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How Does Ernest Hemingway’s Writing Style Create Meaning

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In class I heard mention of Ernest Hemingway’s writing style as characterized by being short and dry. While in isolation, the two terms of characterization may serve a neutral meaning, their mention in class however was likened to descriptions that expressed feeling at odds with the writing style as viewed in “Hills Like White Elephants.” A look at the linguistic patterns present within “Hills Like White Elephants,” will be used to allow the interpretation of a writing style that creates points of emphasis, a development titled “motivated prominence” by stylistician M.A.K Halliday (Link, 66), in the story, rather than one that detracts from it, through repetition of sentences and lexical sets. The most apparent instance of repetition evolves from the titular phrase, “like white elephants,” appearing five times in the text, and that evolves, or perhaps even devolves, from a comparatively descriptive phrase used to position the hills, to something that draws on the more generic citing of “the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

This devolution of the phrase starts anchored on the hills and moves to a less specific image of a color as seen through the trees. The phrase first takes it’s role within the story when Jig, the girl by the American’s side, is looking at the line of hills, “they look like white elephants,” she says. Later, when the two talk after ordering two beers, Jig’s observation comes to mean her attempt to have a “fine time,”; “I was trying. I said the mountains look like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?” The difference in both instances of the phrase is not only their motivations for being said, but also what they describe. In the first instance, Jig is looking at “hills,” as framed by the narrator, while in the second, the descriptor “white elephants,” is used to characterize the “mountains.” The shift in usage, from a specific observation of the hills, to a demonstration of an attempt to “have a fine time,” invites the substitution of other words for “hills,” such as “mountains,” and later on other things, and expands the story’s motivation to establish a greater sense of meaning. A third usage of, or rather a reference to, “the hills,” affirms the prominence of the phrase and reveals yet another possibility for its meaning with in the story. “They’re lovely hills,” says Jig. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.” Jig’s observation, reveals an updated outlook of the hills, being seen as “lovely,” and a a denial to a previous comparison. Jig’s expression marks an explicit change in the role of the repeated phrase, and introduces, rather more obvious this time, yet another possible direction in the phrases development, toward a more non-specific meaning that works against the phrases previous meaning and adds to its scope as of importance within the story. The repetition of the phrase, “hills like white elephants,” and its variations of meaning, allows the phrase to populate an important pool of meaning that is revisited throughout the story, and it’s from that pattern it establishes as a comparative tool, that the phrase works against to expand not only the emphasis of the hills, but also it’s growing meaning within the text. The behavior of utilizing repetition to establish a standard unit of meaning within the story, and then working against it, elicits yet another interpretive response; the natural substitution of things as cited in the text to more generic variations of them. The substitution of words in the story is most often made possible through the dialogue between the two main characters of the story, an American man, and the girl with him. As mentioned, it was through Jig’s dialogue that the phrase “hills like white elephants,” began to evolve in it’s meaning and it’s scope. Another unit of language that follows the progression from specific to non-specific, is “it.” “It” is seen fifty-six times in “Hills Like White Elephants.”

It’s usage (anaphoric reference to “it”) can be placed in three categories: as an ambient tool (as seen in “it was very hot and the express would come in forty minutes”), to reference a general ambience, as an anaphoric tool, referencing the noun that precedes its use (as seen in “It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid” to describe the behavior of the express) and finally and most prominently, repeated 24 times, as a situationally exophoric reference, to reference something neither immediately present nor explicitly named in the story (Link, 72). “It” as a situationally exophoric reference takes hold of the story through the dialogue between the man and Jig. Different from the usage in “it’s lovely,” as said by Jig to supplement the man’s mention of the beer being “nice and cool,” “it” is utilized by the man in the following line as a break from the current circumstances of drinking beer, and to introduce “it” as a new subject of importance that had no previous trace in the story. “I know you wouldn’t do it, Jig,” says the American man. “It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.” With the substitution of “it” as referring to something new, the reader wonders, what is “it,” or at least what variation of “it” is being talked about? This new use is ambiguously tied to an operation, abortion. In it’s initial introduction, the word establishes a mystery and is as much a point of emphasis that drives plot as it is an instance of entertainment. If one considers mystery as an intriguing topic of engagement, then the ambiguity and therefore the writing style of the piece begins to take on a character that is anything but short and dry, and equally, the story begins to claim an identity that is expansively meaningful. The extent of the story’s evolving meaning, is furthered by the repetition of the word “it,” and it’s substitution that is welcomed near the end of the story, where “it” becomes more than a simple operation, and begins its varying association with the widening possibility for boundless happiness, or as a void of nothingness that can never be filled. From here on, the word “it” loosens its ties to abortion and begins to gravitate toward it’s next possible subject of meaning, the unborn baby. An indicator of the word’s evolution presents itself when Jig responds to the American man. “It” takes on a declarative character when Jig says, “then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” This declaration amplifies the hopelessness that Jig feels because of the American man.

