illustration of train tracks with low hills in the background and one of the hills has the outline of an elephant within it

Hills Like White Elephants

by Ernest Hemingway

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In "White Hills Like Elephants," how does Hemingway's style serve to establish the tone of each speaker?

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The point of view used in this story is the third-person objective. This means that the narrator is neither a participant in the story's events nor does he or she tell us what any of the characters are thinking or feeling; this narrator can only tell us what would be observable by us, were we there too (this is the "objective" part of the point of view). Rather than tell us that the characters feel awkward or tense, then, the narrative makes us have to pick up on it ourselves. The characters's speech is short, and they never actually name what it is they seem to be discussing: an abortion for Jig who is, apparently, pregnant. These facts provide clues for us. The point of view Hemingway chooses for this story puts us in a similarly awkward position as the characters themselves, who appear not to be completely honest about their feelings and who mince their words a bit. Thus, their tone—clipped, awkward, sarcastic at times—is emphasized by the lack of a narrator who could tell us how they feel or what they think.

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In a story told entirely in dialogue, Hemingway's characters' feelings are revealed only through their tightly controlled, edgy conversation. Consequently, there is a certain ambiguity as to the meanings of some of the remarks made and those things not said that the injection of an omniscient narrator would explain.

For instance, when "the man" tells Jig, "It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,...It's not really an operation at all," his suggestion of an abortion is lacking in sentiment as is Hemingway's use of "the man" to name and describe him. In another instance, Jig's reply to the American's remarks that the world is theirs and they can have it are rather dejected, but controlled,

"No, it isn't.  And once they take it away, you never get it back."

"But they haven't taken it away."

"We'll wait and see."

Thus, the clipped dialogue and edgy tone indicate that the carefree, happy relationship between Jig and the American has been destroyed by the nonchalant view of abortion that the man possesses and his lack of feeling as he mentions it. 

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