Tag Archives: Hills Like White Elephants

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

hwe

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Writing, Uncategorized

Iceberg Writing

Ernest Hemingway once gave an interview in which he compared his writing to an iceberg. The words on the page represented the visible part of the iceberg. The part of the iceberg we do not see, which is up to 90% sitting under water, is the rest of the story.

Hemingway is the master of saying it without saying it. That annoys some people, but a few others and I find this the most compelling reading and the most advanced writing.

Hemingway’s Greatest Icebergs

These are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.

  • The Sun Also Rises – A nymphomaniac is in love with an impotent man. Hemingway never tells us he’s impotent, but still makes it clear.
  • A Farewell To Arms – They are not in love, even though they constantly tell each other how in love they are.
  • Hills Like White Elephants – A man tries to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion in a story that doesn’t even use the word “abortion,” or “baby” or “pregnancy.”
  • Ten Indians – Nick’s father lies to him about the unfaithfulness of his girlfriend because she is an Indian.
  • Big Two-Hearted River – This is pretty much all iceberg. It’s a story of a man who goes fishing. It has traditionally been understood as a man home from the war suffering from shell-shock. I mostly agree, but I think the man is still at war. He is wandering the battle front of Italy, but his mind is fishing back in Michigan.

The Best Example Yet

These are not the only examples, but just a few of the clearer ones. And yet, there is one work of Hemingway’s that uses iceberg composition so well, that I thought it should be set aside and discussed with a little more detail. I’m talking about the short story “Indian Camp.”

It’s a story about an eight-year-old Nick Adams who goes with his father, Dr. Adams, and his uncle George to an Indian camp near their fishing cabin in Michigan. Dr. Adams has to help with a difficult delivery of a child. Uncle George goes along because he is the father of the child. Of course, this is never said. This part of the story is submerged beneath the text, but is still a clear understanding. Consider the following facts from the story.

  • George’s boat arrives first.
  • George hands out cigars to others Indians there on the shore.
  • The woman in labor screams when Dr. Adams, Nick, and Uncle George enter her house. It seems she is screaming when she sees George.
  • The woman’s husband lays in a bunk above with a gangrenous wound on the foot (traditionally in literature, a wound beneath the waist is symbolic of impotency).
  • The woman bites George on the arm, and when he later looks at the wound, others Indians smile “reminiscently,” as if to say, “I remember when my wife bit me when she delivered our first child.”
  • After the delivery, the mother looked pale, which is a way of saying the baby is pale-skinned, which indicates a white father.
  • Dr. Adams says he should check out the father, who suffers the worst from “these little affairs.”
  • The husband had cut his throat during the delivery. He had known all along that he was not the father of the child, and now with the delivery his shame will be open.
  • Uncle George stays behind after Dr. Adams and Nick return to their fishing cabin across the lake.

These are all visible parts of the iceberg that tells us about what rests underneath. If you haven’t read it in a while, you may want to do so. 

A Challenge To Us Writers

Even if you’re not a fan of Hemingway, if you’re a writer, trying reading some of his work, as well as the industry of other minimalists. Try to write something in a minimalist style, even if it is nothing more than an exercise. The value of minimalism to a writer is that it forces you show and will not allow you to tell. You’re writing not only becomes focused on details, but on those that are the only ones you need.

You may not wish to try your next novel or short story that you wish published in the Hemingway style, but having learned it, you will be a better writer. And who knows, but you might find yourself wishing to go on a fishing trip or see a bullfight. Now go and enjoy those icebergs, just don’t crash into one.

I can’t wait to read your thoughts on this. Please let me know what you think in the Comments section below.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized