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Essay on Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants

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Paris in the 1920s became the center of creativity in literature and art. The world was recovering from the dark and horrible times that the First World War had left, and the generation that grew up through the war lost faith in traditional values such as proper behavior, morality, and masculinity. Those who came of age felt misunderstood and lacked a purpose, as a result of their hopes and dreams being shattered after witnessing pointless death on such a huge scale. The French capital was the heart of the bohemian creative culture, and therefore it was an attractive place for writers, artists, and intellectuals from all over the world, especially from the United States. There, one group of young authors and poets arose known as the ‘Lost Generation’ whose works often discussed their disillusionment in the postwar society, their concerns for the future, and their lack of identity. Some of the most famous members of this group were acclaimed writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. The term ‘Lost Generation’ was coined by Stein (Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, 2010) but it was Hemingway who popularized it when he used it as an epigraph to his first novel, ‘The Sun Also Rises. It was during his time in Paris that Hemingway began the transition from journalist to novelist. Although Hemingway only lived in Paris for six years, (Geiling, 2014) the city he referred to as a ‘moveable feast’ had a profound effect on his career. Authors are not only defined by their stories but also by how they tell them. Hemingway’s writing goes beyond the plot and can be further explained by examining his minimalist through the iceberg theory, his dialogue, and his writing techniques.

Hemingway is considered one of the pioneers of the literary minimalism movement which is characterized by its concise, objective style and the omission of details (Clark, 2015). Simplicity is what sets Hemingway apart from other writers of his time who, at the time, were writing in an overwrought and flamboyant way. In the sixteenth chapter of Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes, “if a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” (2013). Then he goes on to compare this theory to an iceberg, “the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water” (2013). The principle of Hemingway’s iceberg theory is that a writer should focus on a clear and simple style without stating the underlying issues as he believed that the more details were omitted, the more powerful the story would be. However, Hemingway also made clear that the also called ‘theory of omission’ should not be confused as an excuse for a writer not to know the details behind the story. As he wrote in Death in the Afternoon ‘a writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing’ (2013). Perhaps one of the best examples of this theory is seen in his short story Hills Like White Elephants, the story of a couple who are waiting for a train to go from Barcelona to Madrid and the tense conversation they have about an operation the woman is going to have, which is implied to be an abortion. Yet, Hemingway never mentions the word ‘abortion’ and leaves the reader to come up with their own conclusions. He manages to do this through the dialogue, for instance, the male character describes the procedure as “awfully simple,’ ‘perfectly simple and ‘not really an operation at all.’ (Hemingway, 2004) Most of the story is a back-and-forth interaction, and in short, is a story about things that were left unsaid. The characters are talking, yet none of them is actually saying what they want to say but the reader can still infer the emotions they are going through. Hemingway was besotted with the notion that humans, despite having the skill of language, couldn’t communicate with each other. In this story, he depicts how relationships, like most things in life, are not straightforward. Hills Like White Elephants is a condensed story with direct dialogue and it’s this economy of words that makes this story, and Hemingway’s style truly unique.

Many could argue that the lack of description in Hills Like White Elephants and in most of his work comes across as cold and detached, yet emotion is truly present in the best way, Hemingway could do it, below the surface. Hemingway mastered the art of writing dialogue because he knew what was important to keep and what to leave out. (Waldhorn, 2002) Compared to the average writer, Hemingway used twice the amount of dialogue. (Rice, 2018) He preferred to evoke the natural pace of speech which means that his characters rarely talk more than a few words, avoiding sounding unnatural. The rhythms of the language he uses are symbolic of the characters, and the way in which Hemingway builds his dialogue allows a large part of the character to emerge in each line (Hoffman, 2014). One example can be found in his short story Indian Camp, the plot follows Nick and his father, a doctor on his way to help an Indian woman to give birth. In the five pages story, Nick witnesses two important events: the birth of the baby and death when the father of the baby commits suicide. Before the plot twists reveal the suicide, Nick seems pretty uninterested in what his father is trying to teach him about giving birth.

“Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams.”

“I see,” Nick said. (Hemingway, In Our Time, 1980) Most of Nick’s responses when his father is explaining to him are two-word sentences such as “I know”, “I see”, and “All right”. This is because Nick’s character has no interest in the event happening around him. However, the roles reverse after the suicide. Like any other kid, Nick now has questions and his father is the one giving out short answers.

‘Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?’

‘Not very many, Nick.’

‘Do many women?’

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‘Hardly ever.’

‘Don’t they ever?’

‘Oh yes. They do sometimes.’

“Is dying hard, Daddy?”

“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” (Hemingway, In Our Time, 1980)

The last passage of this story is crucial to understand more about the characters. For instance, Nick doesn’t want, nor care about assisting his father in the labor, but his curiosity ignites after the suicide of the baby’s father. By the end of the passage, Nick wants to know about the possibility of his death or that of his father, giving the reader a full glimpse of what Nick is truly concerned about and interested in. Hemingway stripped everything but what was essential from his stories, and he also avoided using dialogue tags such as ‘he said and refrain from writing internal monologues. These elements called on the imagination of the reader to fill in whatever gaps there are and make their own interpretations. If there’s something Hemingway was lauded for was his simplicity and the ability to paint a truer picture without flowery adjectives or walls of adverbs. Perhaps one of the reasons why he embraced the minimalist style was because it is remarkably similar to the writing style of a journalist. Although Hemingway is best known for his work as a novelist, his first encounter with writing came through journalism when he wrote for the Kansas City Star and the Toronto Star. In the short time he wrote for the Kansas City Star, he followed and adopted the next set of rules: “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative” (Lynn, 2002). According to Hemingway, the newspaper’s stylebook “were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing” (Lynn, 2002) and would become part of his trademark style. In contrast to the ornate prose of other writers, Hemingway utilized short and tense sentences. The simplicity of the language often met some criticism, in one occasion William Faulkner accused him of never using a word that would send a reader to the dictionary. To which he replied, “Poor Faulkner.

Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” (The Telegraph, 2018) Hemingway was convinced that the reader didn’t need to be filled with extensive and pretentious long descriptions to understand the feeling of the story. He was an expert at producing emotion while keeping it simple. His finest demonstration of this was when he was challenged to tell an entire story in only six words, for which he created the following: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” (Jones, 2018). In the previous sentence, Hemingway doesn’t need any embellished descriptions or wordy metaphors. He used simple and straight to the point words. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway says that “prose is architecture, not interior decoration” (Hemingway, 1932) and by that, he means that there is a very careful process of selection of lexical items and their accurate arrangement in the text. All in all, Hemingway’s approach is quality over quantity.

By all counts, Hemingway remains an influential stylist and his works remain a rite of passage for writers and readers and it is mostly due to his writing style. His background as a journalist meant that to him the truth was the most effective form of writing and the only way to get to it was by writing through experience and pointing out only the most relevant details. His short sentences, while simple, were packed with power and emotion. His powerful use of subtext and rapid characterization in dialogue push readers to immerse themselves in the story. However, perhaps the most important lesson we can take from Hemingway’s style is to keep the good and leave out the unnecessary, like he once said to F. Scott Fitzgerald “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket” (Hemingway, 2003)

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Essay on Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Essay on Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
Essay on Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Sept. 2023].
Essay on Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2023 Sept 24]. Available from:
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