How does Hemingway indicate tone in "Hills Like White Elephants"? 

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megboland's profile pic

megboland | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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The tone of a piece of literature can be defined as the emotion or attitude that the author conveys about the piece through his words.  Tone can be hard to separate from mood, however, as a rule of thumb the mood is the emotion throughout the story while the tone is the attitude of the narrator of the story.  In "Hills Like White Elephants" Hemingway indicates tone through his description of the scene.  The tone of the narrator is difficult to find but it is revealed in suggestive descriptions, like this one, "They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry." The tone of the narrator, what the narrator's attitude is, is sympathy for the characters. The tone is revealed in the words white, sun, brown, dry in this quote and in similar words in other quotes. The narrator feels sympathetic toward the sense of conflict between the characters regarding Jig's pregnancy and the man's desire for her to end the pregnancy with an abortion.  This produces a tense mood to the piece and leads the reader to wonder about the deeper problems in this relationship, while the narrator creates tone by imparting the attitude of sympathetic understanding.

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Karyth Cara | College Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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In order to understand how an author indicates tone in a work, you need to have a correct understanding of the concept of tone in literature. Tone in literature is the attitude, opinion, assessment the narrator has of the characters and events in the narrative, and tone can be described in terms of attitudinal emotional quality (emotional qualities related to attitude), such as playful, hopeful, pessimistic. Narrators are not neutral, although some come close to being neutral. Each narrator has a tone through which they narrate characterization and plot development.

Tone is external to the narrative in that it is not part of setting, characterization, character interaction, plot action or mood (which is also called atmosphere). Tone is also external to the narrative insofar as it is a characteristic of the narrator; it is part of the narrative mode (also called narratorial mode). This is less clear when the narrator is first-person, thus also a character of the story, though it is more clear when the narrator is third-person, especially when third-person subjective with a global point of view (meaning the character through which the story is focalized can change at the author's will). Tone in literature is developed by an author through diction and narratorial mode, which includes narrator proximity, narrator intrusiveness and degree of narrator objectivity or subjectivity.

The narrator--even an objective, distanced, unintrusive narrator--expresses an attitude toward, opinion of or feelings about the characters, events and plot action in the narrative through narratorial tone, so tone may be described as the narrator's tone of voice. It is very difficult to develop a completely neutral narrator, one who expresses no opinion, attitude or sentiment toward or assessment of the setting, characters or action, and most authors consciously develop tone as a concrete, complementary element of their work. Certainly Austen and Saki made no attempt at developing neutral narrators who didn't impart a tone--an attitude, opinion, sentiment or assessment--toward the settings, characters or actions. Hardy may sometimes seem to have developed a neutral narrator, but his narrators are not neutral. Tone, then, is not related to characters, nor to dialogue, nor to setting, nor to plot. Tone is related exclusively to the narrator. Tone doesn't relate to what exchanges and interactions develop between the characters in action or dialogue, as would be true for conversational tone. Tone in literature relates to what the narrator thinks or feels or to what assessments or judgements the narrator makes about the narrative elements of character, events and plot development; this is simply stated as narrator attitude.

To find how Hemingway indicates narratorial tone in "Hills Like Elephants," let's evaluate what kind of narrator Hemingway employs to tell the story of Jig and the American man. Narrators may be intrusive or not. Intrusive narrators comment to varying degrees on the literary elements. For example, Fielding develops a very intrusive narrator in Tom Jones, as seen in these lines:
This strange, cruel, and almost unaccountable ingratitude in the captain, absolutely broke the poor doctor's heart; for ingratitude never so thoroughly pierces the human breast as when it proceeds from those in whose behalf we have been guilty of transgressions.
 
Contrastingly, Hardy develops a narrator who does not intrude in Jude the Obscure as, for example, in these lines: "The smith and his companion returned. Old Miss Fawley's fuel-house was dry, and eminently practicable; and she seemed willing to give the instrument standing-room there." Hemingway has similarly to Hardy developed an unintrusive narrator in "Hills," one who does not intrude commentary into the story, as illustrated by these lines: "The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table. ... The girl did not say anything."
 
Narrators have proximity to characters and action. Narrators can have near or distant proximity; they may be near to what happens to whom or distant from what happens to whom. Hemingway develops a narrator with near-proximity, one who observes even small details such as to where Jig's eyes move (e.g., "The girl looked across at the hills ... at the ground ... at the bead curtain"), although still an invisible, unintrusive narrator.

Narrators
may be objective (non-judgemental, uncritical, reporting events and actions without bias) or subjective (emotionally affected, opinionated, biased in one direction or another). An objective narrator reports who said and did and thought what and reports what occurs and what the consequences are. A subjective narrator reports these things also but does so through an overt filter of emotions, opinions and thoughts. An objective narrator makes no attempt to bias or interpret story elements. A subjective narrator does overtly color, bias and interpret story elements, as Fielding does regarding the "strange, cruel ... captain" and how "ingratitude ... pierces the human breast." By way of analogy, you might say the difference between an objective narrator and a subjective narrator is the same as the difference between an objective BBC News report and a subjective The View discussion.
 
