An Analysis of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” from a Storytelling Perspective

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Ernest Hemingway once said that a story is like an iceberg. The ice you see are the words on the page and rest of the ice that remains underwater is the rest of the story. As we know, most of the iceberg is underwater. In other words, Hemingway is saying that most of the story is not written on the page.

The Title

Hemingway was a master of the writing principle of saying it without saying it. His short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a perfect example. Let’s begin with the title. A white elephant is rare. In southeast Asian culture, a king would give a white elephant as a gift to another king. But you couldn’t put an elephant like this to work, so it sat about, idle, and eating everything. The term “white elephant gift” has come to refer to a gift that the receiver doesn’t want. So from the title alone we know someone is going to offer to give something to someone and they don’t want it.

The Simple Operation

The setting is a man and a woman having a drink at a train station waiting for the train to arrive and take them to Madrid. They day is very hot, which tells us that the discussion is heated. They are not yelling or fighting, but they are feeling the heat, at least, the woman is. The man is trying to convince the woman to have an operation, one which he calls “a simple operation” and “not even an operation at all.”

The operation involves letting air in, but where he does not say. He insists that afterward they will be happy just like before, but one gets the sense they were not too happy before at all. They woman states that she knows some people who had this simple operation who were not so happy afterwards, despite what the man insists.

The man says he doesn’t want her to go through with it if she doesn’t want to, but the manner in which he continually tries to persuade her says otherwise. She is willing, but only because she does not care for herself, only him, and making him happy.

The man tells her that afterward they can have anything they want, but she disagrees. Clearly, whatever this simple operation does, it removes something she wants, but he doesn’t get it, because, like the woman, he only cares for himself and has no regard for her.

Use Of Imagery

So what is this operation. The text tells us that the side of the tracks that contain the white hills, the unwanted gift, is dry and barren. She looks to the other side of the tracks and sees the opposite. Hemingway writes, “Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.”

In contrast to the lifeless side of the tracks with the hills, the other side shows signs of life, prosperity, even fertility. Clouds and rivers, trees and grain, all this lie in contrast to the dreary countryside. The woman is drawn to this side, as if she prefers it. she is at a stretch of train tracks, which symbolize a choice, this side or the other side.

Her choice is between fertility and barrenness and whether or not to have a simple operation. It seems clearly that man wants her to have an abortion, but she doesn’t want it. still, she is willing to make him happy. Sadly, she accepts his white elephant gift.

As an author, notice how Hemingway uses dialogue, setting, imagery, and even the title to help tell his story. Keep in mind there is still plenty of ice below the water. Try to develop the skills and work them into your overall creative writing craft. Great writers are always great readers first. They don’t knock off other writers, but they always learn from them.

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