Ernest Hemingway was a very talented writer, who produced many novels and short stories. His short story "Hills Like White Elephants" was published in 1927. It has been spoken of as a piece containing symbolism and very descriptive language. This paper will investigate how the author makes the reader experience the story.
The story takes place in Spain. Its plot mainly revolves around a conversation between a man and a woman that occurs at a train station. The scene takes place on a particularly dry and hot day. The area surrounding the station is a barren valley deprived of any beauty. The man is simply referred to as "the American" and the woman is named as "Jig."
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The man and the woman are sitting in a bar, waiting for the train from Barcelona. The American and the woman are having drinks and have a conversation, which appears to be rather dull at first. However, it quickly changes to a particular subject. It is an operation that the American wants his girlfriend to go through. He is using indirect appeals to convince her of something important. Although it is not made explicit in the text, the reader can grasp the idea of this conversation through phrases such as "But I don't want anybody but you," and “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to” and other clues found in the text that the girl is pregnant and that they are discussing the issue of an abortion.
The woman produces several arguments and her companion does not respond to them. The dialogue shows that the woman is in great doubt and so is her American friend, who is cautious not to put too much pressure on his girl-friend. The woman speaks out her mind showing expressing doubt: "I don't care about me." And then when the man replies and says, "You've got to realize that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to" and adds that he was perfectly willing to go through with it if it meant anything to her. It appears that he was having some doubt about the upcoming procedure or at least was afraid to harm his girl-friend. She tries to drop the subject, but her companion still persists as if being unsure of the girl's plans.
The woman seems to be very stressed out and insists on them being quiet. She seems to be on the verge of emotional failure. It is then that the barmaid comes out and informs that the train comes in five minutes. That produces some distraction for the woman. She smiles brightly at the barmaid and thanks her. The American takes the bags and goes to the opposing platform. Then he comes back to the bar, has another drink and rejoins his girl-friend. He asks if she feels better and she appears to be somewhat relieved as if she has made a decision. Then the story ends.
It has often been said that Ernest Hemingway used a lot of symbolism in his novels and short stories. It is interesting, however, to look at his interview with George Plimpton to understand some of his techniques. George Plimpton asked him questions regarding his work. One of them was if the writer had any the question of “group feeling” with other writers and artists since he, at that moment, lived in Paris. The writer mentioned the names of painters such as Gris, Picasso, Braque, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin who obviously influenced his work indirectly. He also mentioned some of his literary “forebears” from whom he learnt and named some vary well-known writers such as Mark Twain, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Shakespeare, Dante and others. When asked about symbolism in his novels, he said that critics always found symbols and added that he disliked talking about them. In his opinion writing books was hard enough without being asked to explain them. However, he did not mind “the explainers” to interpret his novels. At the same time he wished people read his books just for the pleasure of reading them. When asked by the interviewer about the completeness of his short stories, he said that sometimes he knew the story and sometimes he made it up, changing things as the plot developed. Then the interviewer asked him if he changed story titles in the course of writing. It is particularly interesting for this paper what Hemingway said. He said that in the case of his short story “Hills Like White Elephants” the title came afterwards. And then he shared that he met a girl in Prunier and knew she’d had an abortion. They talked, not about that, but on the way home he thought of the story, missed lunch, and dedicated that afternoon to writing it.
As seen from the interview and the story “Hills Like White Elephants”, Hemingway operated in many ways like one of the artists he admired so much. He was like an impressionist writer – gathering fresh impressions and putting them down on paper. Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh and Gauguin never guessed what symbols they left for spectators. It was the part of critics to find a lot of symbolism the artists had never thought of when they created their pictures. The same with Hemingway – he simply poured out his impressions.
However, a writer’s mind, consciously or subconsciously, still analyzes a situation, a plot or an event, wrapping it into details and symbols, such as in “Hills Like White Elephants” to convey a certain idea to the reader. This story shows the differences in the way a man and a woman perceive the issues of pregnancy and abortion. The story shows that the woman sees pregnancy as a beautiful aspect of life and compares the hills to her own situation, since she was pregnant. Her words are: "They’re lovely hills. They really don’t look like white elephants.” And then she adds that she meant the color of their “skin” as seen through the trees. The word “white” adds to the bright impressions of her experience. The man sees pregnancy as something opposite. When the girl speaks about the white elephants and agrees that no one had ever seen one, his reply shows that he is fighting the feeling that he is not able to see beautiful in that particular situation.
Those who like symbolism can find things that would perfectly suit them as in the case with “Hills Like White Elephants”. To the reader, every novel or story can convey a slightly different impression even if a clear idea is expressed. That is why this short story is understood so differently by people who find their own symbols and descriptions that were not intended as such by the author.
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