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The great American author Ernest Hemingway is well-known for his unique style, which places the greatest significance on what is left unsaid. Among his works, and in his typical fashion, is the short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” This narrative focuses on a couple travelling in Western Europe and the unspoken problem that is straining their relationship. Although not specifically stated, the dialogue suggests that the girl is pregnant and considering terminating the pregnancy. While the girl remains uncertain of what to do, the man accompanying her is steadfast that she should have “the procedure.” In Hemingway’s story, “Hills like White Elephants,” an uncomfortable atmosphere, choppy dialogue, and the sharp contrast between the central characters’ desires creates tension as the girl struggles to make a difficult decision regarding the future of her relationship and her unborn child.
From the beginning, Hemingway creates an uncomfortable atmosphere to suggest to readers that there is already friction between the girl and the man. The story is set in an unfamiliar place, both for readers and for the characters. The man is identified as an American travelling in Spain. Although readers are not told where the girl is from, it is clear that she is not from Spain, as the man must translate to the woman who is serving them. Within the first moments, both characters are drinking alcohol. Not only are they drinking, but the girl asks, “Big ones?” and the man agrees. The presence of alcohol and the staccato quality of their initial dialogue contributes to the uncomfortable atmosphere of the story early on. As the story continues, the two order additional drinks in what seems like a very short time. They order “Anis del Toro,” and another round of beers, which helps to establish the edginess that both characters have in anticipation of their conversation. When not used in reference to social drinking, alcohol generally suggests uneasiness, acting as a buffer for difficult conversations. In this story, the alcohol leads into their discussion of whether or not the girl should have an abortion.
In addition to the tension created by the uncomfortable atmosphere, Hemingway also uses dialogue to build tension between the two characters. The longest sentence on the first page is only five words up until the man snaps, “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything,” in response to her comment about seeing white elephants (475). This first sentence of considerable length reveals some of the tension already building between the two. While discussing their Anis del Toros, the girl makes a simple joke and the man appears short with her. She responds, “You started it…I was being amused. I was having a fine time.” He then says, “Well let’s try and have a fine time” (476). This text suggests that they were having to work at acting normal and appearing “fine.” At this point, they are still concealing their true emotions and the reason for their discomfort. The word “fine” appears again at the very end of the story when the girl appears to have lost the argument and the man asks if she feels better. The girl responds shortly with, “I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (478). Although she claims to be “fine,” her repetition of the phrase and the word choice of “fine” suggest that she is anything but.
The choppy dialogue throughout the story is accompanied by a sharp contrast between the two characters and their motivating desires. While the man is quite clear about what he wants, the girl is torn between conflicting desires. In the very beginning, the girl comments that the hills “look like white elephants,” a term indicating an unwanted or troublesome possession, which in this case would be the unborn child (475). This initial statement seems odd at first, which is comparable to their peculiar relationship. However, the girl retracts her statement later on when she says, “They’re lovely hills…they don’t really look like white elephants” (476). This is the first indication of her inner struggle. The man, however, quickly assures her, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig. It’s not really an operation at all” (476). Jig’s uncertainty continues when she asks the man if things will be like they used to be and whether or not he will still love her. Although the man says he loves her now, reassurance comes with a reason to go on with the procedure. He tells her, “That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy” (476). Even when he tries to sound supportive, he still insists it’s the best thing to do. In response to her continued uncertainty, he says, “I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to” (477). Each of these statements suggests that the man has a clear idea of what he wants. Even amongst the girl’s uncertainty, he continues to push her. Finally, not wanting to discuss it any further, the girl says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking” (477). The man’s continued insistence contrasted with the girl’s apparent reluctance further contributes to the tension of the story.
Like many of his greatest works, Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” places significance on what is left unsaid. Although many of the important facts in this story are not clearly stated, the dialogue provides clues into what the characters are discussing and insight into the nature of their relationship. This story is dominated by a feeling of tension, created by the elements of atmosphere, dialogue, and character. The tense atmosphere comes from the foreign environment and the large amount of alcohol. The short, indirect dialogue expresses the discomfort each of the characters feel, and the conflicting desires of the characters make an easy resolution impossible. All of these elements combine to build the tension throughout the story as the girl struggle to come to decision about whether or not she should keep the baby, and, furthermore, what to do about her relationship with the man. Although the decision is not clear, the tension remains even in the end.
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