I believe I have to start this article with a thank you to my high school English teacher, who had us read the ‘Hills Like White Elephants‘ – an intriguing little tale full of semi-confusing metaphors and symbolism that buries a sad (and unfortunately realistic) story. As I’ve discussed with people over podcasts and casual discussion throughout the past year or so, I’ve learned that lots of people haven’t read any work by Ernest Hemingway. From right here in Florida to Bangkok to London to Vancouver, so many of my acquaintances haven’t read much at all, let alone Hemingway. For those who have never read the story and wish to read it, be warned that the following paragraphs will contain major plot spoilers. For those of you who are in an English class looking for a summary/analyzation in order to skip out on the reading – shame on you, but keep reading. I like views on these things.
Hills Like White Elephants
A long description depicting a train station surrounded by colorful hills, fields, and other foliage in an otherwise untouched valley somewhere in the backwoods of 20th century Spain. That’s how the story opens up. It’s a familiar, ‘romantic’ style of setting that could be easily lifted up from the pages of Hemingway and plastered into any penny-back romance novel.
Readers are introduced to the two main characters – a man we know nothing about other than the fact he is an ‘American’, and his presumably gorgeous girlfriend. We know nothing about them other than the fact that this is some sort of vacation, and that they are at the train station waiting for a ride to the capital, Madrid.
As Hemingway develops an already shrouded depiction of the two characters, he leaves little details that trigger the reader’s senses. It’s hot – hot enough to the point where the ‘American’ man orders two beers despite complaining about the taste of alcohol. There’s an unwritten tension between the two. They have feelings for each other, sure; but there is something wrong within their relationship during the opening scenes.
The woman states that “the nearby hills like look white elephants” to her; and her lover responds that he wouldn’t know, as he’d never seen an elephant before. They talk, and the man says that they should just try to enjoy themselves for the remainder of the trip. The girl faux smiles, retracting her earlier thought and commenting that “the hills don’t” remind her of white elephants anymore.
The story takes an ambient turn into awkwardness. The man brings up an operation, a “simple” one that is necessary to keep their relationship intact. He states that the unnamed and unlabeled operation is so inherently simple that it wouldn’t even be classified as an operation at all. He keeps talking, saying that several of his friends had gone through the “same operation” and “found happiness” afterward. He doesn’t stop. He tries to make himself feel better by claiming he isn’t forcing the non-operation onto her, but still interjects that it is the best thing to do. He stresses some sort of happily ever after scenario, and begins to slowly push his emotions onto her as some sort of happiness-driven guilt.
He cares for the girl! He wants what’s best! He thinks it’s a good idea! The girl – who we are given the name of ‘Jig’ for during their conversation – tells her American boyfriend to stop talking. She doesn’t know how to speak Spanish, which we learn after she simply smiles at a nearby bartender who tried to inform them of when their train was set to come. She can’t leave her relationship – as she would be stuck in a country that she doesn’t understand. She can’t not have the operation – as the country she would be stuck in would judge her severely.
The story ends almost as simply as it starts: the woman claims she is fine, nothing is wrong at all.
This story is enlightening, ominous, and a fantastic classic that any Hemingway fan must adore. For those who might not have clued in, the unnamed ‘operation’ is an abortion. Several different clues come together in order to present that inevitable conclusion. The story is set up in a way that encourages readers to take apart the conversation at hand, notice small details like the landscape and body language, and dissect the attitudes presented by both main characters. Everything comes together in a way that many students don’t understand at a first glance. From the overhead landscape described in the earliest pages equating to a mother’s womb (the white elephants are baby bumps, and the description of the train station nestled between two tracks is a reference towards birth) to the awkward dialogue between the American man and Jig: the relationship is hanging on something that no woman ever wants to talk about.
