Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills like White Elephants is easily one of the more stilted and melancholy of his work. The plot, about a man and woman, the latter apparently pregnant, waiting for the train that, it appears, will take them to the location where a medical clinic will perform an operation on the latter, presumably an abortion. Following a seemingly-innocuous series of exchanges regarding the landscape and the alcoholic beverages they will consume to while-away the time until their train arrives, Hemingway provides the first reference to the purpose behind their imminent journey:
'It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,' the man said. 'It's not really an operation at all.'
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
'I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.'
The girl did not say anything.
'I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural.'
'Then what will we do afterwards?'
'We'll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.'
The conversation continues on in this vein for the duration of the story. It’s almost as though Samuel Beckett has invaded the subconscious of Ernest Hemingway, with the arrival of a train summoning up visions of the mythical Godot, only that train will arrive, and the abortion, we conclude, will occur. The man laments the elimination of the lifestyle he, at least, has enjoyed – a relationship unencumbered by the intervention of a child, and sees an abortion as the path back to a state of happiness only he really remembers. This is evident in the following passage, in which the man is subtly convincing the woman to concur in his decision to abort the fetus:
'I think it's the best thing to do. But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to.'
'And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?'
'I love you now. You know I love you.'
'I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?'
The reference to “white elephants,” of course, harbors back to the story’s opening, when the woman remarks on the appearance of hills off in the distance as looking “like white elephants,” only to have this otherwise innocuous observation become the catalyst for an exchange that reveals far deeper meaning in terms of the strained relationship.
The “tone of communication” in Hemingway’s story is abrupt, strained. It exudes ambivalence at best and malevolence at worst. This is a dialogue between two people in an intimate relationship that is clearly in its death throes. As the story comes to a close, the woman appears to be reconciling herself to the medical procedure, and may even be at peace with it, but she clearly is feeling the strain of the decision, and she finally pleads with him to quit manipulating their lives to suit his preference:
'You've got to realize,' he said, ' that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.'
'Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along.'
'Of course it does. But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want anyone else. And I know it's perfectly simple.'
'Yes, you know it's perfectly simple.'
'It's all right for you to say that, but I do know it.'
'Would you do something for me now?'
'I'd do anything for you.'
'Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?'
The discomfort in this story is palpable. The tone is bleak, and the ending signifying resignation on the part of the woman.