The Function of Language in Ernest Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants
Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills like White Elephants is an instance of the ambiguous and reductionist style of the author’s prose style. With almost no artifice and no use stylistic embellishments, Hemingway captures the essence and the mood of a life scene in its full complexity. As it shall be seen, it is through the function of language that the writer moulds the profound story of a couple and their argument related to an impending abortion.
While the actual conclusion of the couple’s discussion is unknown, the story offers enough material for interpretation and analysis despite its brevity. Although nothing actually happens in the story, except for the couple’s flurried exchange of replicas, questions and answers, knowledge about the state of mind of the characters, their personality and the outcome of their dialogue can be gleaned through an analysis of the linguistic patterns present in the story.
First of all, everything in the story seems to happen on a cognitive and linguistic level. Critic Alex Link in his study of the short story entitled Staking Everything on It: A Stylistic Analysis of the Linguistic Patterns in ‘Hills like White Elephants’, observes that the story is created of a series of linguistic patterns, each with its specific function. Link thus pertinently notes that the most important of these patterns is the use of substitution. The critic argues that Hemingway opts for very precise linguistic choices to symbolize complex shifts in meaning and differences between the interlocutors. In spite of the minimalist style, the relationship between the two is potently contoured through the language they use. Thus, it is obvious that power is almost entirely absorbed by the male, while the girl, named Jig, attempts to rebel against it without managing to escape its authority. The man carefully but intently manipulates the girl into accepting the abortion as a matter of fact. This is reflected in the number of questions that each of the characters uses. While the girl asks many questions so as to gain assurance of the positive outcome of the abortion. Through her questioning, she also rebels against his authority, without ultimately being able to dismiss it:
“‘And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.’
‘I know we will….I’ve known lots of people that have done it.’
‘So have I…. And afterward they were all so happy.’” (Hemingway 275)
Jig seems to ask for confirmation on his part, at the same time challenging his own views. Her discourse portrays her as young and In order to achieve persuasion, he makes use of careful phrases, attempting to make her believe that he will support her, whatever her decision might be. He insists she doesn’t have to have an abortion if she does not want to, although each time he does so he makes an addition about the operation being the best thing for the two of them:
“‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t care about me.’
‘Well, I care about you.’
‘Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.’
‘I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.’”(Hemingway 276)
Thus, in the quoted paragraph, the man insists that he does not want Jig to have an abortion as long as she “feels that way.”However, the implication is that he does not take her feelings seriously at all and that he believes she can easily feel different about the abortion and be at peace with the idea. This masked manipulation is done through language and through the man’s assurances and impositions on the girl’s own discourse. For instance, he tries to convince her that the abortion is the only thing that makes them unhappy, obviously uses a plural noun while describing his own particular feelings. He maintains the plural discourse all through the end, sometimes shifting to a direct evaluation of her feelings. It is through this mechanism that the man actually asserts his power without admitting that the abortion is an answer to his own insecurities.
The conversation makes use of many verbs expressing cognition and a series of abstract nouns that express very general notions. Jig’s language is questioning, both in the outward format and in the actual content of her replicas. She seems to know she is being lied to, without actually letting this come through. Notably, the man monopolizes knowledge in language and in the way in which power is distributed between them:
“The man monopolizes the authority of knowledge. Of the twelve occurrences of ‘know’ in the text, seven describe what the man knows, as in ‘I know you wouldn’t mind it’ and ‘But I know it’s perfectly simple’( 275). Two are used by him to tell Jig what she knows—‘You know I love you’ and ‘You know how I get when I worry’ (275)–and one describes Jig’s absence of knowledge about how to drink Anis del Toro–she doesn’t ‘know’ if she wants it with water (274).”(Link 72)
However, on a more profound level, it is the girl that has a more accurate perception of the situation. The apparently unrelated comparison in the title of the story, which recurs a few times during the dialogue, “hills like white elephants”, indicates that she is able to see connections between things that remain hidden to him. When he states that he has never seen a white elephant, she comments that he probably wouldn’t have, implying that she has a different way of looking at things: “The final repetition of ‘like white elephants’ breaks the established pattern by shifting the comparison’s focus from hills to a highly general noun, ‘things’… Thus, because the comparison is titular and repeated, and eventually becomes non-specific, it invites the substitution of other words for ‘hills.’”(Link 70)
Thus, the story relies almost entirely on language to convey its meaning. While the man tries to manipulate the girl through his persuasive discourse, she also challenges his through her knowledge of ‘things’ and the way in which their story actually looks like.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The First Forty-Nine Stories. New York: Scribner’s, 1938.
Link, Alex. “Staking Everything on It: A Stylistic Analysis of Linguistic Patterns in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’.” The Hemingway Review 23(2) 2004: 66(10).
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