When Saying Less Reveals More: A Study in Literary Minimalism

When Saying Less Reveals More: A Study in Literary Minimalism

            There are authors who believe that there is no need for elaboration and sensationalism in creating a good story; the people’s characters and motivations can be revealed through the context of dialogue and actions.  Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” and Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” use this minimalist technique of using less action and more meaningful dialogue to develop their characters and advance their respective plots.  The reader experiences the stories as an eavesdropper listening to a real conversation.  When listening to people talk in real life, there is no other way to find out the whole story – the conversation is the whole package on which all judgments depend, that is why the precision of language and detail in a minimalist story is very important.

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            In “Hills like White Elephants”, nothing much happens except for a man and girl talking about a problem that they must resolve.  The problem is not explicitly stated but through the use of symbolism and the actions of the characters themselves, the relationship between the two, along with their problem, is revealed.  The language may not be explicit, but the reaction of one character to the other reveals what they have been talking about.   Near the beginning of the short story, the girl says “Everything tastes of licorice - When Saying Less Reveals More: A Study in Literary Minimalism introduction. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe”, to which the man replies, “Oh, cut it out” (Hemingway 344).  The man could have not acted so exasperated if the girl has just been talking about absinthe in an innocent way.  What he really reacts on is her reference to waiting for some things for so long.  It can also mean that he has “introduced her to absinthe in the hopes that she would become sexually aroused” (Bauer 131), and when she conceives he is ready to try the most convenient way out of the responsibility. In the case of the story, the problem the two characters are referring to is a baby; the girl is pregnant with the man’s baby.  The evidence that this is not guess work can be found in the following lines: (Bauer 129) “not really an operation after all” and “I’ll go with you and I will stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it is perfectly natural” (Hemingway 344). She wants to have the baby, but he feels that everything will be fine only if she gets an abortion.  The man is able to convey this to the audience through statements like “We’ll be fine afterward.  Just like we were before” and “That’s the only thing that bothers us.  It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy” (Hemingway 344).  In the end, the man knows that he can only say so much to try to persuade the girl to have the abortion, but it is ultimately her choice that matters.

            “Hills like White Elephants” also makes use of minimalism in the treatment of the subject at hand.  Usually, stories that involve abortion are sensationalized and will not involve quiet conversations over glasses of beer between lovers involved in the dilemma.  Moreover, the story “[leaves] out the whole morality debate” (Bauer 129).  It does not deal with a crusade in favor of either pro-choice or pro-life, it is one woman’s understanding of what she may have to go through as a woman who may have to “[terminate her] pregnancy” (Bauer 130).  Through minimalism, even the characters can become well-developed.  The reader sees that the girl is more mature than the man because she questions the man’s claims that their relationship will be going back to normal after an abortion though she may have her own apprehensions about the pregnancy: she sees hills as white elephants.  These images are very similar to a pregnant woman’s growing belly.

Raymond Carver is another minimalist who believes that the story itself is adequate, and that there is no need for extensive explanations.  “His distrust of exposition and veneration of story lies at the heart of the most common criticism of his work -that his characters are inarticulate and insufficiently realized because they seem unable to explain why they do what they do” (May 39).  His story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is no exception, but whether it does present “inarticulate and insufficiently realized” characters is up to the reader’s understanding of the text.  It is a story wherein people tell stories in order to talk about love (May 44).  The two couples involved represent two different kinds of couples: Terri and Mel are married for four years and have both been married before so they represent those who are a bit jaded about love, while newlyweds Nick and Laura represent blissful and yet untainted unions.  Mel and Terri do most of the talking; they talk about their ideas of what love is through their personal experiences.  However, there may be a little resentment from Nick because he begins the story by saying “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking.  Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist and sometimes that gives him the right” (Carver 117).  As for what Mel and Terri talks about, it is a wonder how they keep on going back to past relationship failures when they should have been married to and in love with each other.  Terri says about her ex-husband, “He beat me up one night.  He dragged me around the living room by my ankles.  He kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you, you b**ch’” (Carver 117), and she believes that he does love her.  Mel does not believe that Laura’s ex-husband has loved her and he believes that his own kind of love is superior.  Nevertheless, after a few more drinks Mel says of his ex-wife “She’s allergic to bees.  If I’m not praying she’ll get married again, I’m praying she’ll get herself stung to death by a swarm of…bees” (Carver 125).  His own idea of love crumbles after his tongue has been loosened by the liquor.

