Hills Like White Elephants
A short story by Ernest Hemingway

If I were teaching high school or college, I'd certainly include Hills Like White Elephants.

Why? Because it's a riddle and riddles are fun. And so much has already been written about it.

Every line can be analyzed. I could direct students to their dictionaries to see what drink is bitter and what drink is sweet. I could show how elements of the setting provide more than just background but function as symbol- clues to solve the riddle.

A professor Eric Hibbison posted parts of his lesson on the story on this web page: http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/copy_of_hills/preview.htm. He titles the page What Does it Mean To Read and he provides a running commentary on the significance of about half of the lines.

He seems to have done an excellent job. His comments and questions are excellent and I would use it as is.

The only thing he missed is Hemingway's method of letting the reader know a character is speaking Spanish by his nonstandard use of English. The example in this story is when the American is summoning the waitress by calling out "Listen." That is not what we say in America.

As a teacher I've found a goal of mine is to have students slow down, look at details and consider that there's more to the story than meets the eye on first reading.

This is an early lesson that most students of literature need to learn. What they are reading is not a text version of a TV show. You can't get up and get a sandwich, talk on the phone. The words are chosen carefully. Elements of setting are often symbolic. A challenging short story, like a good poem, probably needs to be read numerous times.

On the surface, it is just a story of a man and a woman drinking, having a boring conversation, and waiting for a train.

To teach this story, I'd pull off a lot of what's on the internet. Most of it isn't bad. There are just a couple of students who posted some comments which can be discarded (I think the While Elephants are sacred in some culture.) and some which are interesting though probably off target (the man decides she should have the baby because he says he's going to move the baggage from one side of the station to the other side, the side with the fertile imagery.) And like professor Hibbison, I'd teach the significant details by asking questions, e.g., Is the operation elective? How do we know that? What kind of operation involves letting the air in?

I, personally, am tired of looking at literature as clever riddles. As a teacher, it's kind of fun to have the answers and be the riddle master and it's also important for the students to know that careful reading can reveal that the value of a story is often found below the surface.

One professor wrote in a forum that he has his students act out the dialogue. I think that's a great idea. Why? It's a way of seeing if some of the students interpret some of the woman's lines as sarcastic. And I'd also see by the tone of voice what they think is going on with the man. To what extent is he domineering? Dismissive? Sincere?

Instead of asking the students where might the woman be sarcastic, you'd hear it in the actress playing the part.

And then when you have different pairs of actors, you can discuss how they played it differently.

I would probably have every student perform the dialogue before I lead them through the process of picking apart every line and discussing every ambiguity.

This is what Colleen Lefler posted on the internet about Hemingway's style. I don't see how I could improve on it and I wouldn't dare plagerize.

With its sparse language and bleak tone of disconnectedness, Ernest Hemingway's short story, "Hills Like White Elephants," echoes Charles Molesworth's description of modernist literature as a genre infused with issues of alienation expressed through radical literary exploration.

Communicating (very effectively, in my mind) the growing distance between people that many felt after the Great War, the author not only distances the characters in the story from each other, he also separates the reader from the central figures by defocalizing the narrative structure.

Unlike his precursors, Hemingway does not offer any commentary through a specific character's point of view, nor, in the storytelling, does he offer his explicit opinions on how to feel or think about the issues and/or events that emerge. The narrative seems to be purely objective, somewhat like how a newspaper or journal is supposed to be, which, when added to his simplified and concrete use of language, has the overall effect of making the interrelations between people seem empty, devoid of sentiment, alienated.

Even when referring to the two lovers, he names them as simply "the American and the girl with him," or later as the "man" and the "girl"(1522). Only once do we catch the hint of a personalized name. The man says, "I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig"(1523).

Again, the author creates a vast amount of space between the reader and the characters by his generalized depiction of the characters, making sympathy or empathy quite difficult to feel. In addition to the distance Hemingway strategically places between the reader and the characters, we also sense some incommunicable gap between the man and the woman in the story.

Although Hemingway clearly illustrates through what the characters say and especially what they do not say that much is brewing beneath the surface of their seemingly superficial facades, the two appear to be nonchalant and flippant in their conversations. They discuss the superficial appearances of things such as the hills which resemble white elephants and the words painted on the beaded curtain. However, their discussions are abrupt and jolted, making it clear that meaningless words and shared observations can never bridge the space between them nor hide the emptiness that each feels. For example, the girl says, "I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it-look at things and try new drinks?" "I guess so," the man replies. "The girl look[s] across at the hills," and the conversation abruptly ends (1523).

By the end of the story, the chasm between them has become irrevocable. The reader has the sense that the underlying and unexpressed tension is slowly driving both, but especially the girl, insane. This is evident in the repeated and simplistic words. For example, the words happy and unhappy are repeated several times as well as the phrase "perfectly natural" or "simple." The man says, "...It's all perfectly natural" and later repeats, "And I know it's perfectly simple"(1523,1524). The man's failed attempt at reassurance through repetition clues the reader in that the operation may not be perfectly simple and the couple may never be happy again.

One tenet of modernist writing, that one should evoke feeling through obscurity of meaning and simple concrete language and imagery, Hemingway uses to marvelous, though disturbing and depressing effect. Experimenting with form, such as defocalization of narrative, and with content heretofore taboo, Hemingway poignantly communicates the inability to communicate or connect with other human beings that many did and still do experience and the alienation and isolation present in everyone's lives.

Another thing I might do with an advanced class is to have them rewrite the story in a style which wasn't modernist.

How would this story be if there was no riddle? If the woman was describing a fetus instead of distant hills?

What if the conversation between them was as obvious as a dysfunctional couple airing out their private lives on a daytime TV talk show?

How would it be if she did scream and make the bar woman come from behind the bamboo screen and ask what the hell is wrong rather than do you want water with that drink?

How would it be if the man said that everybody knows that birth control is the woman's responsibility? Or what if he said that his one dream in life is to have a child by her, the only woman who he'll ever love with all his heart?

What if the woman declined any alcohol because she said it was bad for her pregnancy?

That she was not only having the baby but he had to marry her?

Maybe he'd call her a bitch and he'd take the next train to Barcelona. She'd go on to Madrid where she'd wire her mother for money for a return ticket to England(?) She'd have the baby and life would be hard and she wouldn't do any more traveling for the rest of her life.

These are not likable characters. What a lame line the man says--he doesn't want her to have the baby because he wants to divide his love two ways. He wants her to have it all. And the woman. She doesn't leave him! Just as long as they're on the train going some place, she doesn't have to worry about it.

She doesn't want to deal with it. He wants to make it so like it never happened in the first place.

How sad. Having a child is the most wonderful thing in the world a person can be blessed with. It's better than sex and romantic love. It's more fun than traveling through Spain.

This is a wonderful story. I had forgotten how good it is but Lefler makes me wonder how much of my appreciation is due to the fact I'm partial to modernist writing.



Morrill Books