Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
Simply Powerful: Hemingway’s Technique in Writing Dialogue
“Hemingway’s art,” Alan Pryce-Jones asserted, “especially his innovative dialogue, might turn out to be his enduring memorial as a writer” (Pryce-Jones 21). While there has been much criticism on the biographical content of Hemingway’s work, Pryce-Jones was one to notice the art of Hemingway’s dialogue. However, there is not much sustained analysis of this element. This paper explores Hemingway’s dialogue and in doing so an interesting detail has been found. Hemingway utilizes the device of compression in writing his dialogue, constructing minimal language, but somehow powerful meaning is generated. This is clearly evident in Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” in which he “for the first time employed the characteristic devices that distinguish his dialogue” (Pryce-Jones 21). Through a close examination of passages from “Indian Camp,” Hemingway’s narrative technique will be revealed to show his dialogue being simple and laconic, yet powerfully meaningful and artistic. However, the entire contention of this paper is not simply pointing out Hemingway’s simplistic dialogue in these works, but asserting how Hemingway uses it to make maximum meaning. This is done through Hemingway’s use of omission, indirection, and irony. Before delving into the analysis, it is necessary to explain the literary device of compression in dialogue. In “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Elizabeth Bowen cut to the crux of exactly why modern dialogue is so difficult to write. She stated it must be “pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize the situation. It must express character. It must advance plot” (Bowen 255). Hence, each piece of dialogue has an exact calculated purpose. However, such things should be implied subtly, suggestively, and never through direct statement (Bowen 256). When this is the case, what they intend to say, rather than what they are actually saying, is more striking because of its greater inner importance to the plot (Bowen 256). For instance, a character could say, “Sally isn’t that pretty, but she isn’t ugly either,” or the character could say, “She’s ok.” While the first quotation has a straightforward meaning, the latter could suggest many things. One could ask; what does the character mean exactly by “ok,” and so forth. Here, with the use of precise suggestive language, there is a lot more room for analysis and connotations. Therefore, characters should be under, rather than over articulate, with language that is simple, calculated, and loaded with deep meaning. Now that an understanding has been given to explain why Hemingway would write such basic passages, an analysis can be given on how Hemingway was able to compress his dialogue, but create maximum meaning. For many authors this is a difficult task, but Hemingway was able to use a number of literary devices that allowed for simple, but significant language. First, the literary device of omission will be considered. In many instances, a narrator is used in a work to convey necessary information. However, to expose details of the story, Hemingway often turns away from narrative commentary and instead makes use of compressed dialogue (Lamb 456). This form of omission is evident in Hemingway’s short story, “Indian Camp.” Young Nick Adams has a vague fear of death. One night, when left alone in the woods, he hears a noise and summons his father and his Uncle George. When Uncle George expresses his contempt, Nick becomes embarrassed. The next day, a conversation takes place between Nick and his father. His father tries to find something that might create the same noise that Nick heard. He asks, “Do you think this is what it was, Nick?” and Nick replies, “Maybe” (15). In two brief quotations, readers can be aware that the “it” denoted is suggesting the noise that Nick heard the night before. Hence, the events of the previous night are referred to, but are never explicitly mentioned (Lamb 456). This is a clear example of how Hemingway crystallizes a situation by using omission in compressed dialogue. Hemingway also creates deep meaning in his deceptively simplistic dialogue through another literary device which is indirection. In “Indian Camp,” Nick’s father attempts to find a calming solution as to what could have made the noise that scared his son. Hemingway states that to direct the conversation away from his son’s embarrassment, his father “found” two trees rubbing together that made a noise similar to the one Nick heard. Then, he tells his son, “There is nothing that can hurt you” (15). For starters, the use of the word found (instead of saw) is suggestive that his father deliberately sought out a forest noise to console his son and to indirectly show he believes his son was telling the truth about the noise, despite what others think. Also, when the father states that “nothing can hurt you,” the “you” refers to Nick, but implies the more general sense of “one.” The father swayed from the embarrassing incident to the general topic of how nothing in the woods can hurt anyone. Hence, because the father addresses the topic indirectly, the boy no longer feels embarrassed. Author H.K. Justice asserts, “In the dialogue, Hemingway displays calculation and the characters both experience involuntary self-revelation” (Ciardi 32). Clearly, Hemingway’s use of indirection in compressed dialogue has magnificently aided in expressing character. Also, Hemingway uses the literary tool of irony in “Indian Camp” to create maximum meaning in his compressed dialogue. In the story, characters often experience miscommunication in their laconic dialogue, but the failure to communicate has an ironically successful result. When Nick asks his father a series of questions about the suicide of an Indian boy’s father, only by use of irony in the simple dialogue, can the deeper message be understood. The conversation goes as follows:(1) “Why did he kill himself, daddy?”(2) “I don’t know…”(3) “Do many men kill themselves, daddy?”(4) “Not many.”(5) “Do many women?”(6) “Hardly ever.”(7) “Daddy?”(8) “Yes (9) “Is dying hard, daddy?”(10) “No, it’s pretty easy. It all depends”(18-19). Because Nick’s first glimpse of death deals with that of a father, he expresses anxieties about absent fathers. We can see this with the term “daddy.” He asks a series of questions focusing on death. His father can draw on his medical knowledge to answer the questions, but his father does not see Nick’s intent and gives answers to the questions on the surface. For the first question, perhaps what Nick subconsciously wants to know is whether he will suffer from the same fate as the boy who lost his father. However, Dr. Adams only views the question, paradoxically, as a psychological one in which he is not equipped to answer unless it was a medical question. Then, when Nick asks about the frequency of male and female suicide, it could be that he wants to know about his own father and mother. His father’s answers are comforting in their briefness of “hardly ever” and “not many.” Finally, this leads to his last question that serves to ask about the probability of his own father’s death (Ciardi 33). Ironically, his father misunderstands the question, to be about whether the act of dying is difficult to face and he gives the chilling answer of “it depends.” Just what it depends on is revealed in the subsequent final two paragraphs. In this scene, Uncle George is not with the father as usual. The story reads, “In the early morning on the lake sitting on the stern of the boat, with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die” (19). The first part of the sentence, an objective correlative for Nick’s sense of immortality, juxtaposed with Uncle George’s absence as a representation of death, triumphs over it. The antecedent to the final “he” could be Nick’s father, a less likely possibility, but one purposely left open by Hemingway. If this is the case, then all miscommunication between the two and the disquieting responses by the father have inadvertently comforted Nick. On the other hand, if the antecedent is Nick, then another irony is created by the disjunction between “Nick’s sense of his own immortality and the readers’ knowledge that it is otherwise” (Lamb 461). Moreover, it means that what Nick was really asking about all along concerned his anxieties about his own finitude, not his father’s. This means that what the whole story is about is not the Indian’s suicide or the probability of Dr. Adam’s death but, Nick’s first realization of one’s own mortality (that Hemingway had Nick deny throughout). All of these matters are compressed into a few “simple” sentences in which two characters thoroughly miscommunicate in the subtlest way. Therefore, plot was advanced, character was expressed, and the situation was crystallized through Hemingway’s use of irony in suggestive compressed dialogue. Clearly, the innovative dialogue in “Indian Camp” is a prime example of Hemingway’s superlative use of compression. Through compression and the literary devices of omission, indirection, and irony, Hemingway was able to create powerful meaning with his dialogue. One cannot help but wonder the groundwork behind Hemingway’s utilization of compression. Actually, Hemingway’s text is the result of a painstaking selection process where each precisely calculated word performs an assigned function in the narrative. Author Aundre Hanneman maintained, “The main working corollary of Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle is that the full meaning of the text is not limited to moving the plot forward: there is always a web of association and inference, a submerged reason behind the inclusion, or even the omission, of every detail” (Savage 11). Hanneman is indicating that words are full of associations linked to other words, ideas, and suggestions. Hence, one simple word in Hemingway’s dialogue can serve the functions that Elizabeth Bowen stated are necessary to write modern dialogue; it “crystallizes the situation, expresses character, and advances the plot” (Bowen 255).
