‘Hills Like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway

What is remarkable to me about this Hemingway story is how timeless the exchange is between the characters. And, how Hemingway trusts the reader’s intelligence to figure out what is going on in that train station by what is not being said. There is the story and then there is the experience that each reader brings to it. And, it is interesting that final words belong to the girl: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” Has her lover convinced her to do what he wants? Each re-reading, I change my mind.

First published in transition August 1927 and in the collection Men Without Women, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1927. Widely anthologized

‘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

A Hemingway Personal Anthology

Editor’s note: Sam’s 12 stories a gathered as a single entry in the Personal Anthology archive so as not to skew the author statistics. Sam has not forgiven the editor for this.

I’ve chosen twelve Hemingway stories – and you can’t stop me. I won’t argue with you about Hemingway’s character. There are reasons he has become unfashionable. But those failings are part of his tragedy – and that tragedy also makes him fascinating. He was wounded right from the start. He was always lost, like so many of his generation. From this pain he produced some of the most astonishing prose of all time. His writing was not only technically accomplished and full of unforgettable images and symbolism, it was also sensitive, insightful and honest. He might have messed up his life, but in his pages he often got close to perfection. And here’s the proof:

Hills Like White Elephants’ (First published in transition in 1927, and then collected in Men Without Women, 1927)

This is one of Hemingway’s most famous stories and one of the best examples of his iceberg theory of writing. The idea is that he gets the most from the least. The few words you see on the surface have great weight and depth beneath them, hidden under the water.

Here we have a couple sitting at a table beside a train a station on a hot day. It feels like these two young people are there before us in HD, every line of their features delineated, every emotion revealed in extreme close up. Actually, Hemingway barely gives any more description than I gave in this paragraph’s first sentence. He just provides the station, the table, some beer and the heat. He leaves it to us to fill in the rest of the image, just as he leaves it to us to fill in the gaps in the couple’s stilted, frustrated conversation. The hard and painful thing they are talking about is barely mentioned. And yet we are made to know just what it is. I won’t say more about that here, for fear of bruising the delicate beauty of the story. Suffice to say, what we get by implication and silence is worth more than we would ever get if it were all spelled out. (The iceberg theory in a nutshell: Papa don’t preach.)

It’s an amazing technical feat – but when you read the story, none of that really matters. It’s the emotion that counts. The tragedy and fear and bleakness of the young couple’s situation. It’s also worth noting that it’s the female character who carries our sympathies and the moral weight of the story. There are centuries’ of female struggle in her anguished one line outburst at the climax, where she begs the man to “please please please please please please please stop talking”.

Che Ti Dice La Patria (First published as ‘Italy – 1927’ in The New Republic and then collected in Men Without Women)

But Papa didn’t just rely on allusion to get his point across. Sometimes he gave it to you as blunt and forceful as a bull’s head ramming into your stomach at full charge. In this story Hemingway’s narrator and a friend drive into Italy two years after it has been taken over by Mussolini. They are not impressed. Hemingway understood fascists long before most others. Here he lays out their pettiness, hypocrisy, cruelty and stupidity with clinical precision.

Hemingway also knew what to do with fascists – which was to hate them, hard and cold and absolutely. This story is furious. It’s nasty. This weary bitterness of tone is only augmented by the knowledge that Hemingway had been wounded when fighting for the Italians in the first World War, and often written about its people with love. The fascists were Brexiting a place he held dear and he knew no good could come of it. It’s a warning we still need to heed.

In Another Country (First published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and then collected in Men Without Women)

In fact, here is a story inspired by Hemingway’s earlier experiences in Italy. And an unanswerable demonstration of the futility and ugliness of war. How’s this for a first sentence:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.

 What these haunted, injured men do instead is work on machines that they are told will make them better – but which we readers know will barely help them at all. Meanwhile, we learn about their ruined relationships, their hopes as crushed as their limbs, their few pleasures, their frightening, empty, crippled future. All that takes up just five pages, plenty of those taken up in turn with descriptions of the useless medical procedures. Did I tell you Hemingway is a genius?

The Killers (First published as ‘The Matadors’ in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927 and then collected in Men Without Women)

It’s nearly all dialogue and it’s nearly all brutal. It’s a crime story where the crime isn’t committed – but the victims are nevertheless scarred and doomed. Two thugs enter a diner looking to kill a “Swede” who normally eats there in the evenings. They don’t find him – but that doesn’t make anyone any happier.

This is noir without the glamour, just the truth and darkness of situations where men intend to hurt other men. The sharp back and forth between the two would-be-killers inspired numerous films – but none of them had the cruel force of this story or its expansive overview of the problems in prohibition America.Hemingway himself said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words.” He did it though.

