Tones of “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
The given analysis will primarily focus on the tone of the story and characters as an element of fiction. The tone in the story by Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephant” is dichotomous, which means that two opposite perspectives and demonstrations are presented in order to provide two lenses from which readers can observe and understand the story as well as its underlying messages. The man or American and the woman or Jig are prime manifestations of the two tones, where one is bright and lighthearted, and the other is direct and persuasive. The overall tone shifts from calm and relaxing to depressing and serious as the details of the story unveils.
From the very beginning, the author describes a relatively positive and calm situation, where a man and woman are waiting for their train at a train station. It is stated: “close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building” (Hemingway 665).
In other words, the tone of the situation is described as a typical sunny summer day with a bright sun and beautiful surroundings. Shortly after, the couple discuss the hills in the background and make comments about the hills looking like white elephants, where the general tone of the conversation is light (Hemingway 666). Therefore, the author sets the initial tone as being calm and relaxing. The claim is substantiated by the fact that the woman says phrases, such as “they’re lovely hills” or “it’s lovely,” and the man saying “the beer’s nice and cool” (Hemingway 666). In other words, the tone of the conversation is pleasant and amiable.
The first major shift in the tone of the story is initiated by the man’s mentioning of the operation, which is heavily implied to be an abortion. He states: “it’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” for which the woman’s reaction was that “the girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on” (Hemingway 667). In other words, the body language of Jig is evidently sad and unhappy about the procedure, which is later revealed that she has a conflicting feeling about it.
The current literature supports the fact that abortion is tightly linked with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression (Jacob et al. 382). Therefore, the first symptoms of depressive tone emerge during this part of the conversation. The author further illustrates that the woman is uncomfortable with the topic, where he writes that “the girl did not say anything” (Hemingway 667). Therefore, the overall tone of the story shifts from being calm and pleasant towards anxious and depressing. Readers can feel and experience the discomfort experienced by Jig during these moments.
The next shift in the tone emerges during the dynamic interaction between the man and the woman. The woman asks, “doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along,” for which the man replies, “of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple” (Hemingway 668). The last section of the story shifts its tone from depressing and anxious to a concerning, serious, and grim one.
The main reason is a persuasive strategy utilized by the man where it is evident that he is either willingly or unintentionally, but also selfishly, trying to manipulate the woman to undergo the procedure by claiming “it’s perfectly simple,” “you know I love you,” “we’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before,” or “that’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy” (Hemingway 667). A reader can feel how the man is clearly trying to convince the woman to get an abortion by making statements, which are understating the impact of such an operation on a woman.
Firstly, he has no knowledge or experience of knowing whether abortion is simple since he is not a professional expert or a woman. Secondly, he shows a certain degree of disrespect for the woman by not silencing himself when asked to and only proceeds to do so after she begs him for it by stating, “would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (Hemingway 668). The strong emotional and psychological impact of abortion should not be underestimated since it can sometimes lead to severe cases of clinical depression (Jacob et al. 383). Therefore, the tone of the story is no longer sad or depressing but rather worrisome and concerning since there is no significant reason to believe that the man thinks and acts in the best interest of his partner.
In conclusion, the tone of the story by Ernest Hemingway undergoes three major shifts, which are primarily driven by the characters and their conversations. The author initially sets up a calm and pleasant as well as relatively happy beginning by describing the environment and keeping conversations light. The first mention of the operation and the subsequent reaction by the woman change the tone to grim and depressing. Later, the man’s persuasive tactics of understating the impact of abortion and disrespecting the woman’s requests change the tone by making it worrisome and concerning.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, Edited by Kelly J. Mays, 13th ed., W.W. Norton, 2018, pp. 665-8.
Jacob, Louis, et al. “Prevalence of Depression, Anxiety, And Adjustment Disorders in Women with Spontaneous Abortion in Germany – A Retrospective Cohort Study.” Psychiatry Research, vol. 258, 2017, pp. 382-386.