Dialogue Like White Elephants

  • In Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway shows the characters through dialogue.
  • Very little of the dialogue refers directly to the conflict between them.
  • The indirect approach is more powerful than a simple discussion would be.
  • The dialogue is only as realistic as necessary to convey the point and no more.


Ernest Hemingway with his second wife, Pauline, in 1927 when Hills Like White Elephants was published (JFK Library [Wikimedia Commons])

You know everything there is to know about your characters. You know what they look like. You know what they smell like. You even know what they don’t like. You know whether they stride, limp, flounce, sashay or crawl into the story. It’s all going perfectly until the first character opens his, her or its mouth. You type the inverted commas to indicate direct speech and know the next words on the page will define the character. Not only what the character says, but what words they say it with.

So what is your character going to say?

Let’s take an object lesson from a master of dialogue. Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Hills Like White Elephants, shows us two conflicted characters almost entirely in terms of their dialogue. It lays bare their conflicting desires with barely a word of description of either of them, and without either of them explicitly mentioning what they are really talking about.

So how does he do it?

Two characters in search of beer

Like all the best stories, it starts when two characters walk into a bar. They are described only as ‘the man’ and ‘the girl’. They order beer, which is natural enough in a bar. Until they have the beer in front of them, they’re just a couple who find a bar on a hot day. As anyone might under these circumstances, the girl’s gaze wanders to a distant line of hills and she makes an idle observation:


The Ebro Valley in Spain. Do the distant hills look like white elephants? (TijsB [CC / Flickr])

“They look like white elephants.”

“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.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain. “They’ve painted something on it,” she said.


That exchange wasn’t as idle as their demeanour up to that point had led us to expect. Why the girl’s slightly waspish response to the man saying he’s never seen a white elephant? And why did he get defensive, as if she was criticising him by saying he was the sort of man who wouldn’t have seen a white elephant? And why did she change the subject as soon as he got defensive?

We don’t know what that was about, but there’s something more than a couple of beers between these two. If they’re sniping at each other over metaphorical white elephants instead of talking about it, it must be important.


(Jaume Escofet [CC / Flickr])

Then they go back to talking about what they’re drinking and they’re cordial again. At this point, we can see that drinks are a safe topic that they can discuss without arguing. If a reflection about the scenery was enough to get them started, there can’t be many safe topics left to them.

The safe haven of booze

The man orders the drinks. The girl lets him take the lead, but it can’t last. Whatever it is returns to the surface:

“It tastes like licorice,” the girl said and put the glass down.

“That’s the way with everything.”

“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

“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.”

Damn, these two are prickly. But now we know a little more. They’ve already drunk enough to show they’re as accomplished a pair of boozers as most of Hemingway’s characters, so it’s not likely to be the mention of absinthe that provoked the man to tell her to cut it out. It must be the mention of the things she’s waited so long for, whatever
they may be.

A few sentences later, she ups the ante:

“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks.”


(LMAP [CC / Flickr])

So now drinks aren’t safe ground anymore. The man orders another drink but calm as the words appear, we now know that he’s doing it to try to steer back to safe ground that isn’t safe anymore. If he really wants to preserve that safety, the last thing they need is another drink but we can recognise a man with the unshakeable conviction that another drink is the answer to everything.

Let the air in

But it’s the man who lets it bubble to the surface first. Perhaps he can’t keep up with the girl’s oblique approach or perhaps because he’s been drinking faster than her:

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said.  “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s not really anything. It’s just to let the air in.”

The girl did not say anything.

“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”

“Then what will we do afterward?”

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”


(Simón Pais-Thomas [CC / Flickr])

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that makes us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two strings of beads.

Now it’s out in the open, or at least as far in the open as it’s ever going to get. The girl isn’t ill but she’s going for an operation to ‘let the air in’, which is going to resolve something that is making them unhappy. The word ‘abortion’ is so much more powerful than if either of them had spoken it.

The exchange also shows us a lot about how each of them sees their relationship. The man sees her pregnancy as an unwanted change. He believes that a simple operation will remove the problem and restore them to their former happiness.

