Ernest Hemingway won the highest awards for literature that a writer can win. His story, 'Hills Like White Elephants,' is probably the most famous example of his distinctive writing style. In this lesson you'll learn about this story and what made Hemingway's approach so successful.
Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899, and he first made his mark as a writer at the age of 17 when he began publishing newspaper articles. During the 1920s, he moved to Paris and joined the expatriate writers there, a famous group of literary movers and shakers who left America to make a new home in Europe. Hemingway then cranked out a series of novels that have stood the test of time: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. He also went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The New York Times probably said it best when they wrote, 'No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.' They chose powerful words, 'lean', 'hard' and 'athletic' to describe his prose. Hemingway practiced economy in his writing. He wouldn't use three words if one, simple word would do, making his stories come across as stripped-down, no-nonsense narratives.
He referred to his approach to writing as the iceberg theory. Hemingway thought of stories as icebergs. The reader only sees what is above the surface, but he knows there's more beneath the surface. What does that look like in a story? Take this example from 'Hills Like White Elephants':
That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy.
And you think then we'll be all right and be happy.
I know we will. You don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it.
So have I,' said the girl. 'And afterwards they were all so happy.
Reading this dialog is like listening to a real conversation. You have no idea what they mean when they say 'it,' but you know something's important about 'it.' The narrator never tells you what the couple means because Hemingway's narrators don't interject their own ideas; they remain neutral and observant. All you get is the tip of the iceberg, what's above the surface, and you have to infer what might be lurking beneath. Hemingway's narrators are like TV cops, 'Just the facts ma'am.'
Hills Like White Elephants
Of Hemingway's stories, 'Hills like White Elephants', published in 1927, is the most widely read because it's not only a rich story, but it's also really short. The story takes place in a train station in Spain. A man and a woman wait for a train to Barcelona, and while they wait, they sit outside, drink beers and talk. Most of the story is their conversation, and like the iceberg, you have to figure out what's beneath the surface. The clues are all there; they're talking about the woman getting an abortion.
Hemingway stories are especially easy to summarize because what's happening in the story is generally not all that important. In this one, the man and woman have drinks, talk about the abortion, try a local liquor and get word that their train is arriving. The story ends with the woman, Jig, saying There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.
So, Why Is This Story So Famous?
If nothing much happens in the story, why is it so famous? A big part of that is Hemingway's writing style. The delivery of the words is so factual, so direct, that it gives the story a voyeuristic feel. It's like you're listening in on this couple who doesn't know that you're there.
Going deeper, the story is a great one because Hemingway is making use of some subtle devices to create a story that doesn't need a lot of plot to be great. One example comes from the white elephants mentioned in the story's title. Jig deflects from the difficult abortion talk to observe that the hills near the train station look like 'white elephants.' You know the expression 'the elephant in the room?' It means the thing that everyone is thinking about, but that no one has the courage to bring up.
Well, Hemingway's story is full of elephants in the room - the abortion, keeping the baby and becoming parents and the couple's iffy relationship. Another way to look at it is to focus on the word 'white.' A white elephant is a gift that you don't necessarily want to get because it costs too much to maintain, and the pregnancy in this story has become a white elephant of sorts for the couple.
Here's another bit of subtle symbolism; the story takes place at a train station that's just a stop along the line. It's not the beginning or the end of a journey, but it's a stop along the way, and that parallels the couple's relationship. Like the train, the couple is between stations - in transition.
Hemingway even takes a moment in the story to draw the reader's attention to the labels on their bags from all the hotels where they've stayed. It's only a small detail, but when there are only three or four details listed in the entire story, each one becomes especially important. This detail reinforces the idea that the couple are in a state of transition; they haven't settled on a plan of action yet.
Two More Popular Stories
'The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber', published in 1936, is about a couple on safari. Francis and Margaret Macomber are hunting big game in Africa, led by their dashing guide, Robert Wilson. They hunt lions on one day, and Margaret makes fun of her husband for being a coward.
Francis is really bothered by this, and he vows to himself to man up. The next day he and Robert kill a couple of buffalo. When a wounded buffalo charges Francis, he blazes away with his gun but fails to stop the beast. At the last moment, though, he drops the buffalo. At the same time, his wife takes a shot, trying to save her man. Ironically, while Francis blasts the buffalo, Margaret blasts him. The end.
In 1938, Hemingway published another gem 'The Snows Of Kilimanjaro'. This is another page-turner about a wealthy couple on safari. Like his other stories, this one is about the decisions a man has to make in life. Instead of weighing the pros and cons of parenthood or whether he's manly enough for his wife, the main character in this story, who is dying of an infection, looks back on his life and regrets wasting his time procrastinating and regrets wasting his money by marrying a woman he doesn't love. In the end, he hears a rescue plane coming for him, but the reality is that he's hallucinating and dying, and the sound is actually the howl of a hyena.
Ernest Hemingway holds a place of high regard as one of history's greatest writers. He was known for the iceberg approach - only giving readers a little bit of the story and leaving them to figure out the rest. Hemingway heavily edited his prose, stripping away all the extra words until every syllable carried as much weight as possible. When only a few details of the setting are included, those details carry extra significance, and Hemingway made each little detail crucial to a deep understanding of the story. Hemingway's short stories are so great because he wrote concise, powerful statements about the human condition.
After competing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recall Hemingway's life and awards
- Understand the popularity of Hemingway's work lies in his prose
- Describe Hemingway's short story Hills Like White Elephants
- Identify other important Hemingway short stories