On the Quai at Smyrna (First published in the 1930 Scribner edition of Men Without Women as ‘Introduction by the Author’, re-titled as ‘On the Quai At Smyrna’ in The First Forty-nine Stories in 1938)

I’ve used up my first four selections with stories from Hemingway’s second major collection, Men Without Women, and that one probably isn’t even my favourite. For sheer, raw power, you can’t beatIn Our Time. Plenty of the stories in that slim book would nowadays be called Flash Fiction – especially the four- or five-line explosions of war-horror that intercut each the more complete stories. Even those full stories can be very short. ‘On the Quai Of Smyrna’ is a case in point. It totals less than 750 words, but it contains volumes on the pity and casual cruelty of war. It’s a black stream of horror: dead babies, women clinging onto their dead babies, women giving birth in the dark (“surprising how few of them died”) and pack animals having their legs broken and then being thrown into the water. “My word yes a most pleasant business” it concludes with sarcasm that doesn’t so much drip as gnaw into you like sulphuric acid.

Indian Camp (First published as ‘One Night Last Summer’ in ‘Works in Progress’ in The Transatlantic Review in 1924 and then collected in In Our Time in 1925)

Oh man. Oh god. Again, I don’t know how to describe this story without spoiling the awful tension it produces. You might have to take my word on this one. It starts with a lovely description of a doctor and his son making paddling their way across a lake to a shanty where “inside on a bunk” a “young Indian woman” has been “trying to have her baby for two days” – and oh man, oh god. We see it through the eyes of the steadily-less-innocent boy as the doctor works and — that’s all you’re getting. So many of these stories are so artfully constructed that the only real way to understand them is to read them. But once again, it’s worth pointing out Hemingway’s sympathy for the woman and his admission of his own fear and vulnerability. Somewhere beneath the macho posturing, there was always something more beautiful.

Big Two Hearted River parts I and II (First published in This Quarter in 1925 and then collected in In Our Timein 1925)

This is a story about a man going fishing. He walks for a while, he pitches a tent, he sleeps, he wakes, he eats his breakfast, he goes to a river and he casts his line. Each detail is carefully and beautifully realised – and in that meticulous focus something magic happens. The story turns into everything that the writer isn’t describing; the worries he is so carefully avoiding, the pain and ruination of a young man who has… what? Well, you have to fill in your own spaces, but given the story’s position at the climax of a collection about the ravages of war and agonies of love, that isn’t too hard. We feel the weight of the story all the more because it doesn’t try to say what can’t be said. It’s a miracle of concision and precision and silence. (It’s also, incidentally, a very good story about fishing. You can enjoy Hemingway on all kinds of levels.)

Cross Country Snow (First published in The Transatlantic Review and then collected in In Our Time in 1925)

Yay! Ski-ing! I don’t even like skiing. But I love it when Papa describes it:

On the white below George dipped and rose and dipped out of sight. The rush and sudden swoop as he dropped down a steep undulation in the mountain side plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body.

 Yes please. That’s the other thing about Hemingway. For all his pain and anger, and for everything he got wrong, he can still show you how good it can be to be alive.

Snows of Kilimanjaro (First published in Esquire in 1936 and then collected in The First Forty-nine Stories in 1938)

But then, there’s also death. And – oh boy – I just can’t. I know I’ve already busted through most sane adjective allowances in my last few descriptions, not to mention excited interjections, but: wow! This fucking story. Holy shit. Fuck me. God almighty. Oh wow. This is one hello of a good story. Just read it. And make sure you get to the end. Because after the most fearsome beginning and overview of the agony and waste of existence Papa gives you the most exhilarating, remarkable, unspeakably uplifting moment of beauty. Before crashing you right back down again and emptying out everything like a nuclear wind. This is 1930s Hemingway, after all, and he was pretty pissed off. But wow. Fuck. Wow. He could write.

A Clean Well Lighted Place (First published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1933 and then published in Winner Take Nothing in 1933)

Don’t just take the excessive praise from me though. Take it from James Joyce. He called A Clean Well-Lighted Place “one of the best short stories ever written.” And he would know. This one is an argument between two waiters about when to shut their café, which has just one person in it, nursing his drink, lingering as long as he can. One of the waiters is keen to go home. The other understands that home isn’t an easy place for some people to go to – and that they need the refuge of a “clean well-lighted place.”

In the waiters’ exchange, Hemingway conjures all the eternal howling and empty darkness of the universe and sets against it a bright café, and a drink and not being entirely alone for a little while longer. It is among the most beautifully heart-breaking things you will ever read.

