‘Hills like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway

I return to this story again and again. Honestly, I feel completely ill-equipped to attempt explaining why it’s so good. It’s primarily dialogue, but the dialogue is working to conceal all that actually needs to be said by the characters – it’s the finest portrayal of how people can dance around a subject, circumnavigating candour, resorting to repetition and dogged enquiry, constantly expressing but failing to adequately express. The female protagonist sums it up perfectly: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” she says. The mise-en-scène is a small corner of the world, narrow and claustrophobic, but behind it there’s a whole conceptualised world, shimmering with the elided pain of the characters. 

 “I said we could have everything.” 
“We can have everything.” 
“No, we can’t.” 
“We can have the whole world.” 
“No, we can’t.” 
“We can go everywhere.” 
“No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.” 
“It’s ours.” 
“No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.” 
“But they haven’t taken it away.” 
“We’ll wait and see.”

There are gestures to finality, and loss, but the finality of what? The loss of what, precisely? The exact nature of the pain is never explicitly stated, and although the reader can decipher the unsaid conflict, it’s going unsaid makes it more nebulous, more pervasive, more deeply, deeply sad. To conjure pain without explicitly writing pain is something I am never not in awe of.

First published in transition, August 1927, and collected in Men Without Women, Scribner, 1927. Now available in The First Forty-Nine Stories, Arrow, 1995 and available to read online here

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