Death and Art in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Harry set out to Africa with his wife in an attempt to recapture his former literary motivation; in “the good time of his life” he had been happy in Africa. His will to write has softened with the comfort and luxury afforded him by Helen, his wife’s, affluence. After having spent years “with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones,” he reached a state of artistic stagnation from which he has been unable to extricate himself (59). He came to Africa to be for a time without luxury, and with “the minimum of comfort”, to recreate something of the sensation of his old life before the money (60). A parallel is made between affluence and an idiosyncratic kind of non-bodily death: the death of creativity, initiative, and meaningful experience. Harry has been dying in this way for years, and, ironically, only as his physical death closes in is his aesthetic sensibility resurrected. In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” death of the physical body does not preclude the continuance of other, more esoteric modes of being; through the resurgence of his art, Harry is able to achieve another life, one that continues even after the death of his physical body.Harry’s former life of colorful, deeply felt experiences is in direct contrast to the life he began once he allied himself with the rich. “The rich were dull and . . . they were repetitious,” Harry says. Even if he were to live, he would not write about Helen or “about any of them.” They were not the “special glamorous race” they were thought to be (72). The money acted as armour, Harry says: “Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour” (58). The money protects him from the difficulties of the world, as armour might, yet it also cuts him off from the life-blood of the artist: meaningful experience. Thus, the money has, metaphorically, provided for the slow dying of his artistic spirit by allowing his life to become too safe, too predictable, too sheltered. Harry no longer feels things deeply; he admits he never has loved Helen. However, he remains trapped in a circle of those who either “drank too much” or “played too much backgammon ” (72). Such are the lives of the rich: composed of repetitious, dull excess; excess to fill the lack left by dearth of true experiences. Henry feels this lack and, in his reflections, dying in Africa, he resents the turn his life had taken in the last years: the aesthetic, the literary, no longer holding a a meaningful place in his life.In Africa, without the comforts and distractions of wealth, Harry felt he could “get back into training.” He needed a place to “work the fat off his soul,” fat that had accumulated over years of an sedentary, complacent life, divorced from the realm of the aesthetic. While on safari, Harry says the “illusion” of a returning strength to write was felt, but the real strength of will does not truly come until his leg’s infection becomes serious and Harry must face the fact that he will soon die. Harry begins to write again. In segments of italicized text, divorced from the frame narrative of Harry and Helen in African, Harry mentally writes those things which he wishes he could put to paper. So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. (54)It is significant that Hemingway pairs these two sentences. Henry regrets that, because of the imposition of death, he will not be able to write these stories – “to finish it”; however, it is his coming to terms with impending death that freed him from his complacency and his rationalizations and has given him the will to write again. Before death closed in, his only intentions of writing were “illusions”, as Harry puts it. Now the end is almost tangible, he knows it is all over, and is compelled to write, to finish.Death breathes new life into Harry in this way. These italicized sections are not only melancholy reminiscences of his life in the world, but they are its coda as well. He has failed to publish a textual monument that would preserve permanently his life and the knowledge he gained throughout it, however he did all that he was able: mentally construct said monument, thus codifying his worldly life. And in codifying his worldly life, the rebirth of Harry’s aesthetic self is affirmed.Hemingway subverts conventional ideas of life and death with “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Two types of life – and thus, of death – overlap in the story: physical and aesthetic. In the first part of Harry’s life, his physical and aesthetic lives were interwoven, each thriving because of the other, symbiotically. However, with affluence and its trappings the two separated and thus began Harry’s slow aesthetic death. He ceased writing because he stopped deeply feeling things. This second phase of life, one divorced from the experience of the aesthetic almost entirely, was one devoid of ambition, initiative, or happiness: an empty, meaningless life. However, his physical dying – the end of this second phase – brings new perspective. Harry mentally prepares himself for bodily death by writing – though only in his mind – those things he had saved so long to write about, logically concluding his worldly, bodily life, and in the process, giving birth again to his aesthetic self. Though Harry does die physically in the end of the story, his aesthetic self continues; divorced from Harry’s physical body, it moves to a realm separate from the physical. Kilimanjaro looms in the distance and Harry knows this is the place to which he travels; it is “as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably pure in the sun” (76). Harry’s “aesthetic body” moves to a new world, one white and pure, elevated with respect to the plains. Harry has achieved a new vision of immortality, one located in art. Harry’s transcending this world is an allegorical illustration of what any artist is capable of: immortality through the art’s continued appreciation and evaluation. Harry, though unable to access this more traditional route of exhibiting (or publishing) art for the world to engage with, nevertheless achieves a kind of aesthetic immortality via a separate, more idiosyncratic route. Hemingway, in portraying Harry’s struggle and ultimate success, illustrates the romantic notion of the artist’s autonomy and art’s transcendent possibilities: through creation, one might realize something beyond oneself, and after death aesthetic consciousness can live on through the artist’s work.
Contrasting American and European Responses to WWI in In Another Country
In the short story “In Another Country” Ernest Hemingway explores the differences between American and Italian soldiers’ conceptualizations of the physical and emotional tolls of World War I. In particular, the story shows that the long-term consequences of war are more significant and far-reaching for Italian soldiers, because they are fighting close to home. While both Americans and Europeans risk their lives during combat, the Europeans must also defend against the larger threat against their home countries. This is shown in the story by Hemingway’s subtle portrayal of the damaging effects that the war has on the cultural and domestic lives of the Italians. By contrasting the unnerving effects that the prospect of such damage has on the Italians with the American soldier’s lack of connection to the country, the story shows that the archetypal European soldier of the First World War has more at stake in the war than his American counterparts from overseas.
