Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”: icebergs, raisin bread, and the short story

What makes Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” so intriguing even some eight decades after its publication is how this brief story illustrates some of Hemingway’s literary rules of thumb in practice. It features Hemingway’s clean, plain-style prose (“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way”); his “iceberg principle” of omitting detail and forcing the reader to decode the story; and his belief that symbols should be naturally baked into a narrative (like, he once wrote, plain bread) and should not stick out “like raisins in raisin bread.”

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was always conflicted about matters literary. On the one hand, his contrived “author-as-action hero” persona hampered extended discussions of literary theory. After all, why would a naturally-gifted author ever pay attention to such effete concerns? So Hemingway often maintained that authentic writing meant translating emotional experience onto the page: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Yet Hemingway cared deeply about his literary reputation (see, for example, his dismissal of rivals F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford and his aggrandizing self-portrait in A Moveable Feast) and recognized that he had to advance some “theory of writing” to engage and satisfy his academic critics. In many ways he shared the attitude of the Beatles’ John Lennon, who mocked music critics for writing “intellectual bullshit” about his songs but acknowledged such interpretations served to establish the group’s mythology (“Still, I know it helps to have bullshit written about you.”)

There’s an air of contrivance about “Hills Like White Elephants”—as if Hemingway had one eye on the critics when he sat down at the typewriter. His choice of topic for the story—a young couple arguing over whether the woman should have an abortion—had significant shock value in the late 1920s when abortion was universally illegal and a taboo subject. And shocking the respectable (“épater la bourgeoisie“) had been a strategy for establishing artistic credibility since Baudelaire and Rimbaud, one Hemingway clearly wasn’t above employing.

The iceberg principle

“Hills Like White Elephants” is well-crafted: Hemingway’s bare prose and taut dialogue pull us into the story, and he shares just enough about the couple to keep us interested. This omission of detail represents a deliberate literary technique, as Hemingway once acknowledged in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

His somewhat mystical view that “the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” could perhaps be more accurately phrased as “the reader, if the writer is leaving enough clues and hints, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” (That readers would recognize “hollow places” in the writing when the writer was omitting out of ignorance is, plainly put, nonsense.)

Throughout “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway provides plenty of clues while deliberately withholding key details. We never learn the name or occupation of the male protagonist. There are no physical descriptions of the couple. We must piece together the facts of their predicament from their disjointed conversation.

Yet there is enough of the iceberg showing to give us a good sense of what is going on: the girl, Jig, is resisting the American’s pressure for the abortion. She has begun to question the emptiness of their lifestyle (“That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”) and the sincerity of his feelings for her. It’s clear that Jig can envision a different, happier future (prefigured by the natural beauty around them), but she realizes her lover doesn’t share that vision.

The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

“And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

The resolution of “Hills Like White Elephants” is famously ambiguous. Literary critics have argued over whether Jig agrees to the American’s demands and takes the train to Madrid for the abortion, whether he will leave her after the operation, or whether, in the end, she will resist his entreaties and bear the child to term (the most unlikely outcome). (Nilofer Hashmi has an excellent summary of the varying theories in her essay “‘Hills Like White Elephants’: The Jilting of Jig“).

Plain or raisin?

Unlike some of Hemingway’s more naturalistic stories (for example, “Fifty Grand” or “The Killers”), “Hills Like White Elephants” is more overtly reliant on symbolism. Later in his career, Hemingway talked about the question of symbolism in a Time magazine interview in 1954:

“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.”

No doubt Hemingway’s intent in “Hills Like White Elephants” was to offer “plain bread” symbolism—in practice, however, the result feels more like “raisin bread.” Hemingway starts the story with a stripped-down description of the Ebro valley’s landscape and has Jig introduce her poetic simile about the “line of hills” that “were white in the sun”—with its heavy symbolic freight— in the ninth paragraph.

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

Hemingway makes extended use of the simile, explicitly linking this conceit to the underlying conflict between the American and the girl. The hills, of course, can be read as symbolic of fertility and the Jig’s unborn baby can be regarded as a white elephant—a valuable but too costly possession that is hard to dispose of. Her lover’s irritation with her repeated references to the “white elephants” reflects his rejection of any alternative to what he wants her to do. When Jig abandons the simile, it signals that she will comply with his wishes.

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

Some critics have focused on additional symbols in the story—from the meaning of Jig’s name to the symbolism of the beaded curtain to the significance of the hotel stickers on the couple’s baggage. While some of these readings are far-fetched, Hemingway did, consciously or unconsciously, provide plenty of ambiguous “raisins” with room for interpretation.

Too clever by half?

It’s possible to admire the technical craft involved in “Hills Like White Elephants” and still find the story wanting on several levels. There’s a certain flatness in this vignette of a love affair gone bad; for an author often criticized for his weakly-portrayed female, Jig is—ironically enough—the more human and rounded character, while the American comes across as a narcissistic lout.

Hemingway’s writerly cleverness—the shock value of writing about abortion, the deliberate omission of detail, the heavy-handed symbolism–is too much on display in “Hills Like White Elephants.” In the end, it’s “too clever by half” and these tricks lend the story an overly calculated and mechanical feel—an irony, indeed, for a writer who prided himself on authenticity.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
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