The qualities of imagery, dialogue and narrative style in Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants”
Ernest Hemingway is known for his sparse style, intense dialogue and ambiguous scenery. Hills Like White Elephants exemplifies these qualities while telling us a rather disturbing story of a couple and an unwanted pregnancy. This essay will discuss the qualities of imagery, dialogue and narrative style in this short story.
The imagery used in this story is simple to understand and very incomplete. This is understandable because Hemingway believed that what was left unsaid would always be more powerful than what is stated in a work of fiction. Accordingly, the "hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white" is the opening description that we are provided with in order to place the characters within a setting. This minimalist description is odd because we are not told why the hills are white; is it because of snow. Or the color of the rock? Hemingway uses this image to conjure up a picture of a bone bleached in the sun, or perhaps even the pregnant belly of a woman lying down (as the goddess Gaia was pictured in Greek mythology). To further the setting's place we are told twice in the first paragraph that it is scorchingly hot, and that there is very little shade. This is a classic metaphor that Hemingway employs often through the setting. The parched air represents the emotional relationship between the man and woman, it is uncomfortable, the man feels that he is "in the hot seat", the woman desires a drink to cool off the oppressive feelings between the two of them. The setting includes a small bar that the man and woman sit down at to drink their beer. We are told that a curtain made of bamboo beads hung across the open door in the bar "to keep out the flies". This is very possibly an allusion to the unwanted pregnancy that the man is obsessing about, and the curtain as a metaphor for the birth control that obviously was not used, just as the curtain keeps the flies out, so too would contraception have presumably prevented this oppressive confrontation from taking place.
Hemingway's dialogue is remarkable in that he never explicitly states what the couple are talking about, preferring to leave it as implicit and allow the reader to decode his meaning. He also uses common, everyday speech in order to get his message across, preferring simplicity to complexity in dialogue. Their dialogue starts off innocently enough, with the couple ordering drinks and the girl observing that the hills "look like white elephants" (p.615), whereby the man shows his impatience and frustration by snapping at the girl "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything.". The man obviously has something else on his mind that he isn't telling us about. This inadmission does not last long however, we are confronted soon with the line "It's really an awfully simple operation... ...it's not really an operation at all." (p.616). This ambiguous line finally reveals some of the inner conflict these two characters are feeling. The man goes on to tell her that "they just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."; a different way of saying that they will take something out, and that the air will fill the vacuum created by the loss. This loss is the loss of a child, although this is never explicitly stated. After the man drives her close to tears with his incessant nagging and unwanted comforting, she seems to snap, and the fight is taken out of her. She is once again bright and pleasant, and all she can say is "I feel fine, there's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." (p618). She is of course not fine, but she will not tell the man that, she prefers to go along with whatever he says, surrendering to his words, and we know that she is now convinced to give up her child in spite of her emotional attachment and her maternal instincts.
Hemingway's modernist style of storytelling requires an impersonal narrator. The narrator describes the scene, and interjects small actions into the dialogue, but remains a facilitator for the reader to concentrate on the dialogue and the action of the story. The narrator in this story seems to tell the story as if it were a video clip, a nameless railway station somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid, ghostly white hills, a faceless waitress and an anonymous couple. The use of this narrator makes the reader look much deeper into the dialogue of the couple, because without the narrator spelling out the action for the reader, one is forced to interpret much more from the character's words. This modernist device tends to separate the reader momentarily from the text, so that the full impact of the story is not truly felt until one is finished reading. However, this device serves to make the story connect on a deeper level, and to have more impact as it hits one suddenly, instead of being built into a slow climax.
In conclusion, the various modernist devices Hemingway uses in Hills Like White Elephants are common threads that run through most of his fiction. He wants the reader to have to make an effort at understanding, and for that reason he makes his imagery and narrative as ambiguous and unfixed as possible. In this way, one is forced to concentrate fully on his powerful dialogue in order to eke out the meaning behind his tales of relationships and human drama.