Fifty Grand (First published in Atlantic in August 1927 and then published in Men Without Women in 1927)

Here’s the kind of macho story people who don’t read Hemingway expect him to write. A pumped-up, exciting, proto-Rocky training sequence in a boxer’s boot-camp, followed by a fight so vivid you can hear the thud of glove on skin, feel the fists pounding into your face. Except, of course, that’s not really the story. The real story is about compromise, endurance, shame and pain and human frailty. It’s sad and true and wonderful.

A Day’s Wait (First published in Winner Take Nothing in 1933)

Let’s end with something lovely. It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy who is ill and full of fear. So much fear that he can’t even talk about it. Still, his father sees that “he was evidently holding tight onto himself about something” and gently sets out finding out what. It’s quiet and tender. In its happy resolution, it’s even light-hearted. But with the kind of happiness that also brings tears of sadness and relief. Ah. Thanks Papa. You’ve made me feel human.

‘Homage to Switzerland’ by Ernest Hemingway

This is unexpected Hemingway perhaps: deadpan, strange, structurally experimental and in no way pursuing ‘realism’. I called one of my stories after it: ‘Homage to Homage to Switzerland’, which I wrote for Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith’s Winter Papers anthology.

Collected in Winner Take Nothing, Scribner, 1933, and in Collected Stories: Part One, Everyman, 1995. Listen to Julian Barnes read, and write about it here

‘A Clear Well-Lighted Place’ by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway. How lazy and obvious to pick him, for so many reasons. I wish I had discovered and been shown so many other writers when I was younger. I wish, at school, we’d been shown all those stories and voices that never had their chance. And I really did think about doing this anthology without this story, from the perspective of me now, not me as I went through life, and the stories I clung to, or that rose up unexpectedly and captured me.


I was twenty when this story found me, came to me, as it was, by being read aloud to those who had turned up to an American Short Story seminar by one of my university professors. I was finding it hard to be alive, sometimes. The world was (is) so big, and human beings so small, so insignificant, or as I suppose I felt, was so insignificant, what would happen if I just… disappeared.

He read this story, in his beautiful voice (I still think of him reading this, or pieces of Moby Dick in The American Novel seminar, and nothing I’ve ever heard read aloud has ever come even vaguely near it) and I was moved. So. I found an old copy of the collected stories in a second-hand bookshop and cut this one out, stuck it in the back of my diary, and if I ever felt like I might be alone in the universe, I read it.

Obviously, I’ve moved on. I’ve read much better and more complicated and more stylish, more beautiful stories since. I’ve read more important ones too, ones that crack open the world and write it new.

But, this story, it made me pause and think that maybe there wasa point to me, that there was this huge café, with thousands upon thousands of tables, where the occupants were just looking for a clean well-lighted place, to feel connection. And it made me feel better, about everything. So.

It can be found in so many places, but I have a copy of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The First Forty-Nine Stories, Scribner, 2014

‘The End of Something’ by Ernest Hemingway

A boy. A girl. A lake, a boat. A conversation that doesn’t strike at the heart of the things that really matter, and then a single spoken phrase that brings everything crashing down. With just five short, devastating words, the boy destroys his relationship with the girl — spits on the affection she shows him — and the damage he inflicts is all the more brutal given how calmly he speaks to her. ‘The End of Something’ is a masterpiece of understatement, of reticence, and of compressed structure: everything that precedes those five words gives them an incredible charge, so that, despite their brevity, they send shockwaves through the entire story and bring the drama to a turning point. And that’s not all. After the girl leaves him, the boy comes to feel that he has done wrong, and he convinces himself that he can win her back. He makes plans to apologise, to return their relationship to the way it was before he spoke. But the story knows more than the boy does. Look at the title. It’s definite and final. There will be no new beginning. The words the boy can’t see — words that are given only to the reader — suggest the unwritten aftermath of the story, the unavoidable consequences of the words the boy chose to speak.

from In Our Time, Boni & Liveright 1925; reprinted in The First Forty-Nine Stories

‘The Killers’ by Ernest Hemingway

As a writer, Hemingway preferred the world of soldiers and hunters rather than crooks and cops, but his short story ‘The Killers’ is one of the best crime short stories there is. Two men in black overcoats and derby hats enter a diner in a small town. The owner asks them for their order, but the two men do not know what they want and prevaricate. It eventually transpires that they are there to assassinate one of the regulars at the diner. What follows is a masterclass in veiled threats and subtle shifts in power as the two men assert their authority and control over the owner, the cook, and a customer called Nick Adams—all done almost entirely through menacing, Pinteresque dialogue. The situation is a kind of foreshortened version of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, with violence threatening to erupt at any time and the story seething with tension. And all this in just six pages.

First published in 1928. Collected widely, including in The Essential Hemingway, Vintage, 2004