Hills Like White Elephants Modernism

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‘The primary purpose of a narrative is to search for meaning,’ notes literary scholar Katherine Hayles. The need for meaning and interpretation is at the foundation of narrative in modern literature. She calls narratives a technology, which we employ in our search for meaning. Narratives allow us to make sense of the complexities of life, and as human beings, we are constantly seeking to make sense of things. We use the time to structure our understanding of life, and so narrative tends to incorporate a succession of acts and consequences which gain meaning through their chronology and narrative form. Stories structure selected events: developments establish significance. Our search for meaning drives narratives. In modern literature, narratives illustrate experiences of life and enable us to better understand others and ourselves.

They also embody our desire to communicate. Over time, fiction has altered, following a succession of varied desires of audiences and writers. According to McAdams, storytelling is a dialogical interaction that creates and communicates meaning. Storytelling in modernism implies a connection between the teller and the receiver. The teller may imply meanings, the receiver may interpret the story. Narratives yield meaning as a result of the communication from the writer to the reader.

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Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961) equally revolutionized narrative conventions by writing less about feelings, not more. He urges writers to be to the point, with simple, short sentences. The creator of the iceberg theory and one of the most pivotal writers of the twentieth century, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954 ‘for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.’ Shaped by his time as a reporter for the Toronto Star, he believed the impossibility of complete impartiality leads people to distort their communication of it. Human beings are too wrapped up in their own expectations, political motivations, and emotions, to tell the truth without embellishment. His argument was that the internal world is too great an influence on our perception of the external.

Genette distinguishes a ‘first narrative’ and ‘secondary narrative’. First narratives, or main narratives, beginning with the story as it is written. Hemingway’s short stories evidence this distinction between time as it unfolds in the story, and the main narrative, the order the author reveals events in. Within the main narrative, we are told the man picks up ‘two heavy bags. Only by picking bags up would the man know they were heavy— an impartial extra-diegetic narrator could not know. The second narrative emerges as heaviness hints at the fact the couple has been away for some time. The conversation has until then been related by an extra-diegetic narrator, these inflections imply the man is the narrator. Hemingway’s authorial silence is unveiled as the man’s inability to share his feelings clearly. Details allow the reader to build a much larger secondary narrative. The man’s impatience in waiting for the train is implied when states he ‘could not see the train’, and walks through the barroom and thinks of the people there: ‘all waiting reasonably.’ A sense of time as being wider than the story is conveyed through details and Hemingway’s use of anachronism. Anachrony, such as proleptic and analeptic deviations, also creates a secondary narrative. Near the end of Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway focalizes on the young man, who looks at the bags and remembers ‘the hotels where they had spent nights. This analepsis gives the reader a sense of the past. The presence of the parallel tracks, as well as Jig’s conjectures they won’t ‘have it all, leaves the reader on the brink of a prolepsis we are invited to imagine for ourselves. The unanswered question lingers over the short story, the conversation heavy with the implications of the future. The reader is left curious as to where the couple is headed, both in terms of the train and in terms of their relationship. Their conversation is haunted by the weight of expectation. Hemingway chooses to be focalized through the man. The man’s distance from the piece hints at the discomfort he feels.

Genette categorizes methods of narrative into three types of focalization: zero focalization, internal localization, and external focalization. In his short stories, Hemingway uses internal and external focalization to control information. Hills Like White Elephants reads like a reported conversation, from the point of view of an extra-diegetic narrator. As Genette notes, he offers no authorial interpretation. The focus on dialogue and description, as well as the brevity of the piece, give a sense of the story having been stripped back to its essentials.

In Hills Like White Elephants, Jig states everything tastes of licorice. This annoys the man: “Oh, cut it out”. The jig may mean life lacks much depth of flavor, or of everything tasting bittersweet, as aniseed does. Hills Like White Elephants displays ‘ behaviorist’ narration, whereby actions inform the implied reader. The jig would like to escape from the conversation, which we understand from her repeatedly looking away. First to the hills, then at the beads on the curtains. She begs her partner to ‘please stop talking. This conversation demonstrates a behaviorist narrative.

The ‘vision’ an author chooses allows different means of communication. While Hemingway, using external narration, allows the reader to interpret emotive states and internal thoughts, Woolf writes through the lens of internal narration. Her diegetic narration follows zero focalization, interchanging between a variety of characters’ perspectives, as in her most experimental masterpiece, The Waves.

Hills are often representative of obstacles to surmount. Jig, the woman, compares the hills to ‘white elephants. A white elephant is sacred but expensive to maintain. In Thailand, the king would give a white elephant to a rival, or courtesan he was displeased with. Maintaining just one was often enough to cause ruin. A white elephant is a burden, sacred but unwanted. The man responds: ‘I've never seen one,' the man drank his beer.’ Drinking his beer as he replies is interpreted as a lack of interest in both the hills and what Jig conjectures. Her response: ‘No, you wouldn't have,’ implies she believes him incapable of understanding. He is uninterested in bearing the expensive burden and can rid himself of the responsibility of an unwanted child.


Hemingway also uses train tracks to connote parallel but disparate courses. The tracks are symbolic of the relationship between the two characters, and of the separate courses of thinking in their minds, they have chosen. Both sides of the station represent a different life. The first side is dry land, ‘without trees or shade’, devoid of natural life. As Jig looks out to the hills, she sees ‘fields of grain and trees along the banks. She sees life, not only the life of their love child but of their love itself, which the baby has become symbolic of. She remarks: ‘[they] could have all this,’ meaning the possibilities beyond the hills, the life with a child, and a happy marriage, but implies they won’t. The abortion shows the cracks, the conditionality of their love. The couple grows distant. Their emotional separation is written across Hemingway’s portrayal of their environment. Projections of the internal across the external allow the reader to better understand the narrative.

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Hills Like White Elephants Modernism. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/hills-like-white-elephants-modernism/
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