Analysis of the Story “Hills Like White Elephants”
The primary theme of Hills Like White Elephants deals with a communication gap between a girl and her boyfriend. Both of them talk much in the story, but neither of them really spends any time listening to the other or evaluating their particular point of view. An American man wants his girlfriend to have an abortion, although he will not refer to it in any other way than “just letting the air in.” She has not decided yet whether or not she will do it; at one point she says she will do it to quiet him, but ultimately their conversation breaks down. The theme explains the difference between speaking and actual communication.
The tone of the story is understated as Hemingway has excluded all unnecessary elements in the story except for the relevant details. While describing the scenery, dialogues, and actions, Hemingway forces the characters to speak and act on their own and without anybody’s assistance, which is all represented in the form of vivid descriptions. Moreover, it is difficult to understand exactly what operation the girls want to have, without some careful consideration of the meaning of “letting the air in” and the extreme discomfort that the girl feels when discussing it. Consequently, the problem of abortion is even more controversial in Hemingway’s story than it is in nowadays.
Diction is another literary element that Hemingway uses to show the emptiness of speech without actual act of communication. Notice the use of the word “fine” throughout. When the tension starts to increase between Jig and her boyfriend, she says, “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.” The boyfriend responds, “Well, let’s try and have a fine time.” The exact meaning of the word “fine,” though, is as ambiguous and empty as the way they spend their days. Instead of settling down and building a dwelling, Jig and her boyfriend travel the world (O’Brien, 1992, 23). She points this out: “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?” This is a reference to an expatriate lifestyle, which even Hemingway led. Writers and their hangers-on spent much time between the two World Wars traveling in Europe, squandering money, and living what they thought was a “fine” way of living. However, instead of developing something original, they just repeated someone’s ideas. Concerning the word usage, words like “lovely” and “nice” are just as empty as “fine,” with denotations of beauty belied by inner connotations of emptiness. The fact that these words “swim on the surface” of their superficial conversations, while inside more serious matters lurk, is the underlying foundation of the story.
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The couple is confronted with the possibility of starting a family. In other words, this news would be a reason for celebration. For Jig and her boyfriend, having legal wedlock will mean a threat towards their libertine way of existence. Without a doubt, having children did not keep many of the expatriates from continuing to travel across Europe. In such cases, they had to hire nannies to raise their children while they were entertaining and recovering after hangovers. The observation that Hemingway makes in this story, is that leading such a way of life is just as careless as characters’ speech that does not have merit. Fitzgerald shares the same views on the issue, which is demonstrated in Babylon Revisited. As long as the boyfriend wants to lead his life without responsibility and Jig is not sure what she wants at all, they will never have effective communication and real relationship.