"Hills Like White Elephants" is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. It was released in 1927 in the collection Men Without Women. The short story is often included in the curricula of American high schools and is considered to be one of the most notable short stories ever.
Why does this story appeal to so many people? One of the most obvious reasons might be because it makes a statement about being young - and vulnerable.
Love is complicated. Get ready to meet a couple at the very crisis in their relationship. If things are complicated with you and your partner any place could be the "battlefield", couldn't it? In this story a railway station provides the setting. In such a public place someone might eavesdrop on your conversation. At this station in a remote place in Spain there is someone observing a young American couple having a row, or are they really quarelling? Do you recognize the curiosity stirred by witnessing people you do not know, having an intimate discussion? What are they talking about? In order to find out, you have to closely observe their body language, how they respond to each other and the place they are in. In this story the observer is the narrator, and we have to depend on him to provide us with useful clues.
As for the setting, we are told that the woman is remarking that the distant hills look like white elephants. What kind of connotations come to mind? There is a possibilty that American readers might have more references to "white elephants" than other readers, but what kind of ideas do you get when picturing white elephants? And how is this related to what seems to be the core of the conflict (if it is a conflict). A bead curtain also plays an important part. With all the "props" and the dialogue this story is made for dramatization, and it might be that if you just look at what they are saying and not at what they are NOT saying, you will not get what they are talking about. You most probably will, if you act it out as a role play.
Read the Story
"White elephants" are not only referred to in the title, but at intervals also pop up in the conversation.
Study the context in which the white elephants turn up. How does the conversation between the two characters about this topic evolve? Think of the connotations the words may carry. Do you have any idea by now how it might be a metaphor?
- The male character is saying: "I have never seen one", and it really would have been a coincidence if he had seen an albino elephant, because it is really rare. Look up how "white elephant" is used as an idiom in English Merriam- Webster definition.
- Considering the idiom, read the first conversation about white elephants again. Why does the male character insist that he might have seen one after all? What makes us aware of the fact that this might be an argument?
- According to the dictionary "white elephant" is an expression used about something requiring a lot of care and money to get, but that gives little profit to the owner, or something one might throw away because it is not vaulable. How does this information highlight the plot in the story?
- Elaborate on how "white elephant" is used as a metaphor in the story. What makes us aware of the way the man and the woman think differently about the white elephant? They are obviously discussing a very essential question, which is fundamental in their relationship. Would you identify the attitudes expressed by the man and the woman as gender typical?
It is often maintained that males and females have different communication styles.This often leads to conflicts between the genders. While women are more relation oriented and want intimacy, men go straight to the point, give information and solve the problem without being dependent on the other party.
Study the Dialogue.
- Describe the way the woman and man "perform" their lines. What do they speak about? Are they going straight to the point, or are they wrapping it up?
- Do you think the description about male and female communication style applies for this conversation? Why, or why not?
- There is a lot of small talk in this converation. Give examples. What purpose do you think the small talk serves?
- At what point in the dialogue do you notice the tension between the couple? At what point does it become confrontational?
- The discussion between the two characters seems to be psychological. In what way? Do you think this conversation is the final blow in their relationship?
- Why is it so difficult to say difficult things straight out?
Make a Role Play
The story "cries out" for dramatization. Here are some guidelines Staging Short Stories.
- Close-read the text. In what way does Hemingway (or the narrator) frame the story by means of:
- The landscape and climate
- The railway station
- The bead curtain
- The style of language
- The minor characters (the waitress and the other passengers)
- The girl is hurt. How does she express this?
- How does she define their relationship up to now? What is different now, according to the girl?
- How does the male character try to comfort her? Does he succeed?
- At what point did you understand what they were talking about?
- Is the conversation the girl and the boy are having here a conversation that could have taken place today?
- Why is it often so difficult to reach out to each other across gender lines?
- Do you think break-ups of relationships occur because of poor communication skills? Would it be a good idea if we got to know more about gender differences concerning communication?
- Why do you think this short story is curricular in most American high schools?
- This is a short story treasured by many readers. What do you think?