Pick up any two bit list of short story recommendations (like this one), and I am sure you will find Hills Like White Elephants on it somewhere. I always have. Now, I’ve always had a problem with Hemmingway, more so with the myth he projects. You know, the big game hunting, bull fight watching individual always obsessed by what makes — or doesn’t make someone a real man. Though I have always read this particular short story, only recently have I understood why it makes it onto all of the lists.
First, I would say to anyone who is going to attempt to read it (it can be found numerous places online) What you must know is the meaning of the following lines.
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
Okay, I didn’t understand this until someone explained it to me. He’s talking about her getting an abortion. I just have never associated ‘letting the air in’ as something that takes place in the procedure. You really need to understand that part because the entire story hangs upon it. Once you know it though, the piece gains an entirely different atmosphere.
The story is essentially a conversation between a man and a woman. The man is only called the man or the American, and the narrator calls the other main character, the girl, though the man of course calls her Jig. There is some description of the setting around them, they are waiting near a train station at a cafe in the valley of the Ebro.
They say Hemmingway has a deceptively simply style, I would think The Hills Are Like White Elephants would be a good example of this. The piece feels entirely naturalistic, relying heavily on dialogue, however there is much going on.
Towards the end of the conversation, the girl says ‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’ though of course the man cannot.
There seems a great subtlety to Hemmingway. There is a reason he didn’t become extinct like the dinosaurs of the past. It is hard to say what point he is trying to make with this story, and I think that’s the great art. He isn’t trying to say anything. We are forced to watch the scene as though we were sitting in the cafe with them, but unable to reach out and change the story in any way.