Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a widely read and widely discussed piece of literature. It makes sense in any conversation about Hemingway to analyze what he is best for—dialogue. This story is no exception in that Hemingway’s dialogue reveals so much and so little to the reader at the same time. Hemingway’s masterful use of simplistic dialogue reveals the character of these two people and the kind of relationship they have in very important ways. The dialogue beginning in the second paragraph reveals volumes about this relationship.
First of all, the “girl” starts the conversation by saying, “What should we drink? ” She is the initiator in this relationship. She is the one who wants to make the important decision that their dialogue evades and avoids. He responds by directly avoiding her question, by saying, “It’s pretty hot. ” Throughout the story the “American man” will avoid the girl by not making direct responses to her. He will blur his own intentions and wishes in order to not directly say what he wants to say. She then makes the decision. “Let’s drink beer. ” Again, the girl is the initiator and the decision-maker.
What else can the reader deduce from the dialogue? The reader can deduce that the girl is much more creative and imaginative than the man. “They look like white elephants,” she says of the hills in the distance. This shows her artistic, creative nature. The man responds with “I’ve never seen one. ” Clearly, she has never seen one either, but she can imagine what they must look like. He cannot imagine; his practical nature does not allow him to visualize what she sees. Later on, when she mentions the subject of white elephants again, he gives her no more than a cursory response.
The reader can also deduce from the dialogue that the girl does not speak Spanish. The man orders for her, and every time the waitress comes, the girl asks what she said. She also cannot read what is printed on the bead curtain. Maybe this plays no significant role in the short story, but it does tell the reader that an American and a European girl are simply traveling through Spain. The reader knows virtually nothing else about the characters except for the statement that sums up the gist of their relationship. “That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?
” The lack of depth, the superficiality of their relationship speaks volumes in this very simple dialogue. These two really have no deep connection, which makes the subject of their real conversation even sadder. Further on, the reader finds out that the masked discussion is one of abortion. The reader must come back to this opening dialogue in looking at the roles these two people play. The girl wants to make a decision together. She questions the man repeatedly in order to clarify his feelings. The man avoids saying what he wants. It is very clear to the reader that he wants her to have the abortion, but he won’t say it.
It may be that he is afraid of being overheard since they are having this discussion in a train station. However, it also may be that he simply does not want to say the words or that he wants to manipulate her into making the decision he wants. In any case, there is a certain breakdown of communication created by both what is said and what isn’t. The dialogue shows the reader that the girl is much more perceptive. The man begins the conversation about the abortion, but it is the girl who intuitively understands the myriad ways this decision will change their relationship.
She keeps asking him questions to make him clarify his position. She wants to know whether they will be happy again, like they were before if she has the abortion. Will he love her like before? Will he stop worrying, etc? The questions go on and on. She clearly understands that their relationship is at a turning point, and she wants his reassurance that if she rids herself of the baby, she will still have him. He doesn’t give a second thought to answering these questions. He tells her exactly what he wants to hear—either because he is a player or because he really believes that the relationship will go on exactly like before.
In other words, he does not understand the ramifications of the decision. She expresses the sense of loss of innocence in the words, “And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible. ” His first response is “What did you say? ” His next response is “We can have everything. ” She says that they can no longer have everything, and he clearly doesn’t understand her. It seems clear that she is perceptive enough to view this pregnancy as a baby and knows that she will never be able to get this baby back.
Someday, there may be other babies but not this one. She also understands that this decision will change the course of the relationship forever, no matter what they decide. The American man, on the other hand, is not attune to all of the possible changes in the relationship. He does not offer any counsel or new information to her. He simply keeps saying that it is a simple procedure and that everyone he knows who has done it has been happy afterward. When she questions the idea that he knows it is a simple procedure, he says, “Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.
” “It’s all right for you to say that, but I do know it. ” This is the phrase that takes him past the point of annoying the girl. She asks him to please please please please please please please Stop talking. ” He leaves and comes back, and she tells him she is “fine. ” Again, so much is contained in so few words. He wants her to have the abortion, but he doesn’t want to tell her to have it. He doesn’t want to be blamed for the decision, but he does not want the baby. He repeats and repeats, which begins to annoy her. The repeated use of the word please tells the reader that she is angry.
And the reader really has no idea what the word “fine” means at the end. “Fine” can be defined in so many ways. Is she okay now? Is she angry? Is she just done talking about it with him? Does she finally understand that she is really on her own in this decision? What is not said speaks volumes as well. Neither one of them ever utters the word abortion and the reader is left to wonder why. Are they that uncomfortable with the topic of sex and babies because they don’t know each other nearly as well as they should to be in this position? Are they too afraid of being overheard?
If so, then why are they having the conversation in the middle of a train station? Can’t they wait until they get to the next hotel and have the conversation in the privacy of their own room? But that would imply real intimacy, and the reader gathers that this couple has sex but is not intimate. Maybe the word itself makes the conversation too real, and they would rather fool themselves into believing that the baby does not exist, much like the white elephants. There is no clear answer, but Hemingway clearly places this word in the story’s lack of dialogue for a reason.
Hemingway can truly be defined as a master of dialogue. The reader can gain so much from what is said between the two characters. Although the reader knows almost nothing about them, he/she comes away understanding a lot. The reader can also gain so much from what is not said, like the word “abortion. ” They never speak the words, and the reader is left to wonder why. Are they that uncomfortable with the topic of sex and babies because they don’t know each other nearly as well as they should to be in this position?
The reader does not know. The reader is supposed to read between the lines in this story to gain information about the characters, because in the end, the reader must predict what will happen. Does “I’m fine” mean that she will have the baby with him? Does it mean she will have the baby and knows she will have it alone? Or does it mean she will go through with the abortion? That is what the reader is left to decide.
Kirszner and Mandell, Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, Thomson Wadsworth, 6th Edition, 2007.