Story Analysis of ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway


It’s Day 3 of the #A2ZChallenge. This year, I invite you to read and discuss short stories with me. Each day, I will bring you a ‘Read of the Day,’ a short story in English, so that we can indulge in the joy of reading. You can visit my site daily for a short story with analysis and participate in the discussion in the comments.

Read of the Day 

Today, we will read Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway. 

You can read the short story online here. 

About the Author 

Ernest Miller Hemingway was born in Illinois to Clarence, a doctor, and Grace, a voice and piano teacher. He followed his love for writing and worked as a reporter at Kansas City Star. It’s where he learned the famous Hemingway style as we know it today. The Hemingway style follows the ‘Less is More’ concept, which means brevity in sentences, paragraphs, active verbs, authenticity, and clarity. He died by suicide due to depression at the age of 61. Unarguably, Hemingway, a Nobel Prize recipient, has redefined literature with his timeless work and influence. 

Story Analysis 

Hills Like White Elephants is a story that impressed me from the start. I aspire to write this good someday. I’ve even tried writing a short story in an anthology based on this style but failed miserably for two reasons. One, I have to improve my dialogue technique. Two, though the ‘Iceberg’ writing style in the story is aligned with my taste for all things subtle, I wasn’t sure if the readers of that particular anthology would catch the message and its meaning if I went all out with the technique. So, I made the story and the message evident towards the end. But, someday, I want to stop caring about readers and try this style because I enjoy reading formless stories that make you think. 

A fun fact is that many editors rejected Hills Like White Elephants as it had no plot, characterization, and resolution. I can understand why the editors couldn’t appreciate it. It’s vague for most people, but that’s the beauty of this story as well. Hemingway doesn’t tell how the characters looked or smelled. There is no ‘A-ha’ ending, the kind that pulls the rug off your feet. But is it that important to know how the characters looked or what they smelt like? Does every story need a definite resolution or dramatic ending? Who makes these rules of fiction? And why do writers follow them blindly in cookie-cutter story templates? 

The Hemingway style prioritizes the readers’ experience with shorter paragraphs and sentences, but it doesn’t set limits on a writer’s imagination. Of course, the ‘Iceberg’ writing technique is a choice best left to the discretion of the author. Some authors like to let it all out and even indulge in purple prose as they deftly handle the plot or the message. Some like Hemingway prefer to keep their writing simple and understated. I enjoy reading both the styles as long as it’s executed well. 

The story  is set against a railway station in Spain and revolves around an American man and a young woman. They are waiting for the train that comes from Barcelona, stops for ten minutes at the station, and takes them to Madrid. They drink beer over a difficult conversation about an operation, which the girl tried hard to evade, as she pleads with the man to stop talking. But he won’t as he’s clueless about her emotional turmoil, and even if he does, he gives a damn because he is a man! 

It’s a seemingly insipid and underwhelming story at the outset, but it’s anything but that. There is a lot of dialogue in this story, and yet the obvious is left unsaid. The protagonists are in a complicated relationship, and one can sense their tension through the dialogues and symbolism the author uses at strategic points in the story.

When the woman says that the hills look like white elephants, it could symbolize female sexuality and her longing for something she might never have. The man is least interested in her allusions, asking her to, “Cut it out!” Hemingway uses Nature to convey the woman’s desires – the mountains, trees, river, and the field of grain.  

“And we could have all this,” she said. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

Hemingway leaves several red herrings in the story about the operation. It’s natural, simple, and not an operation at all. Of course, as testified by a man. We understand it’s an elective procedure. The story is mansplaining in action, where the man tries to sell the idea and operation of abortion to a woman whose heart lies with her unborn baby. The man feigns empathy towards the woman’s plight as he declares undying love for her and coaxes her to go for the abortion for their “happily-ever-after’ story.

The man is insensitive to woman’s requests for keeping quiet, and towards the end of the story, she says she’s fine and that she always was. There is a sense of resignation in the young woman, who realizes her silence and submission are what it would take for the man to shut up and leave her to moan in peace. 

The most prominent technique used in the story is dialogue, but the crux of the story is left unsaid and open to interpretation by the reader. I’m a fan of subtlety, and it’s why this story ranks so high in my list of all-time favourite short stories. 

From the title to the style, the plot, and delivery, I keep coming back to this story to unwind and enjoy the read or to dissect and learn from it. Either way, the story gives a fine reading experience. 

Hemingway is also known for his ‘hard-boiled’ style, something which we see modern-day writers like Murakami emulate – being cynical and dispassionate but scoring high on the scale of innovation and power. 

I find Hemingway’s writing style sophisticated and intriguing. There’s a lot to read between the lines in his writings as he leaves a lot to the readers’ imagination. 

The Old Man and the Sea is my mother’s all-time favourite novel. When I asked her who was her favourite author and work, she mentioned this book, and it is on my reading list this year. I’ve heard praises for the book from both my parents, and I trust their judgement. 

So, what do you think of Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway?

*I’m participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge.

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Tina Sequeira
Tina Sequeira is a marketer and moonlighting writer. She is passionate about tech, creativity, and social justice—dabbling in and writing about the same.

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  1. First of all, I like the style of works where the core principle lies in “Less is More”. This strategy works very well and I really like to write many things in between lines. I found the Iceberg writing style very interesting. I will definitely check this out and also the works you have mentioned here. Thanks for sharing this lovely crafted post, Tina. Kudos to your analysis of short stories. More power 😇

  2. I have read the old man and the sea several times and each time it throws a new theme at you. This one you have brought out the highlights so well i will be reading it soon. Hemmingway certainly isn’t for weak hearted
    Deepika Sharma

    • Hi Deepika! That novel is my parent’s unanimous favourite read. This short story is interesting because it leaves the crux of the story unsaid. #BlogchatterA2Z

    • I know, Harshita! To read and analyze on a daily basis is challenging. But that’s the whole point, too. I do plan to schedule the latter part of challenge posts in advance. Let’s see how it goes! #BlogchatterA2Z

  3. This is my first visit to your blog for the A2Z challenge and I loved your theme. Subtle writing is my favourite too since it leaves lot of scope for interpretation and discussion. Should read this short story!

    • Hey Varsha! So nice to see you here! Thank you so much…I was certain about not taking part this year. Glad you liked the theme. True…there’s a lot of intrigue in subtlety. Keep stoppin by! #BlogchatterA2Z

  4. I am a fan of Hemingway’s work too. Trumpian Hemingway comparison’s aside, there is something to be said about the subtlety that he employs in his work that leaves you wanting more. Good post. Keep writing and delighting.

  5. Your analysis of this story is so crisp and to the point, Tina! Hemingway’s ‘Iceberg’ technique and its subtlety needs some getting used to, but is really effective!

  6. I had to read twice the story to understand it. Your analysis is very apt and yes, the ‘subtle technique’ of writing is very very difficult. I will surely check out the Book _ The Old Man and the Sea as you have highlighted it. Your theme is very unique.

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