Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The impassive, documentary style of “Hills Like White Elephants” is typical of much of Hemingway’s fiction. It manifests the care, restraint, intensity, and control, the economy and precision that characterize his best prose. The author seems to be indifferent both to the characters and to the reader; he pretends to be merely an objective observer content to report without comment the words and actions of these two people. He has virtually no access to their thoughts and does not even interpret the emotional quality of their words or movements by using adverbs; he simply records. Hemingway believed in a precise, naturalistic rendering of the surface; he insisted on presenting things truly.
As was indicated earlier, Hemingway’s ironic technique plays an important role in this story. The very use of a clear and economical style to reveal a relationship that is troubled and complex is ironic. The story seems to be void of artifice and emotion yet is carefully fashioned and powerfully felt. The dispassionate style appears to be absolutely appropriate to the cold, sophisticated, literal-minded, modern sensibility of the protagonist, yet in fact the man is revealed to be disingenuous and destructive. The deeper levels of this story are disclosed by examining not only what is implied through the irony but also what is indicated by symbolism and repetition.
The symbolism has already been remarked, and only one other observation seems necessary...
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Europe Between the Wars
Hemingway wrote ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ in 1926 while living in Paris. Europe between the First and Second World Wars provided the historical and cultural context for the story. Hemingway was twenty-two, newly married and ready to begin a career as a serious writer when he arrived in Paris in 1921. His experiences as an ambulance driver during World War I continued to affect him, and the sense of alienation and isolation characteristic of modernist writing can be found in the writing he produced during these years.
Europe was in the process of recovering from the war; however, it was a time of political and economic upheaval for most of the nations. Many nations suffered political struggles as right and left wing factions attempted to wrest control of their particular countries. In Italy, for example, strikes, violence, and political unrest led to the 1922 Fascist March on Rome. Mussolini established himself as dictator in that country. In Germany, the heavy reparations called for in the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI caused economic chaos. The German mark steadily lost ground as the rate of inflation spiraled upward. Germans would rush to buy goods the moment they received cash because the value of their cash would decrease by the end of the day. The other nations of Europe, their countryside scarred and their young men dead or wounded,...
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In ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ the setting serves both to locate the story in space and time and to function as an important symbol. The story is set in Spain, in the valley of the Ebro River. More immediately, the setting is a railway station ‘‘between two lines of rails in the sun.’’ The American and the girl sit at a table. On one side of the station, the land is parched and desolate. A number of critics have noted the similarity between this landscape and that of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. On the other side of the station, there are trees and grain. By dividing the setting in half, with one side sterile and the other fertile, Hemingway uses the setting to reinforce the division between the couple. They can choose sterility through the abortion, or fertility through the pregnancy. The landscape outside the couple’s conversation reflects the inner landscapes of the relationship.
The most striking feature of this story is that it is constructed almost entirely of dialogue. There are only seven short descriptive paragraphs that are not part of the dialogue itself. Further, there is very little action in the story: the girl walks from one side of the station to the other, they drink beer, and the man moves the luggage. By controlling the narrative so tightly, Hemingway forces the reader to participate in the scene almost as an eavesdropper. The reader...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1920s: Post-war American economy roars, fueled by a growing stock market. Credit is easy, and fortunes are made and lost in a day. The culture becomes increasingly consumer-oriented as new technology puts desirable products into the hands of the middle classes.
1990s: The United States enjoys a period of nearly unprecedented prosperity. Credit is easy, and the stock market spirals upward. The growth of technology has made computers, video games, digital cameras, and cell phones affordable for the middle classes.
- 1920s: Women finally receive the right to vote in the United States. They use their new-found voting power to make the consumption of alcohol illegal in the United States through a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the making or sale of alcohol. Women work outside the home, and the “flapper” becomes the symbol for a generation of young women.
1990s: Women hold elected offices, serve on the Unites States Supreme Court, and manage large corporations. Nevertheless, the earning power of women still lags behind that of men. Sexual discrimination and harassment laws protect women from being fired or demoted because of their gender.
- 1920s: Abortions are illegal in most countries in Europe and in the United States. Nevertheless, many women have abortions, and many die from poorly...
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Topics for Further Study
- Read The Sun Also Rises and the other stories in Men Without Women. How do you characterize the human relationships portrayed by Hemingway in the books? What different kinds of relationships does Hemingway explore?
- Investigate the American expatriate community in Paris during the years 1920 through 1929. Who are the members of the community? What is their relationship to each other? How did their close affiliation affect their writing?
- The Treaty of Versailles ended the hostilities of the First World War. However, many historians argue that the terms of the treaty made the Second World War inevitable. Investigate the treaty and the years between the wars. Describe the connections between the Treaty of Versailles and movement toward World War II.
- The role and status of women changed dramatically during the years from 1920-1929. Investigate this shift by looking at representations of women in art, music, and literature. What does this investigation reveal about the relationship between the sexes at this time?
- Visit an art gallery, or check out books on art from your library. Examine art produced during the years between 1920 and 1929. How is this work different from the work produced during the last half of the nineteenth century? What might account for the dramatic shifts?
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- “Hills Like White Elephants” is one of three short stories filmed as a cable television movie. The other two stories on the film include “The Man in the Brooks Brother Shirt” by Mary McCarthy, and “Dusk Before Fireworks” by Dorothy Parker. The ninety-minute film aired on HBO entertainment network in 1990 as Men and Women. The video version of the film is titled Women and Men: Three Tales of Seduction and is a 1996 Front Row Entertainment production. David Brown and William S. Gilmore are the producers. The film stars Beau Bridges, Melanie Griffith, Elizabeth McGovern, Molly Ringwald, Peter Weller, and James Woods.
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What Do I Read Next?
- The Sun Also Rises (1926) is a semi-autobiographical account of Hemingway’s post-World War I experience as an expatriate. The well-received novel earned Hemingway the title of spokesperson for his generation.
- Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988) is a collection by short story writer Raymond Carver. Most critics agree that Carver’s style was influenced by Hemingway’s early stories.
- Michael Reynolds’s Hemingway: The Paris Years(1989) is a careful examination of Hemingway’s expatriate period in Paris as a member of the ‘‘Lost Generation.’’ The time period covered includes the years when Hemingway wrote and published ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’
- A Moveable Feast (1964) is Hemingway’s memoir of his years as a young writer in Paris. Hemingway worked on the manuscript during 1957 and 1958, and the volume was published after his death in 1961.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Connolly, Cyril. A review of Men Without Women. In New Statesman, November 26, 1927, p. 208.
Hannum, Howard L. “‘Jig Jig to dirty ears’: White Elephants to Let.’’ In The Hemingway Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 46-54.
Hollander, John. ‘‘Hemingway’s Extraordinary Reality.’’ In Ernest Hemingway, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 211-6.
Lamb, Robert Paul. “Hemmingway and the Creation of Twentieth Century Dialogue.” In Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, Winter, 1996, pp. 453-80.
Messent, Peter. Ernest Hemingway. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992, pp. 90-92.
Parker, Dorothy. A review of Men Without Women. In New Yorker, October 29, 1927, pp. 92-4.
Renner, Stanley. ‘‘Moving to the Girl’s Side of ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’’ In The Hemingway Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 27-41.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Smiley, Pamela. “Gender-Linked Miscommunication in ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’’ In New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Jackson J. Benson. Duke University Press,...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.
Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.
Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.
Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.
Padura Fuentes, Leonardo. Adiós Hemingway. Translated by John King. New York: Canongate, 2005.
Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Blackwell, 1986.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Homecoming. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
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