How does the word "simple" help in understanding the story?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The most interesting thing about Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is not the problem facing the American and the girl, but the way in which the story is told. The style is completely objective. The reader is placed in the position of a observer and an eavesdropper; he can only try to understand what is happening through what these two strangers do and say. It is like watching a movie. There is virtually no exposition by the author except in the first paragraph, in which we are told that "the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid." In a movie this would be called an "establishing shot." Hemingway could have even handled that bit of expository information via dialogue. For example:

"How soon will the train be here," the girl asked.

"In about forty minutes. It only stops here for two minutes before it goes on to Madrid."

The first time the word "simple" is used is when the man tries to bring up the operation. 

"It's  really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said. "It's not really an operation at all."

By this we know that they are going to Madrid so that the girl can get an abortion. What seems simple to the man is extremely complicated for the girl. She is not so much concerned about the operation itself as about all the feelings connected with having an abortion. She instinctively wants to have the baby, not kill it. She knows she is doing a bad thing and that she could feel guilty about it for the rest of her life. Throughout the story the man and woman are talking at cross purposes, as is often the case when men and women discuss any important issue. The man is concerned with facts and the girl is concerned with feelings. 

The word "simple" is used to inform the reader of the motivation and the conflict. It must be an abortion the man is talking about. He doesn't use the word because, for one thing, he doesn't want to call it by its true name. The word "abortion" suggests blood, death, sharp surgical instruments, danger, criminality, and in those days dark alleys and strange characters who make careers out of killing unborn babies. The word "simple" also suggests that this couple has gone all over this question many times before. He is exerting extreme pressure on her to do something she doesn't want to do. That is the conflict in the story. She is just about completely worn down--but not quite. She asks:

"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 any one else. And I know it's perfectly simple."

"Yes, you know it's perfectly simple."

Meanwhile the train from Barcelona is rapidly approaching. The train is what writers call "a ticking clock." It puts pressure on both protagonist and antagonist to resolve their conflict. The man senses that the girl might back out at any moment. That is why he keeps talking, even though it is obvious that they girl wants to talk about anything, such as the hills that look like white elephants, rather than about the subject of such interest to him. The story ends inconclusively before the train gets to their insignificant little station. The reader will never know how it ends. 

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