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Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In "Hills Like White Elephants" what is the significance of the Anis del Toro that the couple drinks?

This drink and the conversation surrounding it offer insights into the characters. First, they ask for it to be mixed with water, which makes the liquid cloudy—like their future. Second, anis is an imitation of absinthe, another beverage. This might parallel the relationship between the American and the girl. Perhaps the love that the American confesses for the girl is not genuine love, the kind that would support having a child and raising it together. Third, the girl anticipates something exciting from the anis. She is disappointed that—like the absinthe she has tried previously—the new beverage has the unexciting taste of licorice. The novelty of a new experience, which seems to be in large part what the relationship with the American is based on, is not available to her in this drink. Her disappointment is further reflected by the action of putting the glass down, rather than eagerly drinking. This suggests that the things that had kept her satisfied and engaged in this relationship no longer please her. This sentiment is echoed when she later says "That's all we do, isn't it—look at things and try new drinks?" Everything is different now that she is pregnant, and a new drink and traveling isn't enough to satisfy her as it was before. The American's response of "Oh, cut it out," suggests that although the girl is not saying what she means directly, he understands. It also suggests that although he claims to care about her and what she wants, he is quick to dismiss her attempts to make her desires known.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" how does the reader know which character is speaking despite the inconsistent use of dialogue tags (short phrases identifying the speaker)?

Modernist writers valued spare writing. Hemingway especially believed that a story should be stripped down to the bare essentials. In "Hills Like White Elephants" this style is reflected in the relative absence of dialogue tags to identify the speakers. Despite this absence, Hemingway still manages to make sure the reader knows who is speaking throughout. He does this by interjecting "the man said" or "she said" periodically in each page of dialogue. This sparse speaker identification helps the reader keep track of the pattern of conversation between the two people, without the need to use the tag after each separate speech.

In what ways does Hemingway create a minimalist, modernist style in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Like other modernist writers, Hemingway uses language precisely and succinctly. In "Hills Like White Elephants," not only does he eliminate dialogue tags wherever possible and forgo character description altogether, he also rarely describes the characters' actions. One particularly striking outcome of this style is the nearly complete lack of adverbs throughout the story. Because Hemingway offers so little in the way of physical descriptions, there is no need for him to insert adverbs clarifying how a character is acting. For example, the narrative never shows the American or the girl lifting a glass to their mouths. The reader understands just by the presence of the beers and the anis that they are indeed sipping beverages throughout the conversation. While this style requires more of the reader who must, for the most part, imagine how and when the characters are gesturing, it creates a spare effect.

What is the significance of the American's moving the couple's luggage at the end of "Hills Like White Elephants"?

The conclusion of "Hills Like White Elephants" is open to the reader's interpretation. Some critics believe the American has convinced the girl she must terminate the pregnancy. Those critics say that in moving their luggage to the other side of the station, the American is preparing the couple to take the train bound for Madrid and the office of an abortionist. The fact that he neither asks the girl to join him or waits until they are both ready to go to the other side of the tracks demonstrates that he still believes he is in control, and that he will get what he wants. Other critics say that by the end of their conversation, when the American says, "I don't want you to ... I don't care anything about it," he has acquiesced to the girl's desire to continue the pregnancy. They say that the couple has been sitting by the Madrid-bound railroad tracks throughout the narrative and, in moving the bags to the other side of the station, the American is getting ready for the couple to travel away from Madrid, and away from the possibility of an abortion.

At the end of "Hills Like White Elephants," what is the significance of the girl's insistence that she's fine?

The ending of the narrative is open to interpretation and the significance of the girl's statement therefore varies. If the reader believes the American has convinced the girl to go through with an abortion, his question, "Do you feel better?" means does she feel comfortable with having the abortion. Her response "I feel fine ...There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine" is an example of verbal irony. She has just been bullied into a decision with which she's unhappy. Thus she's going against her better judgment and feels anything but "fine." If the reader believes the American has agreed with the girl's desire to continue the pregnancy, his question, "Do you feel better?" means does she feel relaxed now that they have decided not to pursue an abortion. In this case, her response "I feel fine ... There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine" reveals her anxiety has been lifted and she feels well both physically and emotionally.

In the beginning of "Hills Like White Elephants," what is the power dynamic in the relationship between the American and the girl?

A power dynamic within a relationship describes who has control and who has the ability to influence others. At the beginning of "Hills Like White Elephants" the American seems to hold most of the power. He has the power to communicate with the Spanish-speaking waitress, and the girl looks to him for permission and guidance in making decisions as small as what to drink. The American gives directives on how the girl should behave, saying "Oh, cut it out," whereas she makes no such demand on him. The American is also the first to bring up the abortion, when he says "It's really an awfully simple operation." This suggests that he is the one who initiates and controls the conversation. These details establish that the American has the ability to influence the girl, because up to this point he has held the power in the relationship. In the course of the narrative the dynamic shifts somewhat, as the girl assumes control over her desires regarding the pregnancy. According to some critics, by story's end the girl has decided not to have the abortion and the American has acquiesced to her decision, thus ceding a large portion of his power to her.

What is the effect of Hemingway's sparse description of the setting in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

By offering generic descriptions of things everyone has encountered like hills, railroad tracks, light and darkness in the form of sun and shade Hemingway allows readers to fill in their own images based on personal observation. Though readers know the railroad tracks are someplace in Spain, they might imagine a set of tracks they have seen in real life. Instead of providing narration about the hot and sweaty feeling the girl might experience while sitting with the American outside the station, Hemingway relies on readers' memories of baking in the hot sun, and allows his audience to add those details.

What is the effect of the lack of direct characterization of the girl and the American in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Direct characterization is when the narrator or another character describes characters in the story. Statements about the physical appearance and the personality of the characters are kinds of direct characterization. In "Hills Like White Elephants" Hemingway doesn't offer the reader any direct characterization. The appearances of the girl and the American are never mentioned. The decision to withhold those details that make these characters unique, combined with the generic naming of the characters, suggests that their predicament might not be unique. Perhaps there was another couple who had to negotiate the same conflict while sitting in another train station. Perhaps Hemingway is also suggesting that this troubled communication pattern afflicts many more couples than the one he creates in this story.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what is the significance of the American's decision to sit inside the bar for one last drink without the girl?

The inside of the bar is a place that only the American visits. After he takes the bags to the far side of the station, he enters and sits inside to have an anis in the cooler, darker bar, while the girl is waiting for him in the harsh light of the sun. The fact that he stops in there to have another drink without the girl signals a deepening separation between the two characters, who have up to that point done everything together. He stays hidden in the dark of the bar—the darkness signifying his unrealistic view of their relationship and the coercion he's been applying to the girl in their discussion. Here he is not exposed to the light that signifies the truth of their conflict, which she endures outdoors on her own. While this suggests that the two are on different tracks, the fact that he crosses through the beaded curtain and rejoins the girl might also imply that the two are finally in agreement.

What is the climax of "Hills Like White Elephants"?

The climax in "Hills Like White Elephants" can be hard to miss since it is in many ways subtle, much like the rest of the story. A climax is defined as that point in the story where the tension and conflict are at their greatest. In "Hills Like White Elephants" this point comes when the girl demands "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?" and then threatens to scream. Though tension was building as it became clearer that the two characters did not want the same thing, this is the peak of the girl's frustration. The only thing that breaks this tension is the waitress's arriving with their beers and the news that the train is about to arrive. Without this interruption, a more climactic event might have occurred. The American might have yelled and threatened to leave the girl, or she may have finally said what she actually means. But that would not suit the story's style or themes, so after this very quick climax, the tension is diffused, and the girl has presumably made a decision.

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