Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The impassive, documentary style of “Hills Like White Elephants” is typical of much of Hemingway’s fiction. It manifests the care, restraint, intensity, and control, the economy and precision that characterize his best prose. The author seems to be indifferent both to the characters and to the reader; he pretends to be merely an objective observer content to report without comment the words and actions of these two people. He has virtually no access to their thoughts and does not even interpret the emotional quality of their words or movements by using adverbs; he simply records. Hemingway believed in a precise, naturalistic rendering of the surface; he insisted on presenting things truly.

As was indicated earlier, Hemingway’s ironic technique plays an important role in this story. The very use of a clear and economical style to reveal a relationship that is troubled and complex is ironic. The story seems to be void of artifice and emotion yet is carefully fashioned and powerfully felt. The dispassionate style appears to be absolutely appropriate to the cold, sophisticated, literal-minded, modern sensibility of the protagonist, yet in fact the man is revealed to be disingenuous and destructive. The deeper levels of this story are disclosed by examining not only what is implied through the irony but also what is indicated by symbolism and repetition.

The symbolism has already been remarked, and only one other observation seems necessary here. It is important to note that anything that can be said to operate symbolically does so without violating the realism of the story in any way. Hemingway uses banal repetition quite effectively here. The insincerity of the man is apparent in his dependence on empty phrases: “it’s perfectly simple”; “if you don’t want to you don’t have to.” Both the man’s duplicity and the girl’s perceptiveness, anger, and despair are evident in the way in which she echoes his transparent lies: “And afterward they were all so happy . . . I don’t care about me. . . . Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.”

In terms of style and technique, “Hills Like White Elephants” is a quintessential early Hemingway story. The use of the language of speech as the basis for the story, the insistence on presentation rather than commentary, the condensation, and the intensity are all basic elements of his theory of fiction.