Sympathetic Hemingway The most striking feature of the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is the manner in which it is told. It is not typical in the classical sense with an introduction, a development of the story and an end. Instead, we get some time in the life of two people, as if it were just a piece of a film where we have a lot to deduce. This tale does not get everything done for the reader; we only see the surface of what is going on. It leaves an open end because readers can have their own ending and take part in the action when reading.
The story told here is that of a woman and a man on their trip to a place where she can have an abortion. Everything in the tale is related to the idea of fertility and barrenness. This main topic can be seen from the title “Hills Like White Elephants,” where Hills refer to the shape of the belly of a pregnant woman. White Elephants is an idiom that refers to useless or unwanted things, meaning the fetus they plan on disposing of. Hemingway produces an effect of sympathy for the girl through the setting that symbolizes their decision process.
The time passing symbolizes the pressure the two people are under, and through their poor communication indicates that this relationship does not and will not work. The first impression the reader gets when reading the text is that the story is set in the middle of a dry, barren place under the sun, with no shade or trees. This reinforces the idea of lack of life, but, in contrast, they are in the warm shadow of the building where life is. This emphasizes the contrast between the pregnancy of the woman, as being fertile and everything around them, including him, in this idea of fertility as he is also apart from the barrenness and sharing the shadow. The “brown and dry” setting sets the tone for the conversation between the couple (Hemingway 281).
It allows the reader to understand the feelings of entrapment held by the couple and especially the young girl. The couple is also separated from the rest of the people that are inside the bar by a bamboo beaded curtain. This gives the idea of privacy reinforced by the idea of the warm shadow of the building that protects them from the world that exists inside the bar, they are outside, with nature. There is tension in the air at some moments, but they cannot express it openly. Perhaps they don’t want to be heard in case somebody can understand them, or maybe, it is just a problem of communication and of sharing feelings. It could also be a combination of both.
No woman should be subjected to making this type of important decision in such a harsh environment. Another thing the reader must take into account is the fact that the train is stopping only for two minutes, a very brief time. This couple is being pressured into making a very important decision in only a short amount of time. According to the narrator, “the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes,” leaving the couple with no time to really go into discussing the important details of their relationship and the decision they are making (Hemingway 282). As the story comes to an end, the woman server informed the couple, “The train comes in five minutes,” and a sense of urgency is brought to the conversation (Hemingway 284). This becomes evident by the manner in which the couple is concluding their conversation. The girl does not want to speak about the subject anymore, but the couple has not finished talking things all the way through.
In the end she just wants to get this operation over and done with. Ernest Hemingway chose to use the couples dialogue as the best way to express sympathy for the young girl to the reader. This dialogue is presented as being very natural, but was carefully written, because through it, the reader can deduce the kind of relationship they have. The language here is a very simple one, even informal; this easy language usually expresses feelings. The real theme of the conversation is not clearly stated, but is underlying; they are talking about love, feelings and her pregnancy.
The problem that the two are having when communicating is that none of them is hearing each other. In the beginning she wants to speak out about the situation clearly and put the feelings on the table to be talked about openly. When she asks such a simple question as, “What should we drink,” he changes the subject instead of answering the question, and answers, “it’s pretty hot”(Hemingway 282). This implies that he wants to change the subject and talk about simpler things such as the weather. As the conversation goes on, the man openly refers to the operation as if taking importance off it. He says it is not important but very easy, like opening a window “It’s just to let the air in”(Hemingway 283).
He wants her to have the abortion but she is sure about the fact that their relationship is going to change after that (Hemingway 282). He wants to convince her that the decision has been hers by means of saying things like, “if you dont want to you don’t have to .. But I know it’s perfectly simple,” but he is the only one who has no doubts about it (Hemingway 283). She is having the normal doubts a woman can have in a situation like that. He feels that the pregnancy is a nuisance in their lives. The baby would mean the necessity of settling down and starting a family and this would be a change in their lives as they move a lot around.
There is another allusion when almost at the end of the story he says, “we can have the world” and she replies, “No, we can’t. It isn’t ours anymore .. And once they have taken it away, you never get it back”(Hemingway 283). Here we can see that she wants the baby and she knows that once she has the operation she won’t be able to get the child back. At the very end, in the last sentence, he asks her if she feels better, but what he is really asking is if she has made a decision and he wants to know what she has decided.
She replies: “I feel fine .. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine”(Hemingway 284). Because they both want to make a decision quickly, they are not careful and end up hurting each other. The characters are really mysterious to us, we know nothing about their lives but they seem to have nothing to do in life apart from sex and drinking.
They are in the middle of a surface level relationship, and these types of relationships rarely work. They spend their time in the bar drinking alcohol, which is considered a depressant. They order “anis” because she wants to try new things, she might be considering the possibility of having a new relationship or a new experience in life, but when she tastes it she says, “it tastes like licorice” which is a very common and not exotic taste (Hemingway 282). She adds that, “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for..” implying that when you wait for something for a long time, for instance a relationship, once you get it, it loses exotism and appeal (Hemingway 282). It is apparent that the girl may be settling for less with her American partner.
Later on there is a reference to the routine they seem to be in when she says, “thats all we do, isnt it- look at things and try new drinks”(Hemingway 282). The girl is fed up with this relationship and following the operation, she will most likely leave her companion. In conclusion, Ernest Hemingway has given the reader the opportunity to feel sympathy for the girl through the use of the setting, time restrictions, and poor communication exhibited by the couple. Hemingway has provided a unique look into the slice of this couples life by use of this out of the ordinary short story. Through this different style, it has become very easy to have compassion for the girl and understand the tough decision she is making. On the other hand, it was very difficult to feel the same way about the man.
He made repeated selfish remarks and seemed as though he was only looking out for his best interests throughout the conversation. In a time when abortions were taboo, Hemingway was able to present his sympathy for the young girl through her tough decision process.