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 Hills Like White Elephants, are both characters static and indirectly characterized?

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As with most of Hemingway's work, there is much indirect characterization and plot progression in his story "Hills Like White Elephants." This operates on what Hemingway calls—and what many critics call—the Iceberg Theory; the idea is that the majority of the significance and meaning of a story is hidden, much like an iceberg, underneath the surface.

The characters are active throughout the story, but they are seemingly static. Hemingway sort of straddles the line between nothingness and significant action. After discussing seemingly trivial things, such as the hills looking like elephants, and the name of the drink they're trying, the girl says:

"I wanted to try this new drink: That's all we do, isn't it—look at things and try new drinks?"

They are, in a sense, static, because of the great unimportance of their dialogue. Of course, this quickly changes, and Hemingway unloads a heavy plot point upon the reader. Through discretion and indirect speech, it is revealed that the couple plan to have an abortion. As they tiptoe around the subject, the man subtly tries to convince her that it is what is necessary, that he loves her, and that he will remain by her side throughout. The girl rejects this, and while there is no climactic, melodramatic argument, by the end of the story, they certainly haven't come to a sincere agreement.

Looking at "Hills Like White Elephants" also allows us to see some indirect characterization. Through dialogue between the two characters, Hemingway brings these characters to life, and by analyzing what they say and how they react, the reader is able to understand the characters. The girl, for example, is incredibly stubborn. She seemingly disagrees for the sake of argument. She blatantly lies about her feelings, stating that she feels simply fine when she obviously does not. At one point, she says:

"Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?"

Because of this, she is almost childlike and infantile. She seemingly rejects the idea of having an abortion—or, at the very least, is terrified at the thought. The man is, in his own way, condescending, for he suggests that he knows better than she would in a given situation. There is a characterization of sentimentality in both of them as well. Faced with an unwanted pregnancy, the life they share is threatened. The girl says,

"If I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me? But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?"

Here, it is revealed that the man's lack of enthusiasm in regards to her statement about the hills resembling white elephants was wholly uncharacteristic. Perhaps at this point, their relationship has already started to die. Through this desperate hope and plea, we are shown that the girl is already mourning what is lost.

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Well, no, I can't confirm the first element. The characters weren't fully static. There was a decision reached in the story—to have an abortion—and this will reshape both of them, especially the woman, and their relationship.


There was, however, considerable indirect characterization in the story. Hemingway characterizes the two characters by what they say, the pacing, what they don't say, how they interact, descriptions of the landscape, etc.

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