            Though enough has been revealed through Mel and Terri’s combined stories, the reader still has to depend solely on what they are saying and doing in order to get a grasp of the full story.  Mel and Terri have both been married before, but there is no omniscient narrator talking about their background stories; the reader has to trust the characters’ words, liquor and all.

            Minimalism may have been able to convey the meanings of the two stories being studied, but some critics believe that the technique can be frustrating for readers who want to understand everything about a story.  The writer John Barth does recognize the “intellectual roots” of minimalist works such as Hemingway’s but he also believes that “minimalism as now practiced seems to exist solely for minimalism’s sake” (Yardley).  Since John Barth’s comments have been written in 1987, it may imply that he is including “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, which is written in 1981 years after Hemingway’s 1927 short story, in the list of stories written “for minimalism’s sake”.

            When studying “Hills like White Elephants” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” side by side, the reader will see that both have managed to express the underlying stories even with the use of the minimalist technique.  In “Hills like White Elephants”, the reader is able to understand the predicament that the man and the girl are in and is able to recognize their characters through the dialogue.  “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on the other hand, reveals the two couples’ view of love through Terri and Mel’s stories, and through Laura and Nick’s gestures.  The newlyweds’ state of bliss is revealed through actions such as the one Nick describes:  “I took Laura’s hand and raised it to my lips.  I made a big production out of kissing her hand.  Everyone was amused”.  The description shows more than how in love Laura and Nick are;  it also demonstrates Nick’s awareness of how the others may react and how he actually aims to achieve that reaction.

            Though the two stories both accomplish their intent to effectively tell a story without fuss, they also have differences.  While “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” portrays several situations of love through the stories and the use of gestures, “Hills like White Elephants” tackles one serious issue which has been very much downplayed.  Moreover, both may not have omniscient narrators, but more will be expected of the third person narrative of “Hills like White Elephants” than the first person narrator of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, Nick.  Nick is part of the story and he obviously can only tell the readers about what he sees and hear.  He is not a mind reader who can perceive his companions’ thoughts.  On the other hand, third person narration is often expected to be all-knowing.

            Another factor that a reader should look at is the use of alcohol.  Both stories describe the main characters as drinking.  The man and the pregnant girl order beer, either to pass the time while waiting for the train or to relax, because they have a big problem at hand.  The use of alcohol here will not affect the third person, detached narrator but it may show the two characters’ attitude towards the pregnancy.  The man asks “Should we have another drink” and gets the reply, “All right” (Hemingway 344).   The man obviously does not care if excessive drinking can affect the baby. The girl, on the other hand, is expected to be always compliant.  Later on, her questions and the lack of closure at the end of the story show that the girl is starting to analyze; she will not go with the flow.  In the case of Mel’s alcohol use, he starts from talking about true love to badmouthing his ex-wife when he gets drunk.  Character is also revealed in the story’s use of alcohol.  Dialogue becomes more honest when a person loses his inhibition.  The narrator, Nick does not seem affected by liquor.  It may be implied that Mel has drunk more than the rest.

            Minimalism in the two studied stories makes the reader pay more attention to dialogue and setting.  Every word matters in a minimalist story, therefore, the reader is careful with his interpretation.  Time seems to pass by more slowly as the focus is not on the action, but on the dialogue.  This slowness can describe how the man feels about the pregnant girl’s decision.  This may also describe the timelessness of love and its effects as Mel and Terri look back.   Without background stories and elaborate explanations, everything that is present contributes to the story.  The pregnant girl’s description of the hills looking like white elephants reveals the enormity of her problem and her anticipation of shame.  Elephants are big, and when her belly is big she will not be able to hide the pregnancy anymore.

            Minimalist works of literature may be often criticized for its lack of exposition, but Hemingway and Carver demonstrate that when symbolism and description of details which contribute to the story are used effectively, good stories are told.  Stories are appreciated as they happen, not when somebody has already analyzed and explained them.

Works Cited

Bauer, Margaret D. “Forget the Legend and Read the Work: Teaching Two Works by Ernest

            Hemingway.” College Literature (Summer 2003): 124-137.

Carver, Raymond. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The Story and Its Writer: An

            Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. 117-126.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like Elephants.” The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short

            Fiction. Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martins’s, 1999. 343-346.

May, Charles E. “‘Do You See What I’m Saying?’: The Inadequacy of Explanation and the Uses of.”

            The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 31, North American Short Stories and Short Fictions


Yardley, Jonathan. “Minimalism: Less-is-more is not enough.” The Washington Post (January 26,



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