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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Why are Hemingway's literary situations in "Hills Like White Elephants" more dramatic than his dialogue?

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Anyone reading a Hemingway short story must be willing to work because most of the story will be found lying below the surface details. As a realist, Hemingway created characters, placed them in situations, and told us what they said and did, but he did not tell us much about how they felt, and he told us nothing about how we are supposed to feel. His stories are not full of imagery to heighten emotion or suggest drama. As a former newspaper reporter, his favorite words were nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. This is the case with "Hills Like White Elephants."

This story is Hemingway at his most controlled and concise. With the exception of a very few paragraphs, the entire story consists of dialog between two lovers as they wait for a train. Through their conversation, however, we come to recognize their personalities, their values, and their relationship. Lying below their exchanges we find a serious situation, full of conflict: He wants her to have an abortion; she doesn't want to have it. The very real drama of their situation is deliberately understated, however, through Hemingway's economy of language.

Over the years, Hemingway's style has been studied, interpreted, criticized, praised, dismissed, and frequently copied (poorly) by aspiring young writers. During his lifetime, he was frequently asked to explain a particular work or his writing, in general. Like most writers, he usually dismissed such questions out of hand. On one occasion, though, he was asked about the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea. His response gives at least a bit of insight into his style. He said that if he were able to create an old man, a boy, and a fish that were real enough, they would have meaning. The characters in "Hills Like White Elephants" are portrayed realistically. He left it up to the reader to find something meaningful in what they say to each other.

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