Ernest Hemingway and The First World War
Over a year ago I wrote an article titled J.R.R. Tolkien and The First World War. So many of our favorite authors have gone through traumatizing, world changing events before being propelled to stardom through literature. Many fans, however, tend to stop at an author’s written words without realizing the background that they had come from. Sometimes an author’s own personal story can be just as enlightening – and sometimes even more so – than their creative writing; and that brings us to the unofficial ‘sequel’ to my words on J.R.R. Tolkien through the life of another beloved author…Ernest Hemingway.
‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is a depressing one disguised as seemingly normal…is the perfect metaphor for Ernest Hemingway’s life. It’s also one of my go-to discussions on the structure of writing and the foundations of artistic creative writing.
Hemingway’s life begins to become ‘interesting’ after he responded to a recruitment effort led by the Red Cross in Kansas City sometime within the first quarter of 1918. He found himself leaving the United States in May of the same year to reach his destination in Paris, France in the midst of a German bombardment.
Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien, who put off joining the effort as long as he could and found himself fighting on the front lines, Hemingway jumped into the conflict through aforementioned recruitment and rushed to become an ambulance driver. One could argue that such a position has the potential to become more traumatic than the job of an actual soldier. Presented with the job of seeing body after body – both dead and holding on to life, all gruesomely slashed and blown to pieces – day after day…that kind of job isn’t for the weak-stomached or the weak-minded.
Hemingway found himself transferred from the French chaos to the Italian Front. His first task on his very first day in Milan at the rickety, makeshift headquarters he was sent to was a gruesome one: a munition factory had suffered a rather devastating blow in the form of an explosion, and Hemingway was disbursed to “retrieve the shredded remains of workers”.
“I remember that after we searched quite thoroughly for the complete dead we collected fragments” – Ernest Hemingway, describing the incident in Milan within his book Death in the Afternoon
Early July, only two months after arriving, he found himself severely wounded by mortar fire. He received the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery for initially ignoring his wounds to assist Italian soldiers to safety. He was eighteen years old at the time, and later wrote on the subject: “When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you … Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.” That quote, albeit an afterthought, is an important one to come to terms with. Life is a precious gift, and even though some lives play out like movies – everyone is at risk, and everyone is destined to get hurt at one point or another. It seems as if Hemingway’s afterthought was a right one; not much longer after his mortar fire incident he found himself spending five days in a field hospital and six months in a Red Cross institution due to shrapnel that lodged itself in both of his legs.
It was during this time of recovery that the young Hemingway faced his first emotional tragedy. He fell in love with a nurse in the industry, and in January of 1919 they made vows to marry in the United States after Hemingway’s release from the hospital. In March of that same year, the nurse – a woman by the name of Agnes von Kurowsky – wrote to him that she had decided to marry an Italian officer instead. Imagine the devastation; to be free from physical limitations only to have his mental and emotional state crushed by his first love. This set a precedent for the future author: abandon people before people abandon you!
Hemingway’s writing style formats itself on these early experiences. His reactions and experiences within the World War and the heartbreak he felt worked together to create his infamous themes of love, war, heartbreak, and loss. It set up him up for a career as a brilliant writer – he would go on to write ten novels (seven in his lifetime), ten short story collections (six in his lifetime), and five non-fiction works (two in his lifetime) and win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He would go through hard times, complaining about his failing eyesight as he grew older and becoming increasingly worried about his quality of life. He became paranoid, an FBI file was opened on him for political reasons, and he went through electroshock therapy after being found with a shotgun in his kitchen. Hemingway blew his brains out with his “most favorite” shotgun on July 2nd, 1961.
It should be noted that the Hemingway family is no stranger to the tragedy of suicide. Ernest’s father, Clarence, committed suicide; as did Ernest’s siblings Ursula and Leicester. Ernest’s granddaughter Margaux deliberately overdosed one day before the 35th anniversary of her grandfather’s suicide.
But, tragedy aside, there is much more to the famous writers we enjoy today than their written words. As described in the J.R.R. Tolkien post, the best writers oftentimes have the most tragic lives. As Hemingway himself said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”