Why has Hemingway provided so little information about the past life circumstances of the characters in “Hills Like White Elephants”?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that Hemingway wanted to do something fairly radical in providing so little information about the past of the characters, Jig and the American man. I would submit that Hemingway wanted to construct a work that represented "the eternal present." Milan Kundera devoted a section of his work, "Testaments Betrayed," to this idea. It is so painfully difficult to construct anything in words that represents the entire experience. If we think of our most sacred memory, we can only describe a part of it and only through retrospect. Kundera feels that what Hemingway did in the short story is fairly brilliant precisely because there is so little information about the past lives or circumstances of the characters. Hemingway's style has put the reader in the eternal present. The reader is not reading, as much as they are watching what is happening. The reader is just as much a part of the story as the table, the luggage, or the lady who brings the couple their drinks. To add background information allows the reader to form judgments, and to break the moment, relegating the reader to an outside party. In the construction of a moment in the eternal present, Hemingway has thrust the reader into this discussion between Jig and the American male. It is a moment that happens in real time, as we are there. Just like these moments, we are unable to transcend time and space and make definitive judgments on what is happening. We can only hear and respond in our own skin with our own predispositions. In doing so, Hemingway has reminded us of our humanity with thrusting us in a situation that reminds us of it.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the end of his work about characters in World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque's character Paul remarks,

Had we returned hom in 1916, out of the suffering and the strength of our experience we might have unleashed a storm. Now, if we go back we will be weary, broken, burnt out, ruthless, and without hope.  We will not be able to find our way anymore.

Having written this story not long after World War I, Ernest Hemingway captures this sense of loss of values and aimlessness and isolation in the "lost generation" of post World War I.  In a dialogue that is without much emotion and sensitivity the American speaks dispassionately about the girl's pregnancy.  He wants no complications, for he is weary, without hope.  He can find no way for his relationship if it becomes complicated, and so there is no decision made by the girl and the American.


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Hills Like White Elephants

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