How does Hemingway use simple, direct language to create a detached tone in his narrative in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Simple, direct language is used to create a detached narrative tone by:

  1. avoiding emotionality
  2. providing an anonymous narrator
  3. creating a surface sense of objectivity

Hemingway's choices in diction and vocabulary for simple and direct language avoids emotionally charged superlatives and other emotionally evocative adjectives and adverbs. For example, Hemingway writes, "The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade." Hemingway leaves out all descriptors that might evoke an emotional response to or connection with the characters. For instance, the man is neither heavy-set nor tall, lanky nor slight of build, short nor imposing. He is just an "American man." This sparsity also means that stereotypes are free to abound in the reader's mind.

The diction choices also render the narrator anonymous. Compare this approach to one of the Jane Austen narrators who are near to, not distanced from, the characters and who comment freely upon events and character behavior. Austen narrators are not anonymous: they have a voice and a personality. Hemingway's narrator is anonymous, without a personality and without a voice of opinion.

The anonymous, detached narrator uses sparse language to create a sense of objectivity, of merely overhearing a conversation, merely accidentally viewing events that transpire near by, events in which the narrator has no interest.

These are three techniques by which Hemingway uses diction comprising simple and direct language to create a detached narrative tone. Yet, if you consider the narrator's few descriptive and symbolic passages you will note that the tone is not as detached as the diction of emotionlessness, of an anonymous and distanced narrator, of objectivity leads you to believe.

In the description and symbolism, you will discover a compassionate and involved tone: "[The] valley of the Ebrol were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun." In this line, Hemingway gives away an involved and compassionate tone since the setting description symbolizes the upcoming conversation and experience of the couple while it foreshadows their ultimate resolution: "two lines of rails."

hgatlin21 | Student

Hemingway's short and simple sentences feel sharp and choppy, almost unfinished. They leave the impression that something is being held back from the reader, just like the American and Jig try to hold back their emotions in conversation. The lack of excessive description, especially in the American man's dialogue evokes a feeling of disinterest, making the American seem detached.

Read the study guide:
Hills Like White Elephants

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question