Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants
Bashing my way through the first draft of my fiction project I have needed to explore the finer points of dialogue. Writing dialogue can keep you in the immediate scene, away from any unnecessary exposition, where characters are acting and interacting, and the narrative is resolutely in the ‘showing’ mode. Hemingway’s acclaimed short story, Hills Like White Elephants, offers a masterclass in its use.
Hemingway famously saw a writing project as an iceberg. What is above the surface of the water is the words on the page. Yet the greater part of the narrative lies beneath the water line. It is the hidden part. The part unread. It is where the reader imaginatively engages with the story and forms his own inferences, implications and opinions, creating his own world that is developed from what is seen on the page. This is the aesthetic of minimalism. Where the piece above the water is small and concise, and just large enough to create everything that lies beneath. Hemingway was known for his sparse prose and short sentences. It was a very masculine, no nonsense approach that packed a powerful punch. The style reflected much of his subject matter. There was nothing flowery or over written about it. And his dialogue too was cast in the same aesthetic of brevity and terseness. And yet in the case of this short story it carried an extraordinary sensitivity that was only achieved through this minimalist approach.
The story itself is dialogue driven. It is the dialogue that holds the story together, drives the narrative forward and dominates it throughout. We know little of the two main protagonists, a man and a woman, waiting on a quiet railway station for a connecting train to Madrid, other than what is revealed through the dialogue. The story revolves around a discussion between the couple concerning an abortion and the presumed reason for them travelling to the city. Yet abortion is never mentioned. It is only referred to as ‘the operation,’ the rest we infer through the ongoing dialogue.
Hemingway uses silences to reveal more about the tension between the two characters than ordinary dialogue could accomplish. The female character often doesn’t reply to the male character, and it is this silence that demonstrates her tacit…