“Hills Like White Elephants”

I thought we should begin our course with a local writer.

Hemingway throughout his writing career enjoyed a celebrity status

Though Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, he actually began his writing career as a cub report for the Kansas City Star in 1918.

Genre: Hemingway and the Iceberg

Hemingway’s writing style is very terse. Rather than elaborate, lengthy description, his stories are composed of brief, simple sentences.  When responding to criticism that his style was too simple, Hemingway said: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Hemingway believed a writer did not have to rely on flowery language but should focus on just significant details.

During an interview by George Plimpton, Hemingway defined his theory of writing:

If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show.

Hemingway makes the comparison between an iceberg and his writing style: as with an iceberg, of which only one-eighth is visible above water, Hemingway only gives one-eighth of the story.

Hemingway iceberg

In other words, Hemingway provides the surface of the story and asks us to explore what lies below. The details he provides in his stories, especially “Hills like White Elephants,” have so much meaning that lies in the subtext. In this way, Hemingway demands much work from his readers. “Hills like White Elephants” is a deceptively simple looking story: superficially Hemingway gives us a dialogue between a man and girl traveling so she can have an operation. Hemingway does not provide in depth description of the context for their conversation; however, he provides us with clues or hints of the drama lying just below their words.

Consider that Hemingway does not give his reader much, if any, background of the American and Jig’s relationship. However, he offers us some key details. For example, we know that their luggage is covered with “labels from all of the hotels where they had spent nights” (791). luggage with hotel stickersWhat can we make of this detail? Perhaps that the couple is constantly traveling, that they don’t have a home together. At the very least, these labels from the different hotels indicate that this is not a relationship the American sees as long-term.

Probably the most important example of Hemingway’s iceberg theory in this short story is that neither Jig nor the American ever explicitly state what they are talking about – all Hemingway gives us are hints. We know it is an operation that Jig will have. They have to travel to have the operation done, suggesting that it is one not typically performed at this time or, perhaps, is illegal. The American describes it as simply “let[ting] the air in.” Jig is hoping that by having the operation “things will be like they were” and the American will love her. Have you guessed what it is? They are journeying so Jig can have an abortion.  Now the question is why does Hemingway not just have one of his characters explicitly state this. I have always read their not coming out and saying that Jig is going to have an abortion as giving the story an element of realism: the topic is such a tense point for the American and Jig that it is almost become taboo to say the word.

Looking back over the story, what do you make of these details that Hemingway gives us:

          Jig does not speak Spanish and the American must translate what the woman serving them.

       The man is only ever referred to as the American.

          To Jig’s question of if she has the operation then the American will love her, the American answers, “I love you now. You know I love you.” (Why does the American choose to qualify his response with “now”? In what way does his response conflict with what Jig is seeking from him?)

          Jig compares the hill around the valley to white elephants. (A white elephant is thought of as a gift given to be a burden. Here’s a link explaining this reference.)

 Historical Context: “The Lost Generation”

To understand Ernest Hemingway’s writing, it is vital to appreciate the profound effect that World War I had on his generation. Before World War I, war itself was understood as a grand, glorious endeavor. It was in war that young men sought to prove their masculinity. However, World War I challenged this belief that war was a heroic activity.Consider Wilfred Owen’s poem “No Dulce et Decorum.” Here are the last few lines from the poem:

Owen served as a British soldier during WWI. he shot and killed in 1918.

Owen served as a British soldier during WWI. he shot and killed in 1918.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen takes the title of his poem from another poem by the ancient Roman poet Horace. The last two lines of the excerpt above are quote from the original Latin poem, which translates as “it is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” Essentially, Owen, who died in the War, sees the belief that to sacrifice one’s self gloriously in battle for the country is as outdated given modern warfare, such as poisoned gas and machine guns. In the above lines, Owen presents the image a soldier here chocking on his own blood as he is suffocated by mustard gas. The poem chides those “children ardent for some desperate glory” for being naïve of the horrors of mechanized war.

Take a look at this painting by Louis Weiter of the Battle of Courcelette (1918)


Notice how Weirter depicts the use of poisoned gas, barbed wire, tanks, machine guns, and even airplanes. What is absent from this painting is a heroic charge of soldiers across the battle field. In its place, there is the devastation of the land, which becomes a common theme in WWI art.  Here’s another painting by John Singer Sargent, entitled “Gassed,” that presents a group of soldier blinded by mustard gas.

'Gassed' by John Singer Sargent

Click on this link to read more about Sargent’s painting on the BBC website.

Hemingway himself experienced the horror of mechanized warfare firsthand. During World War I, Hemingway, at age 18, served as an ambulance drive for the Red Cross. While on the Italian Front, Hemingway sustained injuries from a mortar attack.

Due to these injuries, Hemingway would suffer for the rest of his life from what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or what it was called then shell shock.

On July 8th, 1918, Hemingway was seriously injured in a mortar attack that would take him six months to recover.

On July 8th, 1918, Hemingway was seriously injured in a mortar attack that would take him six months to recover.

For Hemingway and the rest of his generation, the horrors endured during World War I resulted in the loss of faith in traditional morality and an overall sense of the aimlessness to life. This is how we get the term “The Lost Generation,” which Hemingway used to label his generation’s feeling of disorientation. (Hemingway actually introduces the term in his book A Moveable Feast, which recounts his time in Paris among other writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald.) There was a pervasive attitude among this generation of carpe diem, or living just for the moment without care for the consequences.

Following his experience in World War I and throughout the 1920s, Hemingway lived with his first wife and son in Paris and became a part of a group of American writers, known as the Ex-Pats, including Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and the poet, William Carlos Williams.  Many of these writers rejected traditional American values and sought escape through alcoholism. (Remember that this was the time of Prohibition in America.) In “Hills like White Elephants,” Jig comments that all she and the American do is try new drinks and how empty that is, “I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks.”

Here are some links to other websites about Hemingway and his writing:

The Biography Channel’s webpage on Hemingway’s life.

The KC Star’s page commemorating the reporting he did for the newspaper.

The Wikipedia page on Ernest Hemingway, which is actually pretty good. (Make sure to check out the “Talk” section.”)

Here’s a Youtube clip of Hemingway’s acceptance for the Nobel Prize in Literature that he won in 1954. (He was unable to attend the ceremony due to injuries he had sustained in a plane crash while on safari.)

About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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2 Responses to “Hills Like White Elephants”

  1. "For the Horde!" says:

    He was a very interesting individual. His complex writing has placed an iceberg in my memories of authors.

  2. Magsters says:

    I feel that he wanted to make a impact on his readers, so he took a slightly different approach to hook the attention of his readers. He was a very interesting person I will admit, and how perplex and full of information his writing was made it a very neat read for me,

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