In order to emphasize the American narrator’s oblivious disconnection from the long-term domestic effects of the war, Hemingway characterizes him as a more of a tourist figure than a real soldier. This is the reason his undeserved medals, which serve more as costuming than recognition, are given such focus. It is also why he is allowed to make inane comments about the local chestnut vendors and the “patriotism” of the girls at the Cova. Perhaps the most capturing aspect of his tourist characterization is his relationship with the Italian language, which speaks to his relationship with the country; it is superficial and dismissive, and he admits this in saying, “Italian seemed such an easy language… that I could not take a great interest in it”. After this statement prompts the local major to suggest that he learn grammar, he goes about the task lazily, which angers the major. This shows that he has no interest in connecting with the local culture linguistically or in any greater sense, because he feels no true stake in its existence after the war.
By contrast, the details revealed about the Italian soldiers emphasize their cultural connections to Italy. In particular, the details relating to their injuries show that even the immediate physical tolls of the war have far-reaching cultural ramifications for them. Thus, the major’s shrunken hand becomes the undoing of “the greatest fencer in Italy” and the private’s destroyed nose a partial erasure of his connection to “a very old family”. The death of the major’s wife, while not directly a result of the war, reminds him of the proximity of his domestic life to the war: when war occurs on your own soil, domestic tragedies and wartime tragedies become inseparable. This emphasis on proximity of domestic life to the war reminds us that the Italian soldiers do not have the luxury of running home after the war, because they are already there. The American narrator, however, can still go back “to the States” to find a wife and live his “real life” in a society far away from the war’s ravages.
Thus, at the end of the story, the major’s repeated phrase, “I am utterly unable to resign myself” has a double meaning. On one hand it expresses the irresolvability of his grief. On the other hand, it expresses an inability to ever really leave the war. The major knows that even when the conflict is over, its effects will have permeated his country and his culture forever. This is why, despite the fact that they are both caught up in the same military machine, the two soldiers conceptualize the war so differently. The American is very much a tourist figure with no stake in the effects of the war on Italy, but when the Italian major stares out of the window of the hospital, it is his own country he sees under threat. Thus, we as readers feel empathetic regret and helplessness for the major, who not only has to resolve a compromising of his physical safety, but his sense of domestic and cultural safety as well.
The Hemingway Code in the Novel The Snows of Kilimanjaro
The Hemingway Code is the set of characteristics that comprise the male characters in the writer`s works. In fact, the personages, created by Ernest Hemingway, perceive the world in terms of the hyper-masculine moral code that determines the manner of their behavior. However, the strong beliefs that characterize them as the full-fledged men can be described as a sort of the psychological wound, which inevitably results in the negative consequences, such as moral suffering and intentions to prove their manhood. In the scope of the current essay we are going to analyze the utilization of the concept of the Hemingway Code in the novel The Snows of Kilimanjaro, focusing on the character traits of the main hero, his manner of life, and the psychological state.
First of all, it is important to highlight that the Hemingway Code Hero is a symbol of the exceptional masculinity rather than a real individual. In general, the personage of such type possesses the number of the typical male character traits, which underline his masculine nature. For instance, the Code Hero is a person, who is popular among women and has numerous love affairs. Harry, the central character of the novel The Snows of Kilimanjaro, who recollected the major events of his life before the face of death, reveals that he had specific relationships with his rich wives and even once patronized prostitutes in Constantinople. However, it should be mentioned that the love affairs did not evoke strong feelings: in fact, the women were a necessary element that proved his masculinity, being a kind of trophies or caregivers: “he was only lying, as to this woman, now, who had the most money of all … who had had a husband and children, who had taken lovers and been dissatisfied with them, and who loved him dearly as a writer, as a man, as a companion and as a proud possession” (Hemingway 6). In addition, the author reveals that Harry shows the negligent attitude towards his lovers in order to illustrate his emotionless and establish the dominant position: “That’s not fair. I love you now. I’ll always love you Don’t you love me?” “No,” said the man. “I don’t think so. I never have” (Hemingway 3). One more characteristic that must be taken into account concerns the fact that the Code Hero is quite confident and successful in the sexual sphere which is emphasized within the text: “You wouldn’t want to destroy me again, would you?” “I’d like to destroy you a few times in bed,” he said” (Hemingway 7).
The other issue that should be considered is the psychological state of the Code Heroes. The specific understanding of morality, rigid ideology, and the constant need of self-assertion make the Hemingway`s characters suffer from sense of frustration and the inability to reach self-realization. The protagonist of The Snows of Kilimanjaro blames himself for wasting his talent of a writer: “He had destroyed his talent by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, and by snobbery, by pride and by prejudice, by hook and by crook” (Hemingway 9). In fact, Harry realizes he had the quite adventurous life, was involved in the unusual collisions of life, and it was his direct duty to write about it but he chose to marry wealthy women, despite the fact that he did not love them, which caused that he abandoned his writing.
The unique characteristic that belongs to the Hemingway Code Heroes is the abandoning of the unconscious fear that is associated with the death. According to Harry, there were a lot of times when he faced death, and it came in different forms: “he felt death come again. This time there was no rush. It was a puff, as of a wind that makes a candle flicker and the flame go tall (Hemingway 10). In spite of the fact that Harry suffers from pain, he tries to remain emotionless and show bravery: “All right. Now he would not care for death. One thing he had always dreaded was the pain. He could stand pain as well as any man, until it went on too long, and wore him out… and just when he had felt it breaking him, the pain had stopped (Hemingway 13). The only thing that Harry cared about when he understood that he was going to die was the fact that he did not become a successful writer. However, as his wife reasonably argued, “You’ve never lost anything. You’re the most complete man I’ve ever known” (Hemingway 14).
As presented in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, the Hemingway Code Hero is an individual whose worldview is based on the principles of the hyper-masculine moral code. The character traits of such personage include the negligent attitude to women, who act as the indicators of his success, numerous love affairs, emotionless, adventurous life, and strong sexual energy. In addition, such individuals are capable to resist death or accept it with the great sense of bravery. On the other hand, the aforementioned masculine code is rigid that makes the personages of such type seek self-realization and suffer from frustration.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Snows Of Kilimanjaro, And Other Stories. New York: Scribner, 1961. Print.
The Plight of War: Exploring the Depths of Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna”
Ernest Hemingway’s legacy as one of America’s greatest writers reigns supreme, as his work provides profound insight and speaks to the lost generation. Literary criticism in the 21st century popularly analyzes Hemingway’s pieces to reveal the truths of his time and breed greater historical understanding through a fictional context. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a short story by Hemingway that sheds light on genocide in modern warfare by going beyond political and military affairs to reveal a sensitive truth that exposes the emotional and ethical crisis of those facing the repercussions of old men’s wars. Through his style and method of writing, Hemingway introduces themes that are concluded through in-depth analysis. What I originally believed to be a narration lamenting the menial troubles of soldiers and their lack of humanity is a thoughtful depiction of truths beneath what society wrongly determines about the relationship between soldiers and civilians. Mathew Stewart of Boston University uncovers Hemingway’s intentions behind “On the Quai at Smyrna,” exploring the depths of Hemingway’s words in his scholarly article titled “It Was All a Pleasant Business: The Historical Context of “On the Quai at Smyrna.” Stewart introduces a larger context to Hemingway’s work through historical and literary analysis that hears Hemingway’s voice on social justice in war.