Hemingway presents an objective narrator who closely observes but does not attempt to bias, judge or interpret events. Identifying the tone of an objective, unintrusive, closely proximal, observant narrator, such as Hemingway's narrator, is more difficult than identifying the tone of a subjective, intrusive narrator. Knowing now how to understand what a narrator might be, we can analyze further how Hemingway indicates tone in "Hills."

To reiterate: Tone in literature is developed by an author through diction and narrative mode, which includes narrator proximity, narrator intrusiveness and degree of narrator objectivity or subjectivity. Diction is a composite of vocabulary, style and formality in writing (diction, style and formality may also be called register, as in academic register). Hemingway's narratorial mode has already been analyzed as presenting an objective, unintrusive, closely proximal, observant narrator. His diction will determine the second element of narratorial tone. Examining descriptive passages and dialogue provides the two keys to determining narrator tone as revealed through diction. Diction is broken down into words (including whether everyday or complex words), phrases, abstract or concrete qualities, grammar, degrees of formality and informality. Here's a sample of Hemingway's writing from "Hills" which we can analyze to ascertain the characteristics of his diction.
    The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were 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.
    "And we could have all this," she said. "And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible."
 
Hemingway is notable for his uniform use of simple, everyday vocabulary. This characteristic of his writing style is evident in "Hills," in which both descriptions and dialogue conversations are written in simple words that have concrete qualities: concrete clouds move; they do not inspire abstract notions of immutability etc. Another characteristic of note is that, while Hemingway's vocabulary is simple and everyday, his grammar is perfect; there are no grammatical errors in "Hills," either accidental ones as a result of poor writing or intentional ones as part of narratorial tone or characterization of the American man or Jig.

Another characteristic of note is that, while the phrases Hemingway uses are simple grammatically, the imagery and emotion he builds with them are vivid and moving. For example, in the above quotation, Hemingway uses prepositions to indicate location: the end, across, on the other side, along, far away, beyond, moved across, through the trees. The locative prepositional phrases he chooses make his simple language awaken with vivid imagery, as in "The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain." In the above example of dialogue, repeated phrases communicate the emotion Jig is feeling and generate a sympathetic emotional feeling in the reader: "And we could have all this,.... And we could have everything and every day...." The reader feels the communicated regret and sorrow Jig is feeling because of the repeated phrases, "And we could have" and "everything and every day."

Hemingway makes an interesting stylistic choice in regards to the level of formality/informality evident in his diction. The simple, concrete words, prepositional phrases and observant, closely proximal narrator (who sees minor details of actions) lend an informal quality to the narrative, while, in contrast, the perfect grammar and objective, unintrusive narrator lend a formal quality to the narrative. The result of this combination of these narrative elements is that the overall effect regarding formality/informality is that the reader seems to be closely connected as an invisible eavesdropper standing in the midst of a sincere and unpretentious conversation carried on as though in strictest, informal privacy (this sense of informal privacy is reinforced by the fact that neither the old woman nor the girl speak each other's language).

Now that we know the elements of tone as applied to how Hemingway indicates tone in "Hills Like White Elephants" through narratorial mode and diction, we can go a step further and identify what that tone is, keeping in mind that tone is expressed as an emotional quality related to attitude. One way to label the tone Hemingway indicates through diction and narratorial mode is by saying that the tone is sympathetic grief or sorrow; the narrator expresses no judgementalism in tone as indicated through diction and mode. It is interesting to note that while the conversational tone between the American man and Jig suggests tension and distance, there is no hint of tension or distance in the closely proximal, observant narrator's tone.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Much of the conversational tone in the story is created by the awkward silences between the two characters. But conversational tone does not tell us anything about the narrative tone, which is the attitude of the narrator toward the characters and events.

Another way Hemingway creates a conversational tone of awkwardness or discomfort is by what is sometimes called "non-responsive" dialogue or talking at cross-purposes. In other words, one character will make a comment, and rather than the other character responding directly, the second character will pause and then say something completely irrelevant. This gives the impression that the characters are not communicating, adding to the awkward, uncomfortable tone of the conversation.

In contrast, the narratorial tone, the narrator's attitude, is conveyed by the words in the brief descriptive statements the distanced and objective narrator makes. For instance, at the beginning of the story, the narrator's attitude is shown in this quotation, "The girl was looking off at the line of hills." It conveys a sense of discerning sympathy because the narrator doesn't pass judgement, but rather sees and sympathetically reports.

The short, declarative sentences in their conversation add to the awkwardness and sense of unresolved tension between them. The spareness of the description contributes to the narrator's tone, just as a neutral backdrop makes a sympathetic attitude stand out.

To a certain degree, tone is subjective. In narratives, as in real life conversations, readers can misinterpret characters' conversations, leading to subtle or overt misunderstanding of plot developments. Much of the power of this story depends precisely on the narrator's nonjudgmental, sympathetic tone.

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