Café Shorts: Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”
Posted May 31, 2012on:
“Would you please please please please please please please stop
I’m going to take heed of what she asks here in the sense that I will attempt to talk about Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 story Hills Like White Elephants without including any spoilers about what the man and the woman are talking about.
I say this in full recognition that taking such precautions for anyone coming to a short story blog to read about a story analysed on probably every Creative Writing university degree course in the English-speaking world, brings to mind the time two women walked into a charity second-hand shop I was in last summer: “Ooh, look, Mum,” said one, pointing over to the music section, “Queen’s Greatest Hits!” I thought, how can that be exciting? There are people who care about music and some of them like Queen; then there are people who don’t care about music, and Queen have them covered too. If you like Queen, then surely to God you’ve had time and opportunity in your life to get hold of their Greatest Hits? Similarly, if you know anything about Hills Like White Elephants, reason would suggest that the undisclosed but “awfully simple”, “perfectly natural”, “perfectly simple” procedure under discussion, omerta may no longer be a requirement.
Nevertheless, I will steer around the matter simply because, having used it in creative writing teaching with undergraduates, I’ve seen that an isolated reading produces a range of interpretations as to the subtext of the central conversation. This, of course, means that two people will have the same words before them yet be reading two completely different stories. We might suppose that the strategy in storytelling is to have the reader understand what that story is. Of course, you may wish to leave certain matters open to conjecture and debate – what explains this behaviour? is the narrator as reliable as s/he would like us to believe? what happens next? – but you don’t expect the plot summary to be a multiple choice.
Actually, I don’t believe there is great room for dispute about Hemingway’s plot here: close attention to the emotional ebb and flow of the conversation shows it not to be a blur of Dadaist abstraction in the least, and further observation of the landscape either side of the railway bar, in which the two travelling Americans drink beer and Anis while waiting for their connecting train to Madrid, should dissolve any mystery. However, the very fact that the sparsity of more definitive signposts leads some readers to very different interpretations tells us a great deal about the remarkable quality of Hemingway’s writing here, working in the 3rd person objective voice he could very well have patented.
We are with these two people for just shy of three quarters of an hour and all we have of them is everything they say. Our reading is therefore a real time activity. We respond as we would if observing and eavesdropping random people in our normal lives. In this way, we can see how the café setting (as, despite the beer and the fire water, we’re entitled to think of it, this being mainland Europe) is fundamental to the authenticity of the couple’s conversational iceberg. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s dabbed handkerchief in the Milford station café in Brief Encounter is a good indicator of the sort of protocol into which we’re entering in this environment: a place of non-belonging, in a pocket of restricted time, anonymous but under scrutiny of all those around who have nothing to do but wait and watch, the limits to which emotions can be expressed and truths can be articulated are all too apparent. In the case of the Madrid-bound Americans, there is the additional context that they are locked, together, within a de facto exile’s experience. The place they are in now is not a home, nor a home from home, nor even a destination. The type of relaxation available in the Central Perk model of Third Space establishments – a social space that can intersect with the work sphere; a public space in which to express a suitably modulated private identity – cannot be attempted here. Instead, we have enforced camaraderie and a mutual illiteracy when it comes to reading one another’s signals:
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the
felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the
girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun
and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have
doesn’t prove anything.”
The talk replaces thoughts or one’s talk tramples on the other’s thoughts; in this, they occupy a similar space to Zoe Lambert’s squabbling interrailers in two of her stories in The War Tour. They drink together and the setting gives them a place to do this but those of us who can eavesdrop in both English and Spanish (and, by the magic of Hemingway’s decision to use English when Spanish is spoken, this means all of us) recognise that there are barriers and dependency issues there, as he has to do the talking for both of them:
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and
put them down on the damp felt pads. “The train comes in five minutes,” she
“What did she say?” asked the girl.
“That the train is coming in five minutes.”
The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.
Earlier, Hemingway jump-cuts through the sequence in which the man orders beer and then Anis del Toro and the woman brings the drinks over. He leaves in everything that’s said. Everything else that happens is silence, just as every conversation on every restaurant first date, or during every long-term couple’s rare bout of face time, is suspended when there is a member of the waiting staff hovering over the table. The couple’s conversation is not guarded because they are busy constructing a rabbit warren of metaphors and codes. They talk like this, in the situation they are in, because so would you. And when she strafes him with pleases to get him to stop talking, a nugget of dialogue that, out of context, seems stylised to the point of absurdity, can actually be appreciated as the one moment of unstoppable emotional honesty in the entire scene.
The conversation will pick up again, though, on the train, and then along the Gran Via or wherever they are headed. There is no obvious epiphany for the couple in Hills Like White Elephants. As we polish off the anis we’ve been sure we’ve been drinking, and set to hauling the luggage we just know has been sitting at our feet, the epiphany – that we’ve been drawn entirely into the scene as fellow customers – belongs to us.