Hemingway’s style of writing in “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a larger production at work. What I originally deduced to being an unemotional and careless cast of characters is Hemingway’s ingenious use of irony. A fitting example is when the narrator states, “It was all a pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business” (Hemingway 67). Originally perceiving this quote literally, Hemingway triggers a shock factor. However, Stewart makes an undeniably insightful case that divulges the meaning of these words, explaining, “to elucidate the speaker’s frame of mind, his manner of speaking, and the story’s tone…the speaker’s stir-protective irony is generated by self-disgust resulting from … [the] powerlessness in the face of inhuman behavior” (Stewart 62). Essentially, Hemingway utilizes irony as his tool to criticize how soldiers are expected to be emotionless and dutiful when there is need for humanitarian forces. It is through this style that Hemingway’s purpose to evoke the audience’s attention on a tragic event is realized.
Hemingway further pushes his agenda by utilizing a Turkish Officer’s menial concerns with another soldier in the midst of a genocide to expose the normalization of war on soldiers. Unlike the narrator, the Turkish Officer has little regard to the suffering of women and their children, suggesting how war desensitizes soldiers when the environment becomes routine. The interaction between the narrator and the Turkish Officer further depicts the troubling expectation to continue protocol when all hell is breaking loose. The narrator ironically comments after settling a dispute, “Oh most rigorously. He felt topping about it. Great friends we were” (Hemingway 66). The repetition of irony and the tone of voice throughout the piece reflects Hemingway’s personal frustrations on military etiquette. Stewart acknowledges, “The speaker undoubtedly finds the incident insanely petty given the larger context of tragic events being played on the quai, but his orders are to keep peace with the Turks” (Stewart 61). To cope, the narrator has succumb to, what Stewart refers to as, “ironic rhetorical devices in an apparent effort to recount… the brutality he has witnessed” (Stewart 60). Hemingway’s mastery of voice brings to light ingenious commentary on events within the heart of war.
Hemingway is one of the few writers who has a method behind his madness, especially through symbolism. The narrator neatly describes the tragic events taking place: emotionless, as if relaying a monotonous list of chores. Hemingway writes, “We were clearing them off the pier, had to clear off the dead ones” (Hemingway 66). Hemingway purposely desensitizes a very disturbing event to present the mindset soldiers are expected to have, and often retain, in war. The soldiers are literally witnessing a genocide and have little resources to compensate for the trauma. Hemingway’s writing acts as a symbol to identify the raging waters beneath an ice-cold surface. Soldiers and civilians alike suffer cases of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder when exposed to war. Hemingway recognized these patterns ahead of his time, as he was in a society did not diagnose mental health. In that respect, Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a break-through that was one of many developments to cultivate modern 21st century thoughts on warfare. Stewart addresses this issue by theorizing that “the speaker gives the impression of having seen too much, of having experienced more than he can handle… he will not allow himself … to confess the degree of horror he felt” (Stewart 65). My original interpretation of the narrator’s words classified him as an emotionless and shameless character. However, Stewart’s theory deepened my understanding by discovering the source of the narrator’s behavior. Hemingway’s mastery of depicting human nature without rose-colored lenses exhibits his capabilities as a writer.
In a greater degree, Hemingway treads the waters of morality in war, or what appears to be the lack thereof. He proposes that a soldier is also human, and beneath the calm and dutiful exterior, there is a moral crisis and a sense of powerlessness that the narrator, a soldier, represses. As a reader, Stewart responds to the “feeling of shame that I belonged to the human race” (Stewart 59). Hemingway wants his audience to experience the intense ethical struggle the narrator is subjected to. In fact, Hemingway’s character refers to the sequence events disturbed, “The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time” (Hemingway 66). Stewart speculates the severe angst of the narrator, as he “feels extreme guilt born frustration and moral confusion… the speaker saves no one, helps no one, but must remain passively to witness everything” (Stewart 65). Clearly, the narrator’s powerlessness does little to soothe his guilt. Hemingway’s emotive concept rings true when uncovering the realities of war.
Hemingway’s world is stage for a larger picture that overwhelms what needs not to be ignored: the effects of war on civilians. People are largely concerned with how super powers and governments are effected in war. Hemingway purposely avoids discussing political issues in depth as a method of focusing the spotlight on Human Right’s violations in war. When first reading the piece of literature, it appears as though Hemingway is concealing information because he assumes that his audience should be informed and that his work is not for the unexperienced. I interpreted that “On the Quai at Smyrna” was exclusive to those exposed to war. However, Stewart suggests that Hemingway was creating a spotlight for what is not, and should be, center stage. Stewart advocates for Hemingway’s intentions, stating the “extreme situations forced upon people by war (here for example the need to give birth in the dark hold of a ship)… the Smyrna disaster was nonetheless shocking” (Stewart 66). In fact, it is clear when Hemingway refers to the crisis, confessing, “The worst, he said, were the women with dead babies” (Hemingway 66). This is a key quote from the story, as it is one of the few that blatantly acknowledges the gravity of the genocide. Hemingway exposes the reality of warfare on civilians that is often overlooked, intricately creating a spotlight that is often dimmed by alternative concerns.
“On the Quai at Smyrna” by Ernest Hemingway grounds the theme of people’s faith in humanity in times of war, especially when warfare depletes human rights. However, Hemingway extends an olive branch, predominantly because the narrator’s morality is heightened due to the tragic events. Stewart’s review of Hemingway’s “On the Quai at Smyrna” deepened not only the intention and understanding of the piece, but lifted Hemingway’s literary genius through a profound analytical process behind what appears only to be a recollection of disturbing events. It is Hemingway’s style and method of writing that illuminates the subject of social justice during war, and warns how accepting tragedy without acknowledging the defilement of morality will only destroy humanitarian prerogatives. “On the Quai at Smyrna” is a piece of literature that is, in its own right, a call for change that can be easily overlooked, but must be addressed in depth.
Gender Roles and Symbolism In “Hills like White Elephants”
In the short story “Hills like White Elephants,” there is a constant power struggle between the two characters. At first glance, the woman comes off as timid and resigned to the fact that she is going to do whatever it takes to make the man happy. The man is seen as domineering and almost indifferent to the woman’s feelings as he makes his argument to have the child aborted. It may seem as if the man, or the American, is controlling the decision of whether or not Jig gets the abortion, but through dialogue regarding the abortion, the symbolism of the hills versus the mountains and the railroad tracks and luggage, Jig gives subtle hints that she has already made up her mind to keep the child.
Hemingway’s use of dialogue between the two characters regarding the abortion procedure gives an insight into the relationship dynamic and the position of the characters. The American man starts the conversation by telling Jig how “awfully simple” an abortion is. This shows that he thinks she should get it done and also how little thought he has put into the operation and the impact it will have on her. Jig does not respond, which can be interpreted by the audience as silent defiance to his comment. He continues to slyly try and persuade her by saying he knows lots of people who have done it and that the child will only cause them to be unhappy, all the while she never gives him an answer, furthering the audience’s belief that her position is that she does not want to give up the child. The point of this dialogue is to show the reader the decision the American and Jig have to make and how he is trying to control and persuade her into giving up the child.
