Language and Atmosphere in Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants”

Published: 2021-07-11 16:30:04
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Category: Science Fiction

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Short story writing is an art, and like any art it has its essential tools. One of these essential tools is language; the type of language used in a story, especially one as short as “Hills like White Elephants,” can make the difference between the point getting to the reader or not getting to the reader. In this particular story, it is not what is said that is significant but what is not said; or, to put it another way, the reader must read between the lines to determine from the language and atmosphere of the story what is really going on.
The story begins with a man and a woman in a small café, ordering drinks. They are gazing out at the hills, and the woman observes that “they look like white elephants” (Hemingway). Why this matters is not initially apparent; true, it ties into the title, but one would think that even an abstract modernist story (which this is not) would have some sort of focus other than just having the characters comment on the land’s topography. As the story progresses, however, we can see that there is definitely something brewing beneath the surface. The scene is too perfect to be real; a young couple sitting in a bar or café in Mexico, admiring the landscape and trying new drinks. Despite this serenity, it soon becomes obvious that there is more to their trip than bar hopping south of the border.
The man begins to hint at the story’s actual point, saying to the woman after she comments on the beer, “It’s really an awful simple operation, Jig… It’s not really an operation at all. I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in” (Hemingway). At this point the reader is made to wonder what sort of operation they are talking about. How did the conversation go from Mexican beer to some sort of operation? Why is it that the man has to convince the woman to go through with it? The reader begins to get a vague idea of what the man and the woman are discussing; the woman is contemplating getting some sort of operation that she is not entirely sure about but that the man wants to convince her to get. Perhaps it is some sort of plastic surgery, the reader might muse. However, as the dialogue continues, the answer becomes even clearer.
The woman is less sure than the man that this operation is the right thing for her. Then, however, the man says, “We’ll be fine afterward, just like we were before […] That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy” (Hemingway). One begins to have suspicions about what this thing that has made this young couple so unhappy is; there is something that can put a strain on any relationship, and that is a baby. The “operation,” then, is an abortion, one that the man is trying to convince the woman to have. His repetition of the word “really” enforces the idea that he is trying his hardest to get her to see things from his point of view. Maybe she wants to keep the baby at first, but since he points out it will make them unhappy she begins to convince herself that the “operation” will truly be what is best for them.
The man’s assertion that the woman’s pregnancy is the only thing making them unhappy is another example of someone convincing themselves of something so that they can be convincing enough to others. Since they are not both on the same page about the issue, it is obvious that there are other aspects of their relationship making them unhappy besides a fertilized egg. For one, the man has to nearly beg the woman to “see it from his side,” although he twists it around so that it seems as if he is actually thinking of the both of them. The woman may not exactly want to keep the baby, but it is as if she is still considering what to do and the man’s mind is already made up.
As the story draws to a close, we can see a shift in not only the language of the dialogue but in who is on what side of the issue that has been raised. “It isn’t ours anymore,” says the woman. “It isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back” (Hemingway). As one can see from the use of language in this quote, the woman has in the span or a few short pages made up her mind about what is going to be done. She has managed to detach herself from something that initially made her uncomfortable. The man, on the other hand, has suddenly reversed direction. He says, “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you” (Hemingway). The man has gone from basically having to convince the woman to even consider going through with it to being the one to point out that she does not actually have to abort the baby.
Both the woman and the man refer to the fetus as “it,” which implies a sort of forced detachment. It may be too early in the pregnancy to even tell what gender the fetus is, but even so referring to the fetus as “it” allows the man and the woman to regard it as something other than human. They also refer to the operation as “it,” which indicates that they are both trying to distance themselves from the entire situation as much as possible, even if that means going so far as to dehumanize themselves.
Language and atmosphere’s parts in “Hills like White Elephants” are subtle but large ones. Word choice is especially important; when the man keeps saying “really” when trying to convince the woman to have an abortion and the fact that the man and the woman refer to both the operation and the baby as “it” sets the mood for one to realize that the hills, however much they may look like white elephants, are not the focus of this story at all.

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