Ernest Hemingway Books: Shorts Worth Reading
Though Ernest Hemingway was well-known as an inventive American writer with classics such as For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), less discussion revolves around his short stories. Writing with a straight and direct style, Hemingway has a knack for omitting all but the bare essentials in a story. This is especially apparent in his short stories; Hemingway will often paint a full, rich picture in a matter of pages.
Hills Like White Elephants
One of our favorite examples is Hemingway’s 1927 story Hills Like White Elephants, which appeared in his collection of short stories titled Men Without Women. So what’s this famous piece about? Well, at first read-through, it doesn’t seem like much. An American man and a girl talk over beers while waiting for a train bound for Madrid. This is really the only tangible action that transpires for the entire four pages. There’s no background on either character, and we only get the name of the girl (or perhaps just her nickname). They are otherwise referred to as the man and the girl.
Almost all of the plot comes from their short conversation. Neither are too happy with their current situation; that much is apparent. But why? Well, the American man attempts to convince his girlfriend that she should get an “operation”. It’s never outright said, but it sounds like they’re talking about the girl getting an abortion. The man goes on and on about how easy, painless, and simple the operation is, while the girl continuously has second thoughts.
What’s the deal with white elephants? The girl keeps looking out the window to the hills beyond the station, remarking how they resemble white elephants. This is the key symbol for a few reasons. In pop culture, white elephants are unwanted gifts. A baby is an extreme example of a white elephant. Babies are symbols of life and new experience, but for some (like the American man), they represent a challenge and a burden. The girl is conflicted in appeasing the man and wanting to have a child of her own.
Of course, no one says any of that. Most of the dialogue is painfully plain. The couple drinks to avoid talking about it, a staple Hemingway device. In fact, drinking is all they’ve been doing on their vacation. The girl stares out to the hills (which may also resemble a pregnant woman lying down) and talks of white elephants. The man oversimplifies everything and downplays the girl’s feelings. In the end, we’re not sure if anyone changes their mind. There isn’t enough information to say, and we don’t know what the characters are thinking. But we can grasp how they’re feeling, and it’s powerful.
Why Should We Care?
Why’s this story so great if nothing happens? Because it contains a massive history subject to speculation and analysis. The characters feel real enough and we’ve caught them on a short leg of their journey. We don’t know where they’ll end up or if they’ll be happy, a smart comment about how nontranscendental and ephemeral our experiences often are. Lots of emotion and expectation in such a contained space. Overall, a two minute, fantastically important read.