Another way Hemingway displays the conflict the woman is facing, is when their conversation turns to discussing the land and hills they are looking at, and the symbolic meaning behind them. “The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry” (Hemingway). She then goes on to compare the hills to white elephants, which in some cultures are considered to be a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of. By describing the land as being dry and brown, Hemingway uses it to symbolize infertility, which could be a worry plaguing Jig’s mind. What if she aborts this baby and can not have another one? Stanley Renner from Illinois State University uses the symbolism to describes the conflict as, “the hills on one side of the valley are dry and barren; those on the other side are described with imagery of living, growing things. Thus in choosing whether to abort or have the child, the couple are choosing between two ways of life”. The man is unaware of her internal debate and it seems as if he does not want to have the discussion at all.
The railroad tracks and the luggage are the most prominent symbols of the couple’s decision. The railroad tracks symbolize the two different paths the couple could take, which are abortion or no abortion. Both are paths are irreversible. Renner brings up an interesting point about how the two tracks are not only two different paths they could take, but also two opposing viewpoints about the abortion. “The two lines of rails representing the opposite choices available to them; the two sides of the valley representing two opposing directions in life, this side the way the American wants to go and the other side the way the girl wants to go” (Renner). The luggage symbolizes the baby and the emotional weight of the decision they are about to make. In the end, the man carries the bags to the opposite side of the train tracks. This means that he not only made the decision for both of them, but he is also carrying the weight of their decision. The woman smiling when he came back from taking the bags could mean she is relieved that he made the call in regards to the abortion and they are going to discuss it while they finish their beers.
Throughout the story, the woman’s internal struggle was displayed through symbolism of the scenery and dialogue. As she states in her own words, Jig wants to make the American happy, but her reluctance to give up her child is evident. Hemingway gave the man the control in the end, by allowing him to make the decision and take the bags, but the woman certainly held her own and made it clear she did not want to have an abortion.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1997. Print.
Renner, Stanley. Moving to The Girl’s Side of “Hills Like White Elephants” (n.d.): n. pag. Illinois State University. Web.
Exploring Liminality Through the Setting of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”
Since its publication in 1927, Ernest Hemingway’s seemingly simple short story “Hills Like White Elephants” has readers arguing over the ever-present issue of a woman’s rights. At first glance, “Hills Like White Elephants” appears to be about a man and a woman having drinks and a shallow conversation whilst awaiting a train. However, the seemingly light and airy time is actually much more serious and a matter of life or death for the woman and her unborn fetus. As the American and Jig take in the desolate scenery around them, the American continuously tries to convince Jig to get an abortion because “’it’s really a simple operation… it’s not really an operation at all.’” (Hemingway 590). The meticulous setting of this short story ultimately mirrors the three possible outcomes of Jig and the American’s relationship.
First, there is the setting of the train station bar, the liminal ground, in which the pair are the majority of the story. This liminal space mirrors the fact that Jig and the American are undecided in whether to keep the baby or rid themselves of it. Second, there are the dry and infertile-looking hills, which would ultimately mean Jig getting rid of the baby. The final option for the pair would be the beautiful lush forest by the Ebro that Jig explored by herself, which would mean Jig having the baby and leaving the American. As the characters explore these possibilities they grow farther apart from each other, and each end up coming to their own conclusion. Throughout the text, the liminal train station and change in setting allows both characters to explore what their futures may hold, and face the truth that Jig ultimately holds the power to make the decision to keep her baby or to get rid of it. Throughout the text, Jig and the American use the setting surrounding them in the train station to mirror their inner, liminal state. As the story opens, Jig and the American sit at a train station that on one side had “no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.” (589). This train station, which is set between two lines of rails allows for the conversation of liminality. Jig and the American could quite literally go one way or another with their decision to keep the baby or not.
In addition to the liminal space of the train station, Jig and the American are also sitting “at a table in the shade, outside the building.” (589). Herein, there is a contrast between the station being in the sun and Jig and the American sitting in the shade. The station, which is illuminated by light, symbolizes truth or realization. However, where Jig and the American are sitting in the shade, can be read that they are quite literally shaded by denial and doubt—at the beginning of the story the pair are not ready to face the light. While outside, the “girl was looking off at the hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.” (589). Again, the sun illuminates the hills, which cannot only symbolize the stomach of a pregnant woman, but also, the fact that they are white means that they have positive connotations and are pure, compared to the desolate brown country surrounding them. Yet, Jig and the American are still in the shadows, illustrating both the liminality and avoidance of the issue of her pregnancy. Within the story, the liminal setting begins to revert the American into the past, and force Jig to think about her future.
Separating Jig and the American from the inside is the liminal structure of the beaded curtain with “Anis del Toro” painted on it (589). Since alcohol has been such a prominent part of Jig and the American’s previous relations, one could assume that the beaded curtain symbolizes the pair’s past—and going back through the curtains means reverting to their past party-going ways and not having the baby. Jig comments, “’that’s all we do isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks.’” (590), herein, she focuses on the desolation and shallowness of her and the American’s relationship. If all Jig and the American do is run around drinking and being irresponsible, is it really love or a quality relationship that could sustain a child? As Jig comes to the realization the she and the American will separate, she begins to humanize the baby, saying “’they’re lovely hills… they don’t really look like white elephants,’ I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.’” (590). By calling the hills lovely, Jig is romanticizing her pregnancy and starting to appreciate that having a child would not be as bad as the American makes it seem, but rather having a child with the American would be bad. Though Jig has made her realization, the American is still stuck in their party days and has the persistent mindset that Jig will get the abortion. As Jig sends the American to bring their bags to the other side of the station he, “did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” (592). First, the fact that the American brings the bags to the other side of the station could suggest that he is indeed changing his mind about making Jig get the abortion, but the fact that he romanticizes the hotel labels forces one to believe that he is still fixated on not being tied down. This quote reinforces the American’s perpetual liminal state of mind, though Jig seems to clearly make up her mind, the American never comes to a concrete conclusion.
Through the progression of the story, Jig interpretation of her surroundings allows her agency to move from the liminal space. Ultimately, the conversation between Jig and the American goes nowhere, and Jig begins to have agency and is able to move out of the liminal space. Out of frustration: The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees. (591) At the end of the station, the imagery is lush and fertile. By leaving the liminal bar and walking off by herself, Jig is able to clear her head and find a positive place, where there is life and presumably happiness, as opposed to the dry, infertile country inhabited by the American. In fact, as Jig returns to the bar where the American resides, the imagery once again becomes desolate: “they sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table,” (592) herein, the American becomes linked with the negative infertility of the hills. The pair’s different interpretation of the setting surrounding them leads to tension. As the story closes, Jig has come to the conclusion that she will have the baby, and the American just looks around and sees other people, “waiting reasonably for the train,” (592). This quote makes it seem as if the American is stuck perpetually in the past, in a state of adolescence. Instead of moving on, growing up, and having a family like most “normal” people, he wishes to travel, have guiltless sex, and drink alcohol excessively. By the end of the story, it is clear that Jig is drawn to the fertile forest, and the American is just drawn to the bar.
