In a short story, the writer’s techniques and tendencies are condensed into a few pages where surprisingly complex ideas are conveyed. The aspects of a story which are often ignored can sometimes be the most pertinent, such as the point of view in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway. The author selected third person limited because it gives a very finite perspective of the already minute events transpiring in his story, which serves to magnify and intensify the dialogue. I will focus on how Hemingway uses point of view to help demonstrate the vague nature of the story and how his characters never directly come out and say what they are talking about.
The reader’s own interpretation is imposed on the text, relying on his or her “previously organized representations of background knowledge… which help the reader to recontextualize the behavior represented but left unexplained in the text” (Millan). Even the characters’ true names are ambiguous, referred to in the text as “the American” and “Jig,” shrouding their identities and leaving who they are up to reader speculation. Slowly, the vaguest and most hazy details are revealed, but these details are barely enough to narrow the reader’s understanding. This understanding is variant and based on personal experiences, so that the reader “remains free to construct many different stories from the kernel situation he is presented with when reading the story” (Millan). If a person is investing his or her own thoughts and conjecture, an emotional interest is evoked; a curiosity is piqued. Hemingway was very keenly aware of this as he chose to have us “occupy the seat next to two strangers…and overhear their exact words while they wait and have a drink together” (Millan). The language itself is peculiarly curt and restrained. Whatever topic the two are discussing is one which they prefer to keep concise, speaking in simple sentences and skirting the core issues wherever possible. Any keen listener or reader could infer the emotions charging their uncomfortable brevity.
After the concealed content of their conversation becomes clear, it is understood that the emotional tenderness is being repressed. The text reads with a painful tension as the tug and sway of the couple’s argument pulls the reader into the balance. Their motivations are as follows: “the girls wants the baby, not the abortion, what she says will make no difference in their relationship and which hypocritically he persists in assuring her he does not want if she objects to it” (Weeks). The simplicity of their statements and interactions is a contrary facade to the actuality of the situation. The American is berating toward “Jig” and is defensive about trivial matters, alluding to the deep resentment he has toward the bearer of his unwanted child. The perspective of these transpirations is especially significant because the impersonal nature of their conversation is easily perceived. It is as though one is within their conversation, trapped, confined by these things left unsaid. Toward the end, the question is raised in the reader’s mind: “Is Jig merely ceding her will to the superior and dominant male’s, or is she, rather, manipulating him?” (Rankin). Both parties seem willing to make concessions for the other. The American makes verbal allowances such as, “…I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.” Later on, Jig says: “I don’t care about myself,” thus opening herself to the possibility of the abortion. However seemingly noble and endearing Jig’s self-sacrifice may be, this martyrdom was carried out for the opposite effect. It enhances her self-importance by trying to downplay her concerns and relevance as the one containing the couple’s “white elephant.” The lack of genuineness to her words highlights how contrary her statement is to how she actually feels. She is so obviously struggling with the pain of her lover’s rejection of their unborn child that even a stranger could detect her unease.
A general malaise peppers the text, each time one of the two travelers speaks. The passivity of femaleness is averted at the end by Jig, whose “wit, resourcefulness, and strong will [oppose] the man’s quick temper, self-centeredness, and irresponsibility” (Rankin). Their interactions are a picture of dissatisfaction and incompatibility, seen through the eyes of an outside witness who can only wonder as to why they would seek to be in each other’s company in the first place.
The removal of impact and distance of a third person limited point of view serves many important purposes. First, the reader feels immediately privy to a discreet conversation not meant to be overheard. Hemingway notes this in the abrupt, choppy fashion they cease speaking when the waitress nears. The two dawdle and dance around the subject at hand, drinking as a means of distraction from the important. An irritation seeps into the paradigm as they draw closer to the subject of the abortion, poking at it without delving very deeply at all, not trying to understand why the other feels how he or she does. Secondly, this literary point of view spawns the sensation of being completely aware, yet unable to act. It is a paralyzing ineffectiveness which absorbs the reader. People have strong personal convictions about intentionally terminating a pregnancy, but Hemingway leaves no room for reader interaction. Whatever happens, will, but you weren’t supposed to be listening in on their private conversation, anyway.
So, in conclusion the way that Hemingway wrote this work shows his inent to keep the reader guessing about what the subject matter was. He intentionally leaves information out and this gives further meaning to the title of the work “Hills Like White Elephants“. Hemingway’s use of point of view throughout the work is a key point to notice, especially during the particularly vague scene with the back and forth conversation where the reader has a difficult time following who is speaking or what they mean.
Hemingway, Ernest. ” Hills Like White Elephants.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 9th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 344-347.
Millan, Enrique Lafuente. “The Use of Pragmatic Politeness Theory in the Interpretation of Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’ Miscelanea 21 (2000): p137-147. Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 117. Detroit: Gale.
Rankin, Paul. “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’ Explicator 63.4 (Summer 2005): p234-237. Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 117. Detroit: Gale.
Weeks, Jr., Lewis E. “Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in ‘Hills like White Elephants.'” Studies in Short Fiction 17.1 (Winter 1980): p75-77. Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale.