Seemingly Ordinary Yet with Profound Thoughts
by Dody Chen
“Hills like White Elephants”, written by American writer, Hemingway, is considered to be one of the greatest American stories in the world. In the story, the author presents the portraits of two people, a man and a woman. However, what makes people confused is why he writes such a story mainly in dialogue, but ignore other detailed elements such as expression or gesture. Actually, Hemingway’s work seems ordinary from the superficial level but stores profound thoughts inside. “Hills like White Elephant” not only tells a story related to the couple, but also indicates the real social facts for the lost generation during a certain time period.
The style of writing mainly in dialogue makes the plots vivid and real. Although some critics have different opinions, the rationality of the technique can still be found. According to Hemingway, two characters sit in a pub, chatting with each other. Time seems still, with sun reflected, which lets the green hills look like several white elephants. The woman explains, “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees” (Hemingway). Actually, when the waiter serving Anis del Toro, a special alcohol drink, comes and goes, if he ignores the white-elephant-like hills and the brown, dry country through the window, he will definitely hear what they are exactly talking about. Abortion, a tough topic, make the main part of their dialogue. Hemingway let it go like, “I think it is the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to” (178). From some perspectives, they may be a couple, or, was a couple. Through the whole story, Hemingway doesn’t show much related information to the readers and even the word of abortion seldom appears. Several critics think it is improper to write a short story in this style because it cannot explain things in detail and may make readers confused. However, he tells the story in his own pace, gently and mildly, as if he was sitting in the pub as a causal passer-by, enjoying the hills like white elephant. The gentle description, vivid but soft, hides the real topic from related sentences but successfully draws the interaction between two characters. The man, who is a little bit nervous at first but tough in mind eventually, keeps persuading the woman to give up the baby. The lady, hesitates for a while and finally get her answer. When, where, why, the three words started with “W” no longer exist in the story, however, the fragment of dialogue still holds everyone’s attention. It’s clear that the woman enjoys being a mother. Hemingway let her put out her question, “I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” (178). That is the first time the phrase of “white elephant” appears. It not only reflects the title of the story but also give people a great impression, whose deep meaning will be clarified in the following parts. Back to the plot, obviously, there must be some reasons urging the woman to betray mother's spirit because her attitude shows like, “Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple” (Hemingway). From her words, the mother’s toughness and the hesitation can be felt. She is struggling between the love to the man and the love to the unborn baby. However, through the work, people still don’t know why she ought to give up and doubt whether abortion is a piece of cake, although the man says, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig. It’s not really an operation at all” (Hemingway). Imagine, if Hemingway just describes the story in the first person, the balance will not exist at all. The angle from which Hemingway states will be a man’s or woman’s perspective, without neutral attitude. In other words, only in the third person it will stand out and impress the readers. With a detailed and vivid language expression, the causal tone and the landscape make people relaxed and the plots flow gently with proper records. The style Hemingway uses is perfectly suitable for telling a story like that and it let people believe the story is real, perceptible and touchable.
The description of main characters and beautiful landscape in a simple language style mixes different backgrounds and feelings. Someone may think that two characters are just mortals, with no difference from others. Hemingway just randomly chooses them as a part of story. However, both characters in this story represent two totally different groups indeed. In the gender aspect, they are male and female. They have different stereotyped personalities and they show emotions in totally opposite ways. For example, men express their feeling directly especially in a relationship but when it comes to loving problems, they are too careless to raise their voices. Women, in contrary, are more sentimental. A tiny sign of the ending to a relation will make their heart to break. The two different genders wipe out sparkles in this story and let issues of gender revealed step by step. Moreover, the second different group identification is related to the historical background. The sign which reflects that in this story is double meanings of white elephants. White elephant is often used to describe something useless. Apparently, in this situation, it refers to the unborn baby. In this story, the man tries to persuade the woman to give up the unborn baby. For genders, usually women are more powerful when protecting what they love and most of them may be stronger after becoming a mother. However, during the talk, the landscape is described by her like “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees” (Hemingway). It may make people confused at first for her wasting time in witnessing the landscape and escaping from the topic of abortion but then they realize it is a metaphor to reflect the woman’s disappointment.
Actually, the natural beauty Hemingway writes, is similar to a piece of clothing covering the unhappy truth, or a seasoning for a sour dish, which show the disappointment towards the whole society in a gentle way. Sunshine can still be felt behind the curtain, which is just like the blue emotion can still be touched behind the natural beauty. The story, considered by the public, is based on a lost period between World War I and World War II. That is quite an unsatisfactory time because of the war. Blood and hurt are common elements. Endless battles rob families of happiness and gets young people out of the hometown. People during that time all show dissatisfaction and unhappiness towards the declining society, but some of them are short of eager to change. The society is dissatisfactory, neither do the people. Most of them just bury themselves in endless self-hurting or comprehension. They want to change, but lack in belief. They doubt themselves, and even the world they live in. Same situation may apply to the couple. Perhaps, they keep wandering in front of tons of affairs, both physically and mentally. Maybe they don’t have enough food to raise their child. Maybe the man has to join the army. Actually, all the mysterious questions remain to be seen because Hemingway just kicks all the questions back to the readers. Provided, there are a thousand white-elephant-like hills in a thousand people's eyes. In conclusion, the scenes of hills don't only represent natural landscape, but have more profound meanings literally. On one hand, they indicate the situation of the baby, which is hard to raise but only causes extra expenditure. On the other hand, the change from social issues to natural landscape provides readers a timely break. They can get out of the tough and intense topic of abortion. These strategies Hemingway adopts are quite useful in story writing, which is famous for combining emotion with scenery. In this way the real feeling the author wants to say can be conveyed properly without wordy expressions. It can also let the readers feel the gentle emotional catharsis. This skill is also used in the masterpieces such as “Gone with The Wind” and “Walden”, which helps to convey the main purpose of the work.
The story is actually an implication of loss of the lost generation, although many critics assume that it is just a story of an ordinary couple. The debate on this topic has lasted for many years. Through all the paragraphs, it is clear that the story demonstrates the dialogue between a couple, with no other characters and plots. Moreover, it not only indicates the living standard and current affairs of them but also provides us an epitome of that generation. The cultural background of them indicates both daily conflicts and historical elements in the lost time. Without much obverse expressions, Hemingway chooses a normal couple during the specific time period, which we call the lost generation in his work. The conflict relies on whether the woman should give up to abort the baby. From the dialogues the readers may guess that the living standard keeps changing on account of the social issues so the couple have no ability to protect their kid. Perhaps the love has no reason to be admitted because they all have family members already. Overall, what Hemingway chooses and writes are out of special and delicate design because from those special tiny angles, the readers can feel the real worry and struggle between characters and can spot several clues related to the world at that time. They can really feel that the society during the war is like a big, terrible monster, which squeezes people’s spirit and give them endless despair.
All in all, in the great work “Hills like White Elephants”, Hemingway shows us a great impressive story between a couple. The descriptions in the story are all for expressing the main idea with no observe parts, which is not only just to record dialogues between a couple, but to reveal the social affairs during that certain time. For the lost generation, people during that period may struggle to escape the physical and mental burden by using drugs and alcohol. However, the real pressure in this story has already been showed in the daily dialogues. The lack of confidence, the weakness towards hard life both give the couple a tough attack. Through their dialogues, people can really feel the sign of separation and disappointment towards life, which reflect the normal phenomena at certain time. With seemingly ordinary but profound languages, with skillful strategies in writing, the deep thoughts of the work can be successfully spread to the readers, and let them feel as if they were personally on the scene. “Hills like White Elephant”, creates us a wonderful place for comprehension and reflection.
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