Ernest Hemingway and His Most Popular Story “Hills Like White Elephants

Ernest Hemingway is one great writer who typified and helped define what it meant to be an American author in the 20th century. During his life, he became what would be considered a modern day celebrity. He was and continues to be a household name, and his writing is recognized as an integral part of the canon of American literature. He primarily wrote fictional novels and short stories, and his contributions are still regarded as some of the most influential works of American literature to date.

Hemingway is idolized as a staple author of modernism and the minimalist literary movement. He uses short, clipped sentences and dialogue as well as frugal, poignant descriptions in his writing. His stories left a lot of the meaning up to the interpretation of the reader. Although, at face value, his writing may come off as lacking depth, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that his neglect of superfluous dialogue, explication, and description was used to carefully craft his modernist, minimalist style. His writing is now understood among the most important works of literature produced during the modernist literary movement. After analyzing two short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Hills like White Elephants, it is commendable how well Hemingway created such heart wrenching and compelling stories using brevity, understated symbolism and reader interpretation to his advantage. His plainly worded yet deeply meaningful writing is characteristic of the emerging modernist movement during the early twentieth century. Today, scholars are still discussing the breadth and depth of Hemingway’s work, and continue to commend his minimalist prose and implicitly introspective style as a formative contribution to the early modernist movement.

Still widely recognized among the most renowned American authors, Ernest Hemingway wrote about some of the most complex issues of the twentieth century. Man’s experience with nature, war, hardship, and social issues are some of the main topics he wrote about. He was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois and worked as a journalist before WWI, during which he served as an ambulance driver in the war. His journalistic influence is considered to be one of the driving forces for his unadorned, matter-of-fact style of writing. Throughout his life, Hemingway had many escapades with women, embraced celebrity in his early age, and struggled to shape his beliefs during a radically changing period in American history. He came into adulthood after the industrial revolution during WWI, and experienced the wrath of war and the power of technology. These events shaped his worldview and influenced his artistry. Throughout his life, he wrestled with the ideas of love, nature, companionship, solitude, and the trials of war, all of which are present in his writings.

In his works, Hemingway wrote about many of the prevailing themes of early twentieth century modernism. He wrote at length about humankind’s complicated experience with war, nature, companionship, and the changing political and social climate of the time. But, his style was at odds with the literature of the previous century. For many reasons, we recognize him as one of several dissident writers whose departure from traditional literary conventions was formative to the modernist movement of the early twentieth century.

The modernist literary movement came about simultaneously in America and Western Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Modernism takes a step back from traditional literary approaches, and it was considered avant-garde at the time. Hemingway helped create the foundation for modernist ideology in literature. Given the rapidly changing tides of social and geopolitical beliefs of the time, modernism is characterized by departing from the widely-held conventions of literature in pursuit of a more critical, honest, reflective, and self-aware form of writing. Whereas before the modernist movement, authors prided themselves in verbosity and grandeur, Hemingway and modernist literature as a whole is efficient, reflective, and insightful. At heart, modernist writing is a multifaceted discussion about humanity and what it means to be human.

Modernism originated because of the prevailing sentiment of disillusionment that many writers felt during and following the industrial revolution and World War I. This sense of disillusionment with the state of the world and traditional ideals was the result of radical changes in technology and customs. These changes inspired widespread anxieties about the future, and provoked big questions about the turbulent state of international social and geopolitical state of the world at the time. For writers, these anxieties manifested by inspiring authors to depart from the conventions of their craft. Instead of continuing to write at length about traditional themes and topics often threaded throughout works of literature, writers began questioning themselves and the world they knew in their writing.

This period of literary expression can be compared to the impressionist movement in visual art, which came about after the advent of photography. Where once, painters were relied upon to accurately depict the world around them as they saw it, they instead embraced new challenges in their work which could not be captured on camera. Instead, they, like the authors of the modernist movement, were tasked with representing and creating what was ever-present in their mind’s eye, rather than their physical eyes. Authors of the burgeoning modernist movement found themselves in a world where the conventions of their craft were no longer apt for telling the stories that demanded to be told. Both impressionism and modernism, which came about around the same time, expressed the frustrating eras in which artists found that the fundamental methods they once used to create their art no longer fit within the rapidly changing world in which they worked. Earnest Hemingway epitomizes this change, forgoing long sentences and elaborate explanations for personal interpretation and a more inexplicit, understated understanding of their work.

