‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – A Masterclass in Dialogue

There is an old and for the most part true adage among writers that a good writer will ‘show and not tell’. In other words, a good story ought not to be a technical report of events; rather, the reader should be made to mentally witness the events and understand for themselves what meaning there might be hidden behind them. In my opinion, there are very few authors who do this quite as well as Ernest Hemingway, and for the sake of this post I want to take a look at the way he accomplishes this using character dialogue in the short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (first published in Men Without Women 1927).

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is set in a bar at a train station in the middle of nowhere and focuses on a very awkward conversation between an American man and a girl who have been apparently having an affair. The girl is pregnant and is travelling for an abortion. She is having second thoughts about it, or perhaps more accurately is having second thoughts about the affair she is having with this (perhaps older) man. He, on the other hand, is desperate for her to have the abortion so that their life can continue as it was before she got pregnant. What is so remarkable about this story is that absolutely none of this is explicitly stated. It is simply implied, not only through what the characters say but what the characters are also not saying. Indeed, there is very little narration in the story at all (only three or four short paragraphs); the vast majority of the story (which is just shy of 1500 words long) is made up of dialogue between these two (ex?)-lovers.

This is ‘showing, not telling’ at its very finest. There’s lots that can be said about this tiny little gem but the thing I really want to talk about is Hemingway’s extraordinary use of dialogue through-out this story.

The first five hundred words or so of the story feature the two characters having the most trivial of discussions: what they are drinking. They simply do not mention their relationship, their feelings about each other, the pregnancy, the abortion or anything else of significance before this point.

Five hundred words! That’s almost a third of the story done with already and they haven’t given any hint whatsoever that they are anything more than casual acquaintances. I should also mention that during this time, the characters knock back no less than three drinks each. This is a long, drawn out conversation about nothing punctuated by awkward silences. Hemingway doesn’t need to describe the awkward silences. They’re apparent to the reader through the fact that they get through so many drinks while saying so little. If we had any doubt that the silence was a tense one, we only need to look at how quickly their trivial conversation turns into conflict:

‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’
‘Oh, cut it out.’
‘You started it,’ the girl said. ‘I was being amused. I was having a fine time.’
‘Well, let’s try and have a fine time.’
‘All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’
‘That was bright.’
‘I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?’
‘I guess so.’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Maybe I’m just more laid back than most, but it strikes me that these two characters are having anything but a ‘fine time’. This is a tense and awkward discussion about anything other than the one thing that’s on both of their minds.

When the conversation finally does come around to ‘the operation’, the two characters continue to dance around the subject and each other. They never once talk about a baby or an abortion, or even the fact that they have had any kind of physical relationship. Instead, Hemingway nudges the reader towards an understanding of what is going on for these two characters through their vague and awkward dialogue. The best clue we have that the girl is going for an abortion (rather than some other kind of ‘operation’) is that they are both clearly very uncomfortable about it. They talk about it with euphemisms, like how it is a ‘simple operation’ to ‘let the air in’ and so forth. This euphemism itself also gives us a clue that the girl is having something removed from her body… something they’re both embarrassed to talk about but are both desperately concerned about.

Hemingway goes on to make it apparent, through the characters’ dialogue, that these two characters have very different feelings about their situation. The man consistently tries to goad the girl into going ahead with the abortion using reassuring phrases such as ‘It’s perfectly simple’ and ‘You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it’.

There is one interesting point where the girl explicitly asks him, ‘And you really want to?’

Does he give a straight answer? No. Instead he tries again to persuade her:

‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’

Even in the middle of this conversation about the actual issue they are both facing, the two characters utterly fail to communicate. They’re playing verbal tennis with each other but it is clear that they are on different wavelengths entirely. The man continually tries to persuade her that everything will be all right and that their relationship will go back to how it was when the abortion is complete; the girl, on the other hand, increasingly realises that this is not the case. When she does, she drops the conversation. She’s no longer interested in hearing his persuasions; her mind is set. Again, this is not explicitly stated by any narrative; it is simply made clear by the dialogue:

‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -‘
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘All right. But you’ve got to realize – ‘
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Notice how the girl interrupts the man by finishing his sentence for him. She knows what he’s going to say. She’s heard him spin this line a million times before (he certainly spins it often enough during the story and goodness knows how many times before the story actually begins!). She isn’t interested in hearing it any more. In spite of his assertions that he cares about her needs, the man actually has no idea what the girl needs and is more occupied with his own fear that she might actually have this baby. The girl, on the other hand, seems to mature in wisdom almost immediately before our eyes.

This is all made clear to the reader with the narrator barely uttering a word through-out the entire story. Instead of simply being told the facts, the narrator leads us to this train station in the middle of no where and leaves us there to eavesdrop on a private conversation so that we can glean all the details for ourselves as we go.

Now that is what I call showing, not telling.

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