Ernest Hemingway Short Fiction Analysis
Any study of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories must begin with a discussion of style. Reacting against the overblown, rhetorical, and often bombastic narrative techniques of his predecessors, Hemingway spent considerable time as a young man working to perfect the spare form of narration, dialogue, and description that became the hallmark of his fiction. Nowhere does he achieve greater mastery of his medium than in his short stories. He expressed his belief and described his own method in a passage in Death in the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer has stated them.” Following this dictum, Hemingway constructed stories that sometimes make readers feel as if they are unseen auditors at some closet drama, or silent observers at intimate moments in the lives of characters struggling with important, although often private, issues.
“Hills Like White Elephants”
The technique is readily apparent in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Set in Spain during the hot summer, the story contains little overt action. Hemingway sketches the background deftly in a single opening paragraph of half a dozen sentences, each of which provides vital information that establishes a physical setting and a symbolic backdrop for the tale. On one side of the little junction station, there are fertile fields; on the other, a barren landscape. Only three characters appear: a man identified as an American, a girl, and a woman who serves them in the little café at which they have stopped to wait for the train that passes through the unnamed town on the route from Barcelona to Madrid. The entire story consists of a single scene in which the man and the girl sit in the café, drink various alcoholic beverages, and converse.
Much of the dialogue seems little more than small talk, but there is an underlying sense of tension from the very first exchange between the man and the girl after they order their beer. The girl mentions that the hills in the distance “look like white elephants,” to which her companion replies, “I’ve never seen one.” She immediately responds, “No, you wouldn’t have,” and he fires back, “I might have. Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.” The harshness of their responses contrasts with the inconsequential nature of the subject of their discussion, suggesting that the relationship between them is somehow strained but that neither wishes to discuss openly the real issue over which they are at odds.
For nearly half the story, the two try to make conversation that will ease the tension, but their remarks serve only to heighten it. The man finally mentions, in an almost offhand way, the subject that is really on his mind: He wants the woman to have an abortion. “It’s really an awfully simple operation,” he tells her. “It’s just to let the air in. it’s all perfectly natural.” The woman, who sits silent through his pleading, finally replies, “Then what will we do afterward?” The man repeatedly assures her that things will be fine if she agrees only to terminate her pregnancy, since in his view the baby will destroy the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The woman is wiser; she knows that their relationship has already been poisoned forever and that her pregnancy is not the sole cause. Theirs has been a peripatetic, rootless life, as barren in some ways as the countryside in which they now find themselves.
This summary of the story, like summaries of so many of Hemingway’s stories, is inevitably an artificial construct that does not convey the sense of significance that readers get from discovering the larger issues lurking beneath the surface of the dialogue and description. This story is about choice, a vital choice for the woman, who must face the dilemma of either acquiescing to the man’s wishes and undergoing what is for her more than a routine operation or risking the loss of a man for whom she has had some genuine feelings of love. Ultimately, either through his insistence or through her own realization that she must try to salvage their relationship even though she senses it will be futile to do so, she agrees to his demands. Her closing remark, on which the story ends, carries with it the strong note of cynicism that pervades the entire story: “I feel fine,” she tells the man as they wait for the train’s imminent arrival.
In addition to his distinctive style, Hemingway has made his mark in the literary world through the creation of a special kind of hero. The “Hemingway hero,” as this figure has come to be known, is usually a man scarred by some traumatic experience—war, violence, a love affair gone bad. Often a physical maiming serves as a symbolic reminder of the psychological dysfunction that characterizes these figures. Despite having received a bad deal from the world, the Hemingway hero perseveres in his search for a good life, creating his own meaning out of the chaos of existence—the hallmark of existential heroes in both American and continental literature. These heroes do what is right without expecting reward, either in this life or in the next.
“In Another Country”
Two fine examples of Hemingway heroes appear in the story “In Another Country.” The tale is set in Italy during World War I. A young American officer is recuperating at an Italian hospital, where he mingles with Italian soldiers who have seen considerably more action than he has seen. The extent of their physical injuries mirrors the psychological scars that the war has inflicted on them. One of them, a major who had been a champion fencer before the war, diligently undergoes therapy on a machine designed to restore his withered hand. He is hard on the young American for entertaining thoughts that full recovery for any of them is possible, yet he insists that they all go through the motions—not only with their therapy but also with other activities as well. He demands that the young man learn Italian correctly, for example, arguing that one must follow the rules in life, even when they seem meaningless. Clearly bitter over his fate, he nevertheless keeps up his treatment, until an even more ironic blow strikes him: His young wife contracts pneumonia, and while he is going through the motions to recover the use of a hand damaged beyond restoration, she lies dying. His anger at the cruelty of her impending senseless death drives him to lash out at the institution of marriage; when she dies, however, he breaks down in tears and abandons his therapy. The young American, witness to the Italian’s great love, comes to understand how nothing of value can last in this world. The lesson is bitter, but it is one that Hemingway heroes must learn if they are to go on living in a world where the only certainties are chance and chaos.
The young American in “In Another Country” is similar to the main figure in Hemingway’s stories, Nick Adams. Seen often as an alter ego for the writer himself, Nick appears in almost twenty stories, and from them readers can piece together his history. A youth who spends time in Michigan and who has many of his ideals shattered by his participation in World War I, Nick develops the characteristics of the Hemingway hero: He becomes convinced of the world’s essential callousness, yet he steels himself against its cruelties by observing the rituals that give his own life meaning. Hence, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick uses the activities associated with fishing as a kind of therapy to recover from the trauma of war.
One of the most anthologized of the Nick Adams stories is “The Killers.” In this tale, Nick is a young man, still quite naïve and still given to romanticizing events in his life. Two Chicago gunmen arrive at the small diner where Nick is eating. They bully the waiter, bind and gag Nick and the cook, and wait impatiently for a boxer named Ole Andresen, a frequent patron of the diner, so that they can kill him. When Andresen fails to come to dinner, the gangsters finally leave. Knowing that they will seek out Andresen, Nick runs to the boxer’s boarding house to warn him. Surprisingly, Andresen refuses to run away; he is content to wait for whatever fate brings him. Nick cannot understand how anyone can accept his lot with such resignation. The lesson for him—and for Hemingway’s readers—is that there comes a point when it is impossible to keep moving on, to keep effecting changes by running away. All people must stand and meet the destiny allotted to them, no matter how bitter and unfair that may seem.
Like Nick Adams and the young American in “In Another Country,” the hero of “Soldier’s Home” has been scarred by his experience in World War I and...
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