In a metaphor comparing modernist literature again to the impressionist movement in visual art, artists were no longer interested in capturing one perfectly instantaneous image of the ocean. Rather, they worked to depict the underlying tides and movements that stirred the waves and created the beauty and complexity of the human experience. Hemingway described this best, in what would become known as the ‘iceberg theory.’ He characterized his work as resembling an iceberg, where only one tenth of the mass is above water, and the rest is hidden and must be implied or interpreted by the audience. This way of writing was used to show how humanity interacted with the world even in the most pressing and confusing times, and it is categorical of modernist artistic ideology.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is about a couple who are stranded on the Eastern Rift Mountain Range. However, the short story is just a snippet of the lives of the characters, evidenced by the flashbacks and internal musings of the main character, Harry. Harry’s internal thoughts of in the face of his imminent death can be interpreted as a noble attempt to rectify his wrongs and come to peace with his fate. The way Hemingway’s writes the stream-of-consciousness sections of the story stylistically characteristic of the modernist literary movement.

This story also tackles many of the predominating motifs of the modernist movement such as consumption, reality, and transformation. These overarching ideological concepts all combine to shape Hemingway’s story within the modernist literary movement.

In this short story, Hemingway repeatedly renounces consumption. Harry, the main character, continuously blames consumption and money for his previous actions in life. Although he considers himself a writer, he says that money and the pursuit of money has hindered his ability to write and made him lazy and unappreciative of life. In these final moments presented in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Harry knows that he made a mistake by living a life of indulgence and luxury. He believes that his lifelong pursuit of money held him back from his true passion of writing. But, it was only until he was dying that he admitted this fact consciously to himself. For Harry, the opportunity for transformation has passed, and that makes him both bitter and remorseful. This is a prevailing theme in the Snows of Kilimanjaro and is also one reason this story belongs to the literary movement of modernism.

Transformation is another aspect of this story which fits within the confines of modernism. Instead of experiencing the transformation firsthand, the transformation is recognized through flashback at the many points where Harry could have taken another course of action but failed to do so. Instead, he was busy living a life of luxury and unabated consumption. However, the fact that Harry muses about all the ways he failed to transform his character is a form of transformation in and of itself. Even though Harry ended up dying before he was able to transform, his recognition of failure proves that he had an epiphanous and transformative moment while consciously awaiting his inevitable death. He regrets the fact that he was able to transform, but could not. After this epiphany, he attempts to write a story even as he is dying which is evidence that he had experienced transformation. Still, it was too late for any wholescale transformational redemption to occur.

The blurred state of reality Harry experiences before his death is further evidence that this piece of literature fits within modernist ideology. The recurring flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness paragraphs are typical of modernist writing. As Harry is slowly slipping away into death, his ability to recount events of his past and experience remorse indicates that Harry was attempting to reconcile some of his mistakes. Although his brash and abrasive attitude outwardly presented in the story shows that he is reluctant to accept reality, his repeated moments of flashback and inner thoughts, written in italics, show that his perception of reality is changing. He never expresses in dialogue the ways he is attempting to rationalize his current circumstances, but his blurry state of mind allows the audience to see inside his mind and decide for themselves who Harry really is deep down. The last paragraph, where he is rescued, is likely a stream-of-consciousness internal monologue which represents his last moments before death. However, unlike the rest of his unspoken thoughts, it is not written in italics. This insinuates that his ascension towards the top of Mount Kilimanjaro is actually a dream-sequence and a metaphor for his death.

Hemingway’s style is regarded as minimalist. This style of writing is characterized by plain language, repetition, simple word-choice and much being left up to the interpretation of the reader. This style of writing is especially effective in Hills like White Elephants, one of Hemingway’s most popular short stories. This story overlooks two intimate companions as they dance around the subject of a potential abortion. Instead of stating this directly, the dialogue and description is used plainly and implies a much more personal and implicit meaning. The two characters never actually mention the crux of conflict around which the whole story revolves, the potential abortion. The audience is left to interpret one tiny glimpse of a larger story on their own, and draw their own conclusions.

