Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway | Biography

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Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Hemingway had four sisters and one brother. He grew up in the family home his grandfather had built. Both parents played an active role in raising Hemingway. His mother exposed him to music, and his father took him hunting and fishing. The outdoor activities instilled a lifelong love of nature and sportsmanship, which inspired some of Hemingway's travels, such as extended safaris in Africa, and his choice of homes, like Key West, Florida, known for its fishing.

Time in War

Hemingway started his writing career young. He worked on his high school newspaper, and upon graduation took a job as a correspondent for the Kansas City Star. Wanting to take part in World War I, Hemingway attempted to join the army. He wasn't allowed to enlist, however, because he had poor eyesight. When he learned the Red Cross would accept volunteer ambulance drivers, he joined up and was shipped to Europe in May 1918. By June Hemingway was actively serving. In July he was injured when a mortar shell exploded nearby. Despite his wounds, he helped save several seriously wounded soldiers for which he was awarded the Italian Silver Medal for Valor. While recuperating in Italy, he fell in love with a nurse who eventually jilted him for another man. His 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms, is based largely on his World War I romance with this nurse. Hemingway's romantic relationships would continue to influence his prose throughout his life, as he continued a pattern of marriages, involvement with mistresses, and divorces. In all he married four times, fathering three sons.

Personal Life and Career

After returning to the United States in 1919, Hemingway married for the first time in September 1921 to Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and shortly afterward took a job as a European correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star. Based in Paris, Hemingway became part of a rich community of writers and artists, such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró. During his years as a newspaper correspondent, Hemingway's editors encouraged him to communicate factually, with little use of adjectives or adverbs. He successfully continued this spare writing style in his award-winning fiction, a style that would come to be called minimalist and would become a hallmark of modernist literature. While living in Paris, Hemingway wrote an initial collection of short stories that was published in 1925 under the title In Our Time. His debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1926.

Also in 1926 Hemingway's father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, having experienced bad investments and depression. This event, which Hemingway partially blamed on his mother, would anger him toward her for the rest of his life. Clarence's suicide would haunt Hemingway for his remaining days, as well. While the family stuck to the story that health and financial issues were behind Clarence's death, the unspoken worry was that insanity was responsible. Hemingway refused to discuss the possibility, although soon after admitted, "I'll probably go the same way." And in "The Green Hills of Africa," he wrote and later removed before publication: "My father was a coward. He shot himself without necessity." This desire to cast his father as a coward, to contrast with his own "grace under pressure" became a dominant theme in Hemingway's writing.

The complications in Hemingway's personal life often influenced his fiction, particularly in the writing of "Hills Like White Elephants." The story, which relates a couple's conversation about whether or not the girl, or Jig, should have an abortion, is an allegory for the dissolution of Hemingway's first marriage and the lead up to his second marriage. While his first wife Hadley was pregnant with their son, Hemingway complained of being "too young to be a father." Feeling resentful, he began to view Hadley and their young son as restrictions on the easy lifestyle he had previously enjoyed while traveling and writing as he pleased.

This change in circumstances and viewpoint is reflected in the American's view of Jig and her pregnancy. In addition, after Hadley discovered Hemingway's affair with their friend, Pauline Pfeiffer, she told Hemingway she would grant him a divorce if he and Pfeiffer first separated for 100 days. Hemingway agreed, but likened the separation to the dilemma in "Hills Like White Elephants." Relaying his thoughts in a letter to Pfeiffer, he wrote that when two people who love one another are forced to "go away from each other it works almost as bad as an abortion." Following Hemingway's divorce from Hadley in January 1927, Hemingway and Pauline Pfeiffer married the following May, and Hemingway wrote "Hills Like White Elephants" during their honeymoon.

Critical Response

Response to the short story collection Men Without Women, which contained "Hills Like White Elephants," was favorable: "Not one harsh note in the critical chorus," proclaimed Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway's editor at Charles Scribner's Sons. Reviewing the collection, American writer Dorothy Parker called Hemingway, "the greatest living writer of short stories."

Three of the collection's stories—"In Another Country," "The Killers," and "Hills Like White Elephants"—earned the greatest critical praise. "Hills Like White Elephants" was declared "one of the most haunting stories of the tension between the sexes in the twentieth century."

Hemingway's other war experiences and travels are also reflected in his writing. As a journalist, he witnessed the Spanish Civil War and incorporated that experience into his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940. His love of fishing is reflected in his final narrative, The Old Man and the Sea (1952). The strength of that narrative earned him the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. The following year, the Nobel Prize Committee cited The Old Man and the Sea as one of the reasons for awarding Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the middle decades of the 20th century, it was common to refer to Hemingway as the greatest living American writer.

Personal Battles

However, during the period that Hemingway was receiving his greatest professional recognition, his personal life took another dark turn. In January 1954 while traveling in Africa, he was in two plane crashes within the space of two days. Hemingway was uninjured in the first crash, but the second crash caused spinal injuries, a fractured skull, and the temporary loss of both eyesight and hearing. Newspapers worldwide reported his death, and Hemingway was able to read his own obituary while dining in an Italian restaurant.

Plagued by bipolar disorder and chronic alcoholism, Hemingway began drinking even more heavily to cope with the lingering pain of his plane crash injuries. Between 1957 and 1960 he occupied himself with writing the memoir, A Moveable Feast. After completing his memoir, Hemingway found he could no longer write. The loss of that creative outlet, combined with his pain and depressive bipolar episodes, led Hemingway to commit suicide, echoing the earlier action of his father, at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961. According to Hemingway's brother Leicester, "[Hemingway was] like a samurai who felt dishonored by the word or deed of another, [feeling] his own body had betrayed him." Having hunted with his big brother and heard him talk about giving animals "the gift of death," Leicester believed Hemingway chose to give this gift to himself. A Moveable Feast was published posthumously in 1964.

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