She submits to “it” the operation, and also to the persuasion of the American man. This submission adds to substance of the story because while it does signify a type of surrender, the manner in which it is declared stands against the previous pleas, questions and overall reliance of Jig on the American man. As the American man and Jig engage in discourse, that starts by welcoming a vast landscape of glorified possession (Jig looks out over the trees that guard the banks of the Ebro and sees the river through the trees, and says, “and we could have all this… And we could have everything…”), they soon move in a direction that denies possibilities of happiness. “It’s ours, ” says the American man. Jig responds, “no, it isn’t. And once they take it back, you never get it back.” While the usage of “it” remains ambiguous, it’s repetition presents yet another opportunity for substitution. “It” is the unborn, likely to be aborted, baby. The substitution can heighten the importance of “it’s” meaning by creating an association to an unborn baby that is already at the mercy of worldly circumstances, but it also raises the stakes of the story, and yet again, proves not only instructive to the development of meaning, but also compelling. “It” carries many variations of meaning, as achieved through the mastery of repetition and substitution, and works to further establish the unique style through which all meaning has been achieved. Repetition and substitution are essential to the story’s development and it’s deeper meaning. The final effect of the repetitive and substitutive style that commands the story, is seen in the absence of the phrases and words that have been crucial in the movement toward resolution. While the avoidance of repetition and substitution does culminate in resolution, a few more instances of repetition are seen in greatly contrasting, and in it’s most elongated state, as well as it’s most influential.

As voiced by the American man, “it” assumes a future that is opposite to everything the American man has been working toward, abortion, and moves toward a possibility of having the baby and suggests even an all compromising matrimony. “I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means any-thing to you,” says the American man. “It,” finally includes the possibility of having the baby, and perhaps even an all centralizing matrimony. Later, the American man tells Jig he’d do anything for her. Anything. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” asks Jig. And just when it’s thought repetition and substitution are done making a case for themselves, as the American man obeys and exists in a silence that renders a contrasting stillness from the back and forth of argument and observation, he opens his mouth, “But I don’t want you to… I don’t care anything about it.” He’s clearly not willing to do anything for her. Tensions between the couple move toward the assumption of a verbally explosive fate, “I’ll scream,” says Jig. And so, as the couple moves toward a final beer together before taking off, the story’s progression culminates in a state of “nothing,” that marks the last stage of the story and of the effect’s of style. The story began with a phrase, “hills like white elephants,” and moved onto a reference to “it,” both once a indicators of the specificity of observation (the hills, and the train, an anaphoric reference), and both at one point assumed the meaning of, “everything” through the effect of substitution, and then each lost its way within the generalizing powers that associated them with “anything.” With Jig’s last words, “ hills like white elephants” and “it” come to be elements of “nothing.” “I feel fine,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with me.” Through the analysis of linguistic patterns and the uses of repetition and substitution it becomes clear that the style present in “Hills Like White Elephants,” establishes points of emphasis that work to enhance the story by giving it a greater meaning and compels the reader to search for and at least hope to achieve an understanding of it.

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How Does Ernest Hemingway’s Writing Style Create Meaning. (2019, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from
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