"Hills Like White Elephants" from the 1927 collection Men Without Women is one of the most famous American short stories ever, by one of America’s most famous authors, Ernest Hemingway. You’ve probably heard of Hemingway. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Hemingway is considered to be one of the great innovators in 20th-century fiction.
You probably won’t be able to get out of high school or college without running across this very short story about a pair of lovers at a crisis point in their relationship. As can often happen in such situations, everything comes to a head in a public place. The narrator reports on their conversation. Sounds simple, right?
If it is simple, then why do so many people have such a hard time with this story? Well, the characters don’t ever specifically say what they are arguing about, and as the reader, we must infer what they're discussing. It's quite a good literary trick, and one that helped propel Hemingway to literary fame, while influencing generations of writers to come.
Did you ever notice that when someone asks, "Know what I'm saying?", we tend to agree with them—even if we have zero idea what in the Sam Hill they're talking about? That's odd… know what we're saying?
Well, even if you aren't nodding along happily on the other side of this screen, we're guessing you've had an experience or two where what gets said out loud, what gets left unsaid, and what is actually meant are three different things entirely.
Our main man Hemingway knew this, and so he sketched out this little scene in "Hills Like White Elephants." Here we get a couple, in public, that dance around what they want to say to each other like Fred Astaire at a Riverdance revival. But what do they really want to say to each other?
Sadly, friends, this story is not that straightforward. But that seems fair to us—after all, life isn't that straightforward either. More specifically, relationships aren't straightforward, and even more specifically, interpersonal communication isn't straightforward.
"Hills Like White Elephants" is a great portrait of how we talk at, to, and past each other; how we can go on and on and never quite get at what it is we really want to say. This story is a chance to reflect on the way we talk to our loved ones (and we're not talking about our accents), and what we might, or might not, reveal when we do open up our wordholes.
Know what we're saying?