What Can We Steal From Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Hills Like White Elephants,” short story
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date of Work: 1927
Where the Work Can Be Found: This story has been anthologized a thousand times.  Based upon the book’s title, I’m guessing you can find “Hills” in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Economy

Discussion:
Ernest Hemingway rejected the idea of extreme rhetorical flourishes in literature.  Instead, he kept his sentences short and sweet.  The ideas stood on their own.  “Hills Like White Elephants” consists primarily of a dialogue between a Man and a woman who are in the Ebro Valley.  (The Ebro is a river in Spain.)  During a hot day, the man and woman order drinks and talk about the rolling hills they see.  (The hills look like white elephants.)  After the drink situation is sorted out, the man says, apropos of nothing, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig…It’s not really an operation at all.”  Air blows through beaded curtains.  It’s clear the operation will change their lives.  The man claims it will make their lives better.  The train is about to come and the decision has been made.

The fireworks in this story aren’t in the sky; they’re in the relationship between the man and woman.  They talk about drinks, but they’re not really talking about drinks.  They talk about being happy like they were before, but they’re not really talking about the past.  They talk about the train arriving, but they’re not really talking about the train.  Hemingway pared away pretty much everything but the dialogue.  The reader feels as though he or she is sitting in the café beside them.  Does it matter what the characters look like?  No.  What matters is that they’re negotiating whether or not she’ll have an abortion.

Think of your boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife.  Or your boss.  Do you want to be told to go do “that?”  How do you know what “that” is?  You come home and your significant other says, “How could you do it?”  What is “it”?

Yes.  “It” is an abortion.  How do we know?  The man says it’s an “operation.”  “It’s just to let the air in.”  “It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”  The woman repeatedly asks if it will make everything “all right” and restore happiness to their relationship.  The details Hemingway provides makes it reasonable to repeat “it” and “that” and “the operation.”  We infer what the characters mean.  Just as though we’re sitting in a café on one side of a beaded curtain, eavesdropping on a traumatized couple on the other.

What Should We Steal?

  • Think of your work like a side of beef.  Cut away the bones and fat and gristle and leave the tenderloin.
  • Use words like “it” and “this” and “that” in a graceful way.  These words can be very confusing.  They can also characterize the attitude of a character or narrator.

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