Conflict in Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants Analysis

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Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” touches on an issue as ageless as time: communication problems in a relationship. He tells his story through conversations between the two main characters, the American and the girl. Conflict is created through dialogue as these characters face what most readers believe to be the obstacle of an unexpected pregnancy.

Their plight is further complicated by their inability to convey their differing opinions to each other. Symbolism and the title’s meaning are other effective means of communicating conflict. To begin, consider the main character’s point of view.Single and in his prime, he makes the most of his lifestyle by traveling and seeing new sights.

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The story is set on one such excursion, at a train station in Spain. Of the complications that might arise from starting a family, one is certain to him: traveling, sight-seeing, and his current lifestyle would be things of the past. These are some of his motivating thoughts as he pleads his case for terminating the pregnancy. He chooses his words advantageously, almost deceitfully, when trying to convince the girl that an abortion is easy surgery: “It’s not really an operation at all” (275).

Those familiar with the abortion procedure can affirm that it is an operation, and rarely a simple one. This remark reveals how desperate he is to make the decision for the girl. The man further complicates the discussion by contradicting himself. For each time he reassures the girl he wants what she wants, he spends at least one line identifying exactly what he wants.

This is clearly seen in the following conversation: “You? ve got to realize . . . that I don? t want you to do it if you don? t want to.

I? m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you. So far it sounds as if his only wish is for her to do what she wants. But when she asks if it means anything to him, he immediately responds, “Of course it does. But I don? t want anybody but you.

I don? t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple” (277). The man, however, is not the sole contributor to the communication breakdown. Right away the girl begins to show her weakness and inability to express herself.

When the man initially directs the conversation to the operation (abortion), her reaction is described: “The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on [and] . . . id not say anything” (275).

Failure to state her conviction is illustrated in this example, and is further indicated by frail hints of her desire to keep the baby: “Once they take it away, you never get it back” (276). An obvious hint, yet she never clearly voices her hunger to have the baby. She continues to desire his will over hers in lines such as this one: “Then I? ll do it [have an abortion]. Because I don? t care about me” (275).

After a few of these vain attempts to convince the man to consider having the baby, she implores him to “Please. please please please please please please stop talking” (272).The author uses her avoidance of confrontation and denial of self-expression to assure the reader that the girl’s weak and dependent nature prevents her from verbally expressing her point of view. Even the use of character terms? the man and the girl? reinforces this effect.

Hemingway also uses a component of the setting, a beaded curtain which serves as a partition in the bar, to show conflict between the characters. At one point during their conversation, “the girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads” (275).In his article published in Explicator, Dennis Organ points out that “strings of beads are familiar infant’s playthings; thus, to the woman the curtain may symbolize the unborn child” (11). This seems to be a reasonable example of symbolism, although another interpretation could be that the girl’s actions are symbolic of her own infantile mannerisms.

Rather than expressing herself in what may be the most crucial decision of her life, she diverts her attention by busying herself. Organ extends the symbolism of the curtain to include the man? opinion: “Because the curtain has painted on it the name of a drink . . .

the curtain also may be said to represent the man’s desire to maintain the status quo in their relationship” (11). Indeed, drinking is a part of the man’s present lifestyle. Upon entering the bar the man orders a pair of alcoholic drinks for the couple, then another. The girl later comments about how their relationship seems to revolve around looking at things and trying new drinks (274).

For the sake of the story, Hemingway’s display of communication breakdown between the man and the girl is a beneficial one.The couple could have resolved this conflict quickly if the man had stated, “I do not want my lifestyle altered by a baby and consider an abortion the only realistic alternative” and the woman had responded, “I disagree. I want to have this baby and that is what I am going to do. ” But if that happened, the story would have begun and ended in a couple of boring paragraphs.

The lack of real conflict would have detracted from the obscurity of the story’s theme and the conflict of both characters? points of view.One of the attractions of this story is the element of the unknown; it is the privilege of the reader to fill in the blanks, to tie up loose ends at his or her own discretion. It is advantageous to the reader that the man and the girl do not communicate clearly. Additionally, Hemingway incorporates a clever title to add appeal to this story.

Dr Victor Lindsey, an English professor at East Central University, suggests a relationship between the meaning of white elephants and the man’s attitude toward the unborn child. Consider one definition of white elephant as given by Webster? 21st Century Dictionary: “[An] awkward, useless possession” (229). A white elephant has also been defined as an item that is worthless to one but priceless to another, bringing to mind the saying, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. In the case of Hemingway’s couple, the baby represents something of no apparent value to the man, yet priceless to the girl.

In a letter written to Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway commented, “nobody can tell which ones I make up completely,” even though some of his stories are “straight reporting” of real events and some are invented (400).He does admit that “Hills Like White Elephants” is an invented story, although the setting and dialogue ring of authenticity. Maybe that is why literary critic Sheridan Baker states that “what Hemingway himself counts as fiction seems to contain a very high saturation of actuality” (158). Even so, his use of the title’s meaning, symbolism, and the ageless dilemma of communication problems provides an excellent dialogue, giving the story an interesting twist indicative of his style

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Conflict in Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants Analysis. (2017, May 09). Retrieved from

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