Hills Like White Elephants
by Ernest Hemingway
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Controlled, Frantic, Subdued
The narrator is very controlled, giving us a bare minimum of information outside of the conversations between the man and Jig, or between the man and the woman serving the drinks. This narrator controls the tendency in narrators to tell what the story means. This is giving the readers lots of credit for being intelligent, but can also make for rough reading. We aren’t used to stories being told mostly in dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, both Jig and the man are having a rather controlled conversation. The fact that they are having this conversation in a public place might or might not contribute to this control. Even today, when it comes to sex, abortion, and relationships, we might all exercise some control when talking about these intimate details in public. If you were having this kind of conversation in public, what would it sound like? Unless you are much more blunt than these folks, you would probably be having a conversation similar to what we see here.
Like these characters, you and your conversation partner might lose that control at points in the conversation and become frantic, like when the woman says, "please, please, please, please, please, please, please stop talking" (98), or when the man says, "I might have. Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything" (12) when Jig insinuates that he’s not well traveled enough to have seen white elephants. Though they are both able to get their respective positions across, neither of them is able to articulate why they feel the way they do. As a result they both feel threatened, bullied, accused, and misunderstood. At this point, the tone become subdued, which is what we see in the final two lines of the story:
"Do you feel better?" he asked.
"I feel fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." (109-110)
Since they can’t get past what they want, to talk about why they want it, there is a complete communication breakdown.