ENGLISH READING CIRCLE FIRST SHORT STORY OF THE MONTH ANALYSIS: “Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemmingway
This month we close the 2014-2015 Reading Club cycle with two short stories that deal with a shared set of themes: gender and language. The first story is Ernest Hemmingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” published in 1927 and included in the collection Men Without Women. At a mere three and a quarter pages long, this is the shortest of the short stories we’ve seen this year, but its length, like its style, does a lot to generate its profundity, and is worthy of critical consideration in its own right. This story is the crystallization of Hemmingway’s aesthetics. Its silences and evasions say more than its words, and the words that are said echo deeper for all the empty space around them.
That space is the separation that dominates and defines our two main characters, “the American and the girl with him.” At a train station on the line between Barcelona and Madrid, in a café overlooking the Ebro, the couple have what one could technically call a conversation, about a subject that is never named, and only obliquely referred to. The nature of this unspoken axis around which their conversation revolves, I leave for you to determine. What it is clear is that the two are speaking at cross purposes, and from either side of a broad gulf that neither is able, or, perhaps, eager, to bridge. Something has changed between them, and before they move on, to Madrid and whatever awaits them there, they share cold drinks on a hot day, and fail to make anything understood.
Or perhaps their words (or better yet, their choice of words) say more than they seem to. What do their words say about them as people, as man and woman, as lovers? How much is language itself to blame for whatever breakdown, in meaning, love, common purpose, future happiness, however you define it, is taking place here? Why does the girl so desperately want the American to stop talking? What is the girl herself trying to say? Is this story more powerful for being so short? If so, why?
There are deep truths hidden in the architecture of this glimmer of a text, and I encourage to you to think about what the way these two talk to each other, and past each other, says about the limits of understanding we encounter in relationships, the nature of the unspeakable, and the power it has over our lives. I look forward to hearing your thoughts tomorrow, happy reading!
Andrew Bennett, English Reading Circle facilitator.