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The Role and Aspects of Language in Hills Like White Elephants

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Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants” is an examination of human connection, a comparison of talking vs. communicating. The story’s setting, repetition of words, spare dialogue, and use of cognitive verbs establishes a textual pattern that develops the narrative’s dilemma. The text further explores the power of dialect crashing down between two people and how what is unsaid or what is unspeakable can define and disconnect individuals.

Hemingway exhibits deficiency in language by the use of unnamed characters and straightforward prose writing style. Without providing an actual description of “the man” and “the woman”, Hemingway chooses to expand on two features; the setting, and dialogue that carries the entire story. The setting contributes to the story’s dispute through features of the natural and artificial world. The natural world is depicted by the romantic portrayal of nature, whereas the artificial world is represented as the train station and railroad, emphasizes the man-made corruption of the natural world. The story’s title “Hills Like White Elephants”, highlights the underlying apprehension of a pregnancy that neither character cannot outwardly say or admit, further reflects the characters lack of communication. According to O’Brien, the dialogue distinguishes gender roles–by the male’s rejection of emotional language, and his goal-oriented vocabulary and the women’s imprecise, emotional, relational language. These components contribute to a conflict between ‘the natural’ and ‘the artificial’ that, better than any of the previously perceived contrasts within the natural surroundings, mirrors the tension between the girl’s desire to have a baby and the man’s wish to continue without it. (O’Brien 25).

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Word-play and repetition of words enhance the story’s emotional conflict, at the same time, it also creates a language barrier to distance themselves from the very conflict. The repeating phrase “look like white elephants” occurs four times in the text. Although, the title outlines the hills as “hills like white elephants” rather than “hills (that look) like white elephants.” This distinction contrasts value rather than appearance. Jig confirms this proposition by stating “the hills don’t really look like white elephants”, but only “through the trees”(Hemingway 476). Most if not all of the story’s repetitions generates a textual pattern and then later on drifts away from it. The final phrase of “look like white elephants” breaks the pattern of the vital focus of hills to “things”, “But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants and you’ll like it”(Hemingway 477). Eventually, the repeating phrase manifests itself to be non-specific, inviting other words to be traded for “hill”, like a baby. In ancient Siam (Thailand now), white elephants were discerned as sacred and royal property. However, they were an epigram of the white elephant being an expensive burden. The substitution of ‘things’ for ‘hills’ and the word-play of pronouns replacements, suggests an even broader range of possible sacred and expensive ‘things.’ Further, in-depth this idea not only supports the couple’s relationship as another ‘white elephant’ facing abortion but also expands the idea of the sacred and costly “thing” until it becomes ‘everything.’ (Wyche 56).

The man’s telling Jig that abortion is a ‘perfectly natural’ procedure (Hemingway 476) emphasizes the central conflict. His reaction to the pregnancy is sterile, he believes that a man-made procedure is a solution to the core discourse. Hemingway differentiating the woman and man by linguistic patterns. The woman looks into the natural world, ‘the river through the trees’ (Hemingway 477), gazes ‘across at the hills on the dry side of the valley’ (Hemingway 477). She is discerned as emotional due to her romantic description of the world, and her positive response to fertility. In acute contrast, the man tends to look away from the natural world and goes rebels against it. By using the word “reasonably”(Hemingway 478) to describe how the people were in the car waiting for the train, The opposite of what is ‘reasonable’ is the realm outside the bar, the area exposed to the natural surroundings–highlights the man being interlinked with the artificial ways of the world. The description of the railroad tracks running into the valley of Ebro, and urgency to have an abortion, represents the man’s aggressive and mechanical manipulation to the natural world.

The couple’s relationship features many repetitions of trading questions and answers, the dialogue seems almost static. The man and the woman are constantly in a state of imbalance and disagreement. The woman construes her own desires as requests, using terms “could” and “would”. The story depicts the relationship as the man holding authority, and the woman’s questions challenge that authority and seek reassurance from it. The power of authority shifts briefly when the woman says “We could have everything and every day we make it more impossible” (Hemingway 477). To where he asks “What did you say”, and she simplifies the consequences of the operation, in the end, they cannot have everything (Hemingway 477). However the authority shifts back to the man when he continues to retaliate back, and the woman questions to ask for permission to end the conversation. Because of the unfair power domination, the only way the conversation will end is if she threatens to scream. Conforming to Link, The story contains a large number of words describing purely cognitive functions. A list of forty-nine such uses includes ‘want’ (17 times), ‘know’ (13), ‘feel’ (6), ‘care’ (5), ‘think’ (3), ‘realize’ (3), ‘worry’ (2), and ‘am willing’ (1). The number of cognitive terms suggests that the text is focused on personal desire arid the use of knowledge’s authority in its pursuit. Thus, most of the dialogue is a discussion of what the man wants (10 speeches) and how it relates to what Jig might want (4 speeches). In fact, Jig’s desires are quite irrelevant, given that the man is in a virtually unchallenged position of power. He would not ‘have [her] do it’ (SS 275, emphasis added) if she did not want to, thereby implying that her wants are relevant only because he has allowed them to be so (Link 26).

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The Role and Aspects of Language in Hills Like White Elephants. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
“The Role and Aspects of Language in Hills Like White Elephants.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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