As in most of his fiction, Hemingway is interested in where language breaks down between individuals and how what is unsaid or what is unspeakable can define and divide individuals. At a purely stylistic level, Hemingway exposes the inadequacy of language through his use of unnamed characters and minimalist, stripped down sentences. Without using details to describe how “the man” or “the girl” look or sound, Hemingway instead chooses to focus almost exclusively on the dialogue between the two charactersto suggest the growing alienation between them. The story’s very title of “Hills Like White Elephants,” with its use of simile to gesture at the story’s underlying tension of a pregnancy neither character feels able to directly mention, reflects the characters’ critical loss for words.
Beyond narrative style, the conversation between “the man” and “the girl” hinges on the inadequacy of what they can say or not say to one another. The man continually misunderstands or contradicts the girl, to the point that the girl begs him to stop talking at all. Though they mirror each other’s language, repeating the same words, the effect is as of an echo chamber—words repeated meaninglessly without actual communication. Finally, the looming decision that drives the whole story—whether or not the girl will get an abortion—goes unnamed by either character. They both allude to it but seem unable to discuss it directly, allowing the conversation to lapse into silences or angry outbursts instead.
An added layer to the issue of the failure of language in this story is the fact that the events are unfolding between two English-speaking tourists in Spain. Throughout the story as the characters drink,the waitress intermittently enters the scene, speaking in Spanish, which the man must translate for the girl. This situation draws attention to the idea of translation, and yet also underscores how, ironically, even though they speak the same language, it is the man and girl who are in the most need of a translator.
The Limits of Language ThemeTracker
The Limits of Language Quotes in Hills Like White Elephants
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
“Oh, cut it out.”
“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”
“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”
“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”
“…But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”
“What did you say?”
“I said we could have everything.”
“We can have everything.”
“No, we can’t.”
“All right. But you’ve got to realize—”
“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”
“Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.”
“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.”
“Would you do something for me now?”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”