Lessons From Stories: Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The story is about a young couple waiting on a train to come and In the meantime, they have a conversation about a lingering topic of conflict amongst them, the unplanned pregnancy. The initial conflict is simple, the American, as the boy is called, wants the girl to have an abortion. The girl wants their life to go back to what it was, prior to the pregnancy. Much of the conflict takes place subtly as was Hemingway’s style.

Without conflict a story is bland. No one wants to read about some person who got everything they wished and then lived happily ever after. This can barely be even classified as a story. At the surface of ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, you may think that it’s without much conflict as much of the time the couple bickers over hills which may or may not look like white elephants or what drinks to get, however, the conflict is evident in the changing desire of the two characters which takes place underneath the surface.

The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.

‘The beer’s nice and cool,’ the man said.

‘It’s lovely,’ the girl said.

‘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 really not 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 afterwards?’

‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’

‘What makes you think so?’

‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’

The American wants the girl to have an abortion, this is his desire. The girl agrees but only if it pleases the American in the hope that this will return their relationship to what it was. She desires the past, a time before this “interruption” came.

‘If I do it you won’t ever worry?’ (the girl said)

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

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

‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t care about me.’

‘Well, I care about you.’

‘Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.’

‘I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.’

The American is displeased because he’s getting want he wants but not in the way he’d like because he loves the girl he wants her to do it if only she wishes it too and not as a favor. The conflict leads to a change in desire. The girl wants to please the American but can’t and the American wants the girl to be happy which she isn’t because her happiness is tied with the American who she knows desires the operation. 

And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I said we could have everything.’

‘We can have everything.’

‘No, we can’t.’

‘We can have the whole world.’

‘No, we can’t.’

‘We can go everywhere.’

‘No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.’

‘It’s ours.’

‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’

‘But they haven’t taken it away.’

‘We’ll wait and see.’

She is displeased now because she’s realizing that things will never be what they used to be and so it doesn’t matter if she keeps the child or not, her desire will never be fulfilled. This is where the story ends. A realization that there is no turning back the clock, whether or not the abortion takes place, this relationship has changed for good. The girl grows as a character through this realization and the story leaves the reader with the harsh reality of life which is that with each action you limit certain possibilities in your life and open others. Once that action is committed all you can do is make the best out of the possibilities that are left for you. 

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

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

Charles Bukowski & The Use Of Conflict In Storytelling

Conflict is typically central to a story. It can be some internal conflict that a character is trying to resolve, it can be a conflict with another character that needs to be addressed or it may even be a conflict regarding meaning or purpose in life that the character is trying to figure out. It is a need that the character must face and has to face.

In some ways, writing is about having a character and understanding what the character dislikes, hates, what he doesn’t want to happen, what he is avoiding, what makes him uncomfortable and then, having the character confront all of these things constantly throughout the text and see how he reacts and changes.

Knowing this, when one reads The Post Office by Charles Bukowski, the simple narrative structure gives rise to constant conflict, resolution, conflict, resolution cycles. As the reader, we follow the life of the main character, Chinaski, who attempts to find a stable job, a good relationship and to do something meaningful in his life while his self-sabotaging tendencies create conflict with other characters and ruin different aspects of his life which he then attempts to either mend or simply move on to some other woman or line of work, while still harboring conflict creating attitudes.

The idea of conflict is what sticks out as you read the text. Sometimes the conflict is resolved in a single page and other times the conflict runs the course of the text. Whether it is Chinaski’s conflict with the Jonstone, his boss at the post office, conflict over the placement of a hat at the workplace, conflict with his girlfriend’s father, conflict at the funeral over flowers, conflict caused by the schemas he has to learn, conflict with his coworker Janko, conflict with a pimp, conflict when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, the fire at the workplace is another conflict, the decrease in water fountains acts as conflict too and so on.

The text is riddled with minor and major issues that the character has to deal with and confront. These conflicts are either caused by other characters or they are a result of Chinaski’s character flaws. An example of such a flaw being the issue of the hat. Whether it is Chinaski’s attitude, pride or ego, he rather come into conflict with his supervisor instead of abiding by the new rule of placing hats in one’s own locker.

The story is driven by the main character but, it is the interaction of that character with people, things, feelings, emotions that cause conflict that fills out the text. In the Post Office, one is reading about a degenerate womanizer who is drunk most of the time however, it is still interesting and captivating because, through the resolutions or the lack of resolution of these conflicts, the reader can reflect on their own choices and decisions and take away either how to act or most likely in this case, how not to act.