Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway, 1927
The magic trick:
The power dynamic between the man and the woman
So here we go. It’s Hemingway Week at the magic tricks website, so you know what that means: lots of Iceberg Theory, lots of minimalism, lots of “you know what I’m saying even if I’m not actually saying it.”
“Hills Like White Elephants” is a very famous example of Hemingway’s gift for implication. This, you will recall, is the Hemingway story that is about abortion without ever using the word abortion – and that is a magic trick in itself. The symbolism throughout is ripe for interpretation. Not that interesting, though. What I’m most taken with in the story is the conversation between the man and the woman. Like everything else here, Hemingway leaves it skeletal, vague and ready for analysis.
The power dynamic is fascinating to analyze. Back and forth the couple dances around the subject – never truly touching on it but never truly avoiding it either. Who is the decision maker here? That’s what I come back to the story trying to sort out. The woman seems deferential one moment; the next she totally undercuts the man’s suggestion. This is the best of Hemingway’s bare-bones, sketch stories, as far as I’m concerned, and the dialogue between the couple at the heart of the story is the best part. And that’s quite a trick on Hemingway’s part.
“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.
“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”
“Oh, cut it out.”
“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”
“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”
“All right, I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”
“That was bright.”
“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”
“I guess so.”
The girl looked across at the hills.
“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.”
“Should we have another drink?”
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“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.”
The girl did not say anything.