In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway suggests that the current human condition is strained. Relationships are shallow and filled with misconnections. Especially relationships such as Jig and the American’s, it started out as liminal, something that was not serious, but also was not completely blasé—but then when Jig got pregnant neither knew how to properly deal with the situation. Through the use of the liminal settings, Hemingway allows Jig and the American to explore their different options for the future. Though the American keeps trying to convince Jig to get an abortion, she finally comes to the realization that she does not have to listen to him and she has the autonomy to do what she pleases with her own body. Unfortunately, though this story was written in 1927, there is still a controversy concerning a woman’s rights to contraception, abortion, etc. today.
Hemingway the Absurdist
Hemingway’s beliefs are generally understood to be existential. This is a largely accurate generalization, but Hemingway’s writings lean toward a more pessimistic view of existentialism than that of his peers. His novels and short stories do not merely emphasize the need for individual decisions regarding purpose and personal development; instead he questions their existence outright. Hemingway’s stories do not arrive at optimistic conclusions in which the protagonist has found a new drive and desire for life; rather, they follow a pattern closer to the mythological punishment of Sisyphus. The Sisyphean endeavors of the characters in Hemingway’s novels and short stories demonstrate that his philosophical beliefs are more aligned with those of absurdism, as defined by Albert Camus, than those of existentialism.
King Sisyphus is a character in Greek Mythology who is primarily known for his eternal punishment. Sisyphus was a clever and deceitful man who stole from others and even murdered when it was to his benefit. He was caught, however, when he attempted to outsmart the Greek god Zeus. He was promptly sent to Tartarus, the deepest part of the Underworld, to be punished for eternity. He was then tasked to roll an enormous boulder up a hill, but whenever he neared the top, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom. This myth was made famous by “The Myth of Sisyphus,” a philosophical essay written by Albert Camus, one of Hemingway’s contemporaries, in 1942. This essay introduces Camus’ view of absurdism which is essentially the belief that human beings live in a world that is both chaotic and purposeless. Absurdism attempts to address a conflict in human nature. This conflict is the result of the human desire to find value and meaning in life, and the human inability to find any.
Sisyphus’s punishment is a frustrating and pointless task, which is why it is so well-suited to describe Camus’s and Hemingway’s worldview. To Hemingway, life is like rolling the boulder up the hill, a series of purposeless and difficult tasks that can only end in failure. That failure, of course, is manifested in many forms. There is failure to be found in sadness, in loss, in boredom, and in, one of Hemingway’s favorites, death. This concept of absurdism sounds similar to existentialism; however, it is much darker. While existentialists hold that each person must determine their own sense of purpose, absurdists hold that there is no purpose whatsoever. Any apparent sense of purpose is merely a false hope that will immediately be sent tumbling back down the hill like Sisyphus’s boulder.
For proof of Hemingway’s absurdism, look no further than one of his final works, The Old Man and the Sea. The plot of this famous novella is one long Sisyphean cycle. Santiago works to break his 84 day unlucky streak of failing to catch any fish, and comes painfully close when he catches the great marlin. He has nearly pushed his boulder to the top when the sharks attack and steal his prize fish, sending the boulder all the way back down to the bottom of the hill. While it may appear at first glance that Santiago’s adversity only begins after he spots the great marlin, he is actually battling various forms of adversity throughout the entire story. Santiago’s boulder takes the form of unluckiness, loneliness, ridicule, physical pain, mental pain, and finally the loss of his prize to the vicious sharks. After the sharks first attack, Santiago begins to regret his decision. He says, “I wish it were a dream and that I had never hooked him. I’m sorry about it, fish,” (Hemingway, Old Man and the Sea 110). Of course, if Santiago had known that his prize would be stolen from him in the end, he never would have caught the marlin in the first place. Therein lies the conundrum of absurdism. If everyone is eventually overcome by some challenge or adversity, then what is the point of fighting against it in the first place?
Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, does not directly depict death or any great loss; however, it reveals perhaps the most hopeless situation that Hemingway ever created. The protagonist, Jake Barnes, is in love with Lady Brett Ashley. She also loves him, but refuses to enter into a relationship with him because Jake is impotent. Throughout the novel, Jake is forced to sit back and watch as Brett becomes romantic with nearly every man she meets. Meanwhile, he lacks any sort of purpose in his life. He is simply a drifter, resigned to float through life and wallow in his own self-pity. Jake encounters several distractions that allow him to take his mind off of the pointlessness of his endeavors with Brett and the pointlessness of his life, but he always finds himself back where he started. At one point he muses that, “Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth,” (Hemingway, Sun Also Rises 152). Jake accepts that philosophy and thinks that he may have found purpose at last, but after a moment he realizes that, “In five years… it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had,” (Sun Also Rises, 152).
Jake’s Sisyphean cycle is merely his attempts to get over his feelings for Brett. It is revealed that he has been struggling with this task for quite some time when he says to Bill that he has been in love with her, “Off and on for a hell of a long time” (Sun Also Rises 128). At the story’s conclusion, however, he finds himself with Brett once again. He has failed, and the boulder has rolled back to the bottom of the hill. He even begins to see the humor in his pathetic situation, almost laughing at his own pain. When Brett suggests that the two of them, “could have had such a damned good time together,” Jake replies, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Sun Also Rises 251).
Hemingway’s novels portray Sisyphean cycles in their entirety; however, his short stories approach absurdism with a different tack. Due to the constraints of the short story medium, Hemingway views various Sisyphean cycles through a sort of magnifying glass in which he focuses on one particular part of the cycle. Since Hemingway had a penchant for misery and failure, many of his stories take place near the end of a Sisyphean cycle, where a character fails or in many cases, dies.
Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” constructs a world in which the characters are very aware of the inevitability of death. Two men have been hired to kill a Swede named Ole Andreson, and they wait at his favorite restaurant for him to arrive. They take the waiter, the cook, and Nick Adams, a recurring character in Hemingway’s stories, hostage as well. When Andreson does not show up, the two men leave and Nick Adams rushes to inform Andreson about the men. However, Ole Andreson is already aware that there are men out to get him. He says, “I just can’t make up my mind to go out. I been in here all day” (Hemingway, Short Stories 221). He knows that he is doomed, but he cannot bring himself to face the inevitability. He cannot bear to see the boulder roll back down the hill. Nick is the only one with any desire to fight back; the waiter, George, and Ole Andreson have both resigned themselves to the pointlessness of such an endeavor. Repeatedly, Nick tries to reason with the Swede but Andreson repeatedly says, “There ain’t anything to do,” (Short Stories 221). Upon hearing about Andreson’s apparent welcoming of death, George seems unaffected. Nick says, “They’ll kill him,” and George replies, “I guess they will” (Short Stories 222). George realizes that the boulder will never reach the top of the hill, so it is not a concern whether the boulder makes it halfway or falls down just before the top. The task was pointless from the start.
