Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“Hills Like White Elephants” calls to mind the “A Game of Chess” section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); like Eliot’s masterpiece, Hemingway’s story deals with the sterility and vacuity of the modern world. The boredom of the man and the desperation of the girl reveal the emptiness of the postwar generation and the crucial necessity of taking responsibility for the quality of one’s own life. Both Eliot’s poetry and Hemingway’s fiction are filled with a sense of missed opportunities and failed love, of a fullness of life lost and never to be regained: “Once they take it away, you never get it back.” As in Eliot’s poem, the landscape takes on powerful symbolic dimensions here. On the side of the tracks where the couple is waiting, the country is “brown and dry”; “on the other side, were fields of grain and frees . . . the river . . . mountains.” The girl calls attention to the symbolic value of the setting and indicates that in choosing to have an abortion and to continue to drift through life they are choosing emotional and spiritual desiccation.
Hemingway’s characters seem to live in a world without a God, without traditions or clear and established values; they are, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “condemned to be free” and consequently are responsible for their own meaning. The man here is unequal to the challenge; he is a bored and listless fragment of a human being. He resolutely refuses to speak truthfully, to acknowledge his own hypocrisy. His unwillingness to be honest—and, by extension, modern...
(The entire section is 644 words.)
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