the train. For, he reduces everything to a mechanical process as he thinks of things only in steps toward an end.  He even admits to not thinking about the future: 

"I love it  now but I just can't think about it.  You know how I get when I worry."

Considering only the apparent facts, the man tells Jig that after the operation, they will be fine.  After all, the "it's perfectly simple."  However, Jig knows that "once they take it away, you never get it back."  Then, she "looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley."  But, the myopic man merely "looked at her and at the table." 

As the time nears for the arrival of the train, the man significantly says that he must take the bags "to the other side of the station" as, indeed, he is on the other side of considering the abortion: Jig does not want to have one.

In his essay, "Hills Like White Elephants": "Hills Like White Elephants," Robert Johston states,

With swift, sure strokes, without a wasted word or motion, Hemingway creates a taut, tense story of conflict in a moral wasteland.

This moral wasteland is conveyed through Hemingway's skillful use of setting:  barren hills, dry, deserted railways running through "the country [that] was brown." 

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