Furthermore, by leaving out key details, Hemingway allows the reader to imagine when this Sisyphean cycle was set into motion. The men are after Andreson to settle an old score, so he must have had some affiliation or run-in with criminal activity. George says that Andreson must have “Double-crossed somebody. That’s what they kill them for” (Short Stories 222). Andreson also suggests that he has been delaying his inevitable death for quite some time. When Nick suggests that he leave town, he replies, “No, I’m through with all that running around” (Short Stories 221). He decides that he must face the adversity head on. He knows that the boulder will win in the end, but there is no avoiding it.
Hemingway did not simply write about the Sisyphean cycle; he lived it as well. Hemingway’s life can almost be divided into chapters. He quickly moved from one thing to the next in search of true purpose and happiness, but the details surrounding his death suggest that he never found it. He searched for fulfillment in love, and had four wives to show for it. He looked for it in his writing, and in alcohol, and in remote places such as Pamplona, Key West, or Cuba. The thrills of bull-fighting and his African safari left him empty as well. This lack of purpose was transcribed directly into Hemingway’s writings, and shows through in all of his plots. It is impossible to be entirely certain of Hemingway’s beliefs; however many of Hemingway’s most popular writings have plots that are in keeping with the teachings of absurdism.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner’s, 1987. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner, 1952. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.
Alcohol and “Hills Like White Elephants”
In literature, the presence of alcohol can play a fundamental role in guiding the themes and perspectives within a given narrative. The characters in the story “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, for instance, were heavily intoxicated throughout the work. Because of this, the characters’ decisions and reactions to one another are not true to what they are actually thinking and feeling, and the story’s outcome is very different than what it could have been if the two characters had been sober. Hemingway uses the presence of alcohol in many of his stories; this one is not an exception, as alcohol acts as a lubricant between the two characters’ conversations as well as a point of comparison to the relationship between the two characters.
Ernest Hemingway was a very complex and at times troubled man: “his personal and public writings reveal evidence suggesting the presence of the following conditions during his lifetime: bipolar disorder, alcohol dependence, traumatic brain injury, and probable borderline and narcissistic personality traits” (Martin 352). Many of the traumas in Hemingway’s life seeped through into his many works, especially in that the characters in his stories always seem to have a drink in their hand. Martin comments that “Hemingway’s writing can be seen as an adaptive defensive strategy for dealing with painful moods and suicidal impulses” (Martin 359) and that “[he] may have told certain stories in order to ease the aches that life started inside him” (Martin 359). Hemingway was married and divorced multiple times through his life and alcohol played a role in the divorces many times, such as the times when his wife Martha found empty liquor bottles underneath his hospital bed after he had been in a drunk driving accident and suffered a concussion, which for her “the death knell sounded for his third marriage” (Martin 355). His problems in his relationships and his heavy drinking problem did not hide themselves in his story “Hills Like White Elephants” that features a couple heavily intoxicated, contemplating abortion, and most likely on the verge of ending the relationship, although it never clearly states it in the story.
While Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” has major themes of abortion and the relationship between the couple, it has major underlying themes of alcohol consumption that greatly affected the story in its entirety. The very first line that is spoken in the story is about alcohol and states “‘What should we drink’ the girl asked” (Hemingway 635). The conversation between the woman, Jib, and the American man does not even begin until they both have a beer sitting in front of each of them. The couple seems rigid and uncomfortable with each other, only exchanging words with each other about the alcohol that they are about to order and the weather. It is only until the beer is put in front of the two that the conversation begins to flow, seeming to make the booze the barrier that the couple needs to put in between them, both physically and mentally, to feel comfortable.
Absinthe plays a very large symbolic role in the story, although it is only ever actually mentioned once in the story. One line of the story in particular stands out more than the others in tying in the connection between the alcohol and the characters. In this line, Jib has just tasted a drink called Anis del Toro which has anise in it, which has a licorice taste to it. She states that “It tastes like licorice” (Hemingway 636) which in turn the man retorts with “That’s the way with everything” (Hemingway 636). To this Jib responds: “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe” (Hemingway 636). While this may seem like an insignificant comment, to the woman it seems that she has made a connection between absinthe and ‘everything’ in the couple’s relationship (Lanier 286). Absinthe has a very bitter taste representing the bitterness that the two characters hold for each other that is so prevalent in the relationship and the bitterness towards each other about the decision that they have to make about the abortion (Weeks 75). The color of licorice, which is the taste in absinthe, can also be a large symbol of its blackness compared to the white hills that Jib mentions and the symbolic contrast between sadness and joy, the joy being a new life or a baby, and the sorrow in deciding whether to abort it or not (Weeks 75). The “living green color” (Weeks75) of the actual absinthe drink and the contrasting dull, brown, dryness of the countryside, symbolizing fertility and infertility and the two warring sides of the argument for life or death (Weeks 75).
Absinthe has been used since 1790 when a French refugee, Dr. Ordinaire, discovered it and was labeled a narcotic. It is made from the leaves of the plant wormwood, which is the most dangerous ingredient in absinthe and “is capable of producing a potent, toxic, psychoactive alkaloid ‘that is extremely harmful to the habitual user’” (Lanier 282). Europeans were the highest consumers of absinthe, but once it was exported to the United States it became popular very quickly. It was banned from the United States just as quickly because of its harmful effects. A violation of the ban came to fruition in 1926, the year before Hemingway wrote “Hills Like White Elephants” (Lanier 283). The drink became illegal and remains illegal in most countries, except a few, notably Spain where “Hills Like White Elephants” takes place. Hemingway, being aware of the drink, as well as being an avid drinker himself, placed the drink into the story knowing about the “mental and physical deterioration [that the drink] caused” (Lanier 283), using it to loosen the character’s wits and make their conversation that is one that cannot fully be trusted by the reader, while also using it as a symbol of the couple’s deterioration as well. One critic, Doris Lanier, comments that it is “Innocent-looking, seductive, and intoxicating, absinthe promises joy, excitement, heady delight, it’s tantalizing color and taste concealing the destructive power that is lurking in its green opulence” (Lanier 286). Absinthe was also known for its aphrodisiac powers which is what Lanier is referring to when describing it as “seductive”.
The significance of the story being set in Spain is also notable. With the story being written in 1927 when prohibition was at full rampage in the United States, many young people were fleeing the States to chase after the party scene, many settling in Spain and other places in Europe where drinking was an everyday occurrence. Lanier comments that the couple seems to have a “’shallow’, ‘rootless’, and ‘transient’ lifestyle” (Lanier 281) and that their lives, represented by their labeled suitcases, are ‘rootless’, ‘pleasure-seeking’ and ‘without responsibilities’” (Lanier 281). The absinthe can also be looked at as a symbol for not only the couple’s relationship, but their lives as well. They started off coming to Spain where they expect to live a free, happy, exciting life, “innocent -looking and intoxicating” (Lanier 286), but ending up in pain, and deterioration.