Written in 1927, the story is grounded in a Catholic country, Spain, where abortion is outlawed. The characters are at an impasse; the train station where the whole story takes place represents two potential courses of action. The story hinges on whether the couple will to continue to Madrid by train, where an illegal abortion would be more accessible, or to turn back to Barcelona and start a family. This painstaking and subverted discussion only takes up about five minutes of dialogue if read at natural pace, but according to one small detail Hemingway mentions in the first paragraph, it can be deduced that the conversation stretches out for almost forty minutes. This small and seemingly insignificant detail supports the fact that the conversation is uncomfortable, choppy, and overwhelmingly emotional for the characters.

Further, one critical metaphor in the story, which is actually a simile in the dialogue, is mentioned by the female character who points out, upon gazing across the River Ebro towards the hills, compares the hills to white elephants. Although at face value this comment is underwhelming, it has a rich history and embodies the main conflict in the story. Elephants have the longest gestation period of any animal on earth, and are often used as an image to romanticize childbirth. But aside from elephants being used to represent maternity, a white elephant is representative of a gift one does not want or otherwise has no use for. This stems from early Siamese feudal tradition. In some circumstances, the King would give a bothersome or meddlesome Lord a baby white elephant in order to placate the individual or otherwise take up their time with managing such a cumbersome animal. Being such a majestic creature, and having been gifted it by the King, the lord would have no option but to take care of the animal. This gift was not asked for and was not wanted, but the King knew that gifting this animal would serve his goal of occupying or placating the Lord with an unwanted gift.

The white elephant in this story is the possibility of having a child, which is the subject of contention between the characters. Although the man does not want to have the child, the female seems to have other opinions. So, they are divided on whether or not to keep their ‘white elephant’ or get an abortion. All of this can be derived from the one seemingly simple simile which constitutes both the title and the most important piece of dialogue in this story.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing fits snugly within the modernist literary movement. In the face of the drastic changes that resulted from the industrial revolution and World War I, he was able to harness his overwhelming feelings of anxiety, hope, and remorse, and use them in his stories. So many people identified with his feelings that he became a widely revered figure for his writing. His minimalist writing style as well as the content and context he incorporates into his stories is indicative of the disillusionment that inspired the modernist movement. The complicated and divisive subject matter of his work led Hemingway to be categorized as one of the most influential authors of his time. Complex modernist motifs like transformation, consumption, and reality are all apparent in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. His stream-of-consciousness writing style and internal monologues are also evidence that Hemingway was a modernist thinker. He wrote during a time when humanity was challenged to answer many of the nagging social and geopolitical questions that were unanswerable. And he did this with efficiency, grace, and poise, garnering immense critical acclaim.

Departing from traditional literary conventions, modernist thinkers like Hemingway sought to examine and evaluate what it meant to be human in a confusing and inhumane world. Although we still struggle to understand modernist questions about humanity, ethics, and the subconscious, Hemingway helped to clarify and unveil the range of possible answers to these difficult questions. He rarely claimed to have an answer, but simply proposed the possibilities on paper. His writing is considered some of the most important contributions to the American literary canon, and he helped to define what it meant to be an American author in the twentieth century.

Work cited:

  1. Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. W.W. Norton & Co., 2012.
  2. “Modernism.” Terms & Themes, Craig White, coursesite.uhcl.edu/HSH/Whitec/terms/M/modernism.htm.
  3. Smith, Sam Benson. “History behind the ‘White Elephant’ Gift Swap.” Reader’s Digest, Reader’s Digest, 22 Dec. 2017, www.rd.com/culture/history-white-elephant-gift-swaps/.
  4. Fruscione, Joseph, ed, Joseph, ed. “Teaching Hemingway and Modernism.” At Home in Hemingway’s World | The Hemingway Society, 1 Jan. 1970, www.hemingwaysociety.org/teaching-hemingway-and-modernism.
  5. Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants (Ebook) by Ernest Hemingway.” EBooks.com, 1927, www.ebooks.com/1122305/hills-like-white-elephants/hemingway-ernest/.
  6. Hemingway, Ernest. The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Cambridge University Press, 1975.
  7. Dearborn, Mary V. Ernest Hemingway: a Biography. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.