Yet the girl’s earlier description of their life, that all they do is try new drinks and look at things, has told us that she doesn’t see things in the same way. If she did, she wouldn’t have to ask the man why he thinks they’ll be fine afterward.

Decision by default

If they’d left it there, we would probably carry away the impression that the man has pressured her into an abortion, but it’s not that simple:

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you don’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”


(byronv2 [CC / Flickr])

“And if I do you’ll be happy and things were like they were before and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

“And if I do it, you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

“Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.”

So the man is not insisting on her abortion. She wants to return to their happier days as much as he does, but she sees further than him. She asks for his reassurance that the abortion will do that for them. If she’d asked once and returned to her drink, we might infer that she was reassured. When she asks again, she shows us that she is still uncertain and having established that his words are not reassuring, we know that she won’t be reassured by more of them.

Who cares about what?

In case we missed it, she announces that she doesn’t care about herself, which begs the question of what she does care about. The man, presumably. He may have left the decision to her, but she’s made it based on what he wants. Perhaps it’s because she recognises the situation that she continues to speak obliquely, or perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want to destroy their relationship with a child he doesn’t want.


(Thomas Hawk [CC / Flickr])

He doesn’t really follow what she’s talking about, but he’s not so obtuse that he can’t see the underlying issue:

“Come on back in the shade,” he said. “You mustn’t feel that way.”

“I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I just know things.”

“I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do -“

“Nor that isn’t good for me,” she said. “I know. Could we have another beer?”

“All right. But you’ve got to realize -“

“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”

Now it’s the girl who wants to return to the safe ground of boozing, perhaps hoping that introducing alcohol into the conversation will exclude emotion as effectively as introducing into their bodies will nullify it from their minds.

The man’s concern is genuine. He’s told her he doesn’t want her to do anything she doesn’t want to but once again, the power lies in what he hasn’t said. He hasn’t asked her whether she actually wants to have the child or promised to stay with her if she does. He can’t see, or chooses not to see, that her choice is between him and the child and she’s chosen him. She isn’t going to change her decision, but it weighs on her. When she concludes the story, we know that the truth is the precise opposite of what she says:

“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”


(Raul Lieberwirth [CC / Flickr])

The wisdom of white elephants

So what can we learn from Hills Like White Elephants?

Hemingway’s prose is characteristically stark. There is not a single mention of their tone of voice or facial expressions, let alone their unspoken thoughts. Everything is in their choice of words, and more in the words they don’t speak than in the words they do.

The very fact that they barely mention the thing they’re talking about shows us how important it is to them, and it also shows a very human trait that we can all recognise. Only people who know each other well argue about whether one of them might have seen a white elephant or not. Such bickering is restricted to people who share a history, who argue about trivialities to avoid arguing about something that occupies both their minds. The man and the girl never state their opinion on the subject that matters, but they show us exactly how they feel about it. It reveals far more about the characters than if they had simply talked about whether the girl should get an abortion or not.

Realism in the right dose

While the content of the dialogue is realistic, it’s easy to understand because it is actually less realistic than it first appears. When I listen to real people talking, they very rarely speak in full sentences and they pepper their speeches with ‘um’ and ‘er’, and sometimes they respond with a raised eyebrow or a laugh rather than in words. The more experiences they share, the harder they are to understand as certain words or concepts take on a particular meaning and they refer back to things in their past.

If they were real people instead of characters, one of them would probably have said something like, “it will be like that little village in the Pyrenees again. What was its name?” They would both know what happened in the village and how it was relevant, but we wouldn’t without a lengthy explanation that would digress from the point.


(andrew smith [CC / Flickr])

The power of the story comes from the dialogue striking a balance between simple statements of position, which don’t encourage us to look deeper, and impenetrably over-realistic dialogue.

You may well disagree with my interpretation of the characters. Because the characters are alluded to rather than directly described, they are open to interpretation. If you do disagree, please tell me what you think in the comments. I’d be interested to discuss it.

Thanks to Disha at Franklenstein for suggesting the topic of this post.

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