Hemingway also uses alcohol in the story as a way for the man to brush off Jib’s comments and feelings, making the conversation even more tense. Jib comments, “That’s all we do isn’t it- look at things and try new drinks?” (Hemingway 636) to which the man replies a simple “I guess so” (Hemingway 636). Jib is clearly upset when she says this and is trying to comment on the “shallowness of their life together” (Weeks 76), but the man only agrees and moves on, brushing off her feelings as if she never said them in the first place. He does this again when Jib comments on the hills yet again trying to clarify what she meant. He ignores her disregarding her statement and simply asking “Should we have another drink?” (Hemingway 636) using alcohol yet again as a barrier between himself and Jib creating a way of avoidance of responding to her. By this time the couple is buzzed having had a large beer and an Anis del Toro each. This has allowed the woman to talk freely and gain some brazenness to speak her opinions without hesitance. Had the couple been sober, the conversation between the two may have not gotten even this far.
The most unanswered question in the story is whether the couple comes to an agreement about the abortion or not. The story ends with Jib begging the man to stop talking about it saying “Would you please please please please please please please please stop talking?” (Hemingway 638), showing how fed up she is with the conversation and also showing just how intoxicated she is. The story ends with the man bringing the luggage to the tracks and asking Jib: “Do you feel better” (Hemingway 638) to which she replies “I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (Hemingway 638). A clear solution to their argument does not seem to be made, however, the argument could prove to be invalid nonetheless because of the copious amounts of alcohol that Jib has consumed, possibly killing the fetus anyways, although the characters would not have known the harmful effects of the alcohol at the time.
Alcohol is so prevalent in the story that even though the characters seem to be speaking coherently to one another for the majority of the story, their words and actions cannot be trusted. After all, alcohol affects the brain in many ways, causing people to make irrational decisions and say things that they do not mean. The characters in “Hills Like White Elephants” thus cannot be taken seriously in what they are saying and thinking. If the two characters had been sober throughout the story, the reader would have more ease in believing the decisions, or non-decisions, that the characters make. Hemingway uses the alcohol in the story to leave the reader guessing, leaving an unanswered question on the table for the reader to figure out on their own.
Lanier, Doris. “The Bittersweet Taste of Absinthe In Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Studies In Short Fiction, vol. 26, no. 3, 1989, pp. 279-288. MLA International Bibliography, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libserv-prd.bridgew.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=1927a6e2-a72d-4e7c-b164-e23a5be4b48e%40sessionmgr4007&vid=3&hid=4109.
Hemingway, Earnest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J Mays, Spencer Richardson-Jones, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp.634-638.
Martin, Christopher. “Earnest Hemingway: A Psychological Autopsy of a Suicide.” Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, vol. 69, no. 4, 2006. Academic Search Premier, http://web.b.ebscohost.com.libservprd.bridgew.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=2db9a445-09ee-42ae-a0dc-b08dbb21e6cb%40sessionmgr1.
Weeks, Lewis E. “Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Studies In Short Fiction, vol. 17, 1980, pp. 75-77. MLA International Bibliography, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libserv-prd.bridgew.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=4&sid=7fceb39c-2350-4302-aaba-1047ff1109d5%40sessionmgr4010&hid=4109&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=1980112642&db=mzh.
Life is Meaningless: Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
Life, on the basis of modernist fiction, is meaningless. In a sea full of people, a single person is just a speck. A small, insignificant part of a larger heterogeneous group in which our life has no value. Using his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” as the means with the literary elements of characterization and light and dark imagery, Ernest Hemingway proposes the aforementioned concepts and advances the notion that a single person’s life has no value and is meaningless.
In the short story, charactferization through the words of the older waiter is utilized to reveal traits of the old man and subsequently support Hemingway’s stance on the value of life. Taking place in a café late at night, an older man drinks to be drunk. He’s a regular customer of the establishment, and the two waiters, one old and one young, often muse on the old man, his actions, and his life. They explain that he tried to commit suicide last week because “he was in despair” about “nothing” (Hemingway 1). This introduces the reader to Hemingway’s oft-utilized concept of nada, or nothingness. It’s evident that the man is lonely and feels nothing because of his suicide attempt. He has nothing in his life and feels worthless. He has no wife, no life, and save for the café, nowhere to live out the rest of his otherwise empty life. In other words, he a lost man and someone who has nothing to live for. He’s a man who will likely again attempt suicide.
Furthering the characterization argument, the characterization of the old man through the older waiter’s inner thoughts further advance the notion that life is meaningless. The older waiter says that a “wife would be no good to him now” to curb his loneliness, indicating that he infinitely feels that he is nothing and is in deep hole of depression that he can’t crawl out of (Hemingway 1). Near the end of the story when the younger waiter tells the old man that he will serve him no more drinks and the older waiter is in the bar himself cleaning up, he recites the “Our Father” prayer, replacing quite a few words with nada, which again means nothingness. Not only does this eschew the idea of religion as meaningless and nothing, it also reinforces the idea that life itself has no meaning. Additionally, through the bit of characterization we get for the older waiter, we learn that is in a similar situation as the old man. After he closes up the café, the older waiter stops for a drink at a bodega because he, like the older man, is reluctant to return to the nothingness that awaits him in the dark just outside the safe haven that is the bodega. Said the narrator: “He [the older waiter] would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep” (Hemingway 2). It’s only the light that makes him forget the nada, or nothingness.
Not only does the old man’s suicide attempt serve as a form of indirect characterization for the old man, but it also gives him to seek refuge in the café. This is revealed through light and dark imagery. Outside of the safe haven that is the café, there is nothing but darkness, “shadows” and “empty tables” (Hemingway 1). Inside the café, however, things are different. It is described in the title as “clean” and “well-[lit].” The man survived his suicide attempt and stays in the café to stave off his eventual return to nada, or nothingness. He realizes the futility of life and the world itself. The striking juxtaposition of the dark of the outside and the light of the inside makes it clear that it’s only the light of the café that keeps the man from thinking about the nothingness of the world and only the light of the café that stops him from trying to commit suicide. Effectively, the café is the man’s safe haven from his perceived evil and darkness of the world.
On the surface, the story of the old man in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is in and of itself nothing. Simply, it details an old, deaf man who enters the eponymous café every night to drink himself to a stupor and wash away the nothingness and the depression of his life and the two waiters who muse over his life and his actions. On a deeper level, though, the story, with the aid of characterization and light and dark imagery, makes a profoundly cynical and depressing statement about life: it is meaningless, tying this back to Hemingway’s concept of nada, nothingness and illuminating the work’s theme. That is, life is meaningless and has no value. Without Hemingway’s masterful use of characterization and light and dark imagery, the story wouldn’t be important.