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The Minimalist Technique of Hemingway in “Hills Like White Elephants”

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Ernest Hemingway’s impersonal objective narrative style is best exhibited in his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, which describes a young girl and her older American boyfriend discussing whether or not she should have an abortion. Hemingway never explicitly uses the word abortion, but instead relies on the description and details of the setting to convey an idea of this weighty decision. It is his use of imagery, symbols, and dialogue that makes his minimalist technique most effective in expressing the real moral and importance of this story.

Imagery is one of Hemingway’s most effective tools in conveying the central meaning of the story, “Hills Like White Elephants”. His vivid language and articulate descriptions of the scenery and surroundings make the reader focus on these components, rather than the actual purpose of the story and forces the reader to examine the details more closely for deeper meaning. As a minimalist writer, Hemingway must draw attention to details that other writers may take for granted, such as simple description of setting and elusive imagery. The vague illustration of “the hills across the valley of the Ebro [river] were long and white” (248) makes the reader wonder why this detail is given and provokes thoughts of images of an expecting mother’s rounded stomach. Another piece of imagery employed in the story to further its theme is the description of the weather. Twice the reader is told that “it’s pretty hot” (248) and the intensity in the climate generates a sensation of intensity in the conversation between the girl and the man.

Their “heated” discussion about choosing to have an abortion puts the girl in the “hot seat” to make this crucial decision. Imagery is also used in the depiction of the curtain, which was “made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies” (248). This ambiguous feature alludes to the unwanted pregnancy that the story revolves around and is a metaphor for a lack of contraception used between the couple. Just as the beaded curtain keeps out flies to prevent contamination of the food inside the kitchen of the bar, a device of birth control would have prevented this unexpected pregnancy from taking place. Although, Hemingway’s use of these vague and ambiguous details lacks direct clarification of the situation, they allow the reader to explore the writing more freely and approach the meaning of the story independently.

Symbols are another minimalist device used in this story to express the major conflict between the characters. One particular piece of symbolism encompasses the setting of the train station, in which “on this side there [is] no shade and no trees and the station [is] between two lines of rails in the sun” (248). This setting represents the situation that the girl and the man are facing at that very moment. They are indecisive about staying in the shaded, treeless region and abort the child or move over to the sunny, fertile side and choose to keep the baby. The two sides of the station symbolize the decision they must make. Another example of symbolism is the term white elephant. A modern day meaning of white elephant is an unwanted gift, which is what the baby may seem to them. The girl refers to the hills in the distance as resembling white elephants, yet she looks upon the hills admiringly and thinks about her own pregnancy as she says, “They’re lovely hills…They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees” (249). She finds beauty in the hills and views her pregnancy in the same manner.

The man, on the other hand, is adamant about the decision at hand and sees the baby as an unnecessary burden in their lives at the moment. When the girl indicates that he could not have seen a white elephant, he becomes defensive and responds, “I might have…just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything” (248). This shows the defensive nature of the man, as the woman implies that he is unable to identify things of beauty. By simply using the white elephant as a symbol, Hemingway can indirectly reveal the couple’s views about the pregnancy. Moreover, Hemingway uses the reference of two as a symbol.

He constantly mentions items in pairs, as in “it [train] stopped at the junction for two minutes”, “two glasses of beer and two felt pads” (248), “the girl…took hold of two of the strings of beads” (249), and “he picked up the two heavy bags” (251). This continual allusion of two can reinforce the fact that the couple is constructed as two and are not yet ready or willing to make a three-unit family. On the contrary, this emphasis on two can also represent the girl and the baby, suggesting that she wants to keep the child. Hemingway uses these symbols to explain the objective of the story but in an unapparent way, as to make the reader search more diligently for the significance.

One of the main themes of “Hills Like White Elephants” is communication, or instead the lack of communication, making dialogue an important tool for the minimalist writer. Although he never mentions the word, Hemingway cleverly and painfully depicts the difficulty of a discussion about abortion. The dialogue starts with the couple engaging in a casual conversation over drinks. The girl makes a reference to the hills looking like white elephants and the man replies snappishly, revealing that he is uneasy and troubled by something that is not yet disclosed to the reader. Later he loosens up and states, “It’s really an awfully simple operation…it’s not really an operation at all” (249). This obscure statement brings the reader closer to the hidden conflict between the two characters. He goes on to say, “They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural” (249), which is the most direct mention of the actual procedure of abortion.

The rest of the story is depicted by their awkward conversation with his nonstop pestering and unwelcome comforting. The girl finally cracks and asks him, “Would you please please please please please please please please stop talking?” (250). This reaction points out that she is tired of hearing the man’s reasoning for the abortion and perhaps does not want to go through with it. At the end of the story, she appears pleasant and says, “I feel fine…there’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (251), yet she is not. Although she possesses a maternal instinct and an emotional attachment to her unborn child, she surrenders her choice to her boyfriend. Within the dialogue, Hemingway embeds the characters’ true feelings and allows their common, everyday speech to be the decoder of the story’s meaning.

As a minimalist writer, Hemingway must solely rely on these literary devices to get his point across. Unlike more complex writer, he must make a connection to the reader by simply showing a glimpse of the story’s surface, which proves to be more thought provoking. His use of imagery, symbols, and dialogue in “Hills Like White Elephants” provides the purest form of storytelling and allows it to be free from opinion by telling it as it is. His preference for simplicity in writing makes for complexity in significance. He reveals only the tip of the iceberg and lets the hidden base below to be only imagined. Hemingway has surely showed how in writing less is actually more.

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