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“Hills Like White Elephants”: Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory is on Thin Ice

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

*WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

Design by Sofia Miller

One summer ago, I was introduced to an Ernest Hemingway piece in my writing workshop camp that I will never forget, and not necessarily for the best reasons. “Hills Like White Elephants” made a sudden guest appearance in reference when a classmate presented her piece: a woman’s letter to her aborted child, written without ever using the word “abortion.” That was when I learned of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, good mysteries, and the endless, beautiful possibilities of concealing a theme within the very lines of your text without ever giving it away outright.

…Except not really. “Hills Like White Elephants” centers around the main conflict of a couple about to get an abortion, and like the piece submitted by my classmate, it manages to communicate the mixed emotions of following through with the procedure without including the word “abortion” anywhere. In fact, it doesn’t really include much of anything, ultimately just making sole use of dialogue between the man and the woman. The piece is well-planned in its ambiguity, but bluntly put, I do not know how to feel about Hemingway’s stylistic choices. In our workshop, we discussed the idea of “true sentences,” sentences stripped down to their bare bones, free of adjectives and other subjective descriptions and editorializations. I appreciate this on occasion. I genuinely do. I don’t, however, much enjoy the way Hemingway executes it in “Hills Like White Elephants.”

See, the critical piece to this story is that I already knew of the premise prior to reading the story. After reading my classmate’s work, hearing my instructor go on a bit of a passion rant about Hemingway, and finally, reading the short story together as a class and analyzing its use of the Iceberg Theory, how could I not know that the story was about abortion?

‘“It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig…It's not really an operation at all,’” says the man to the woman at around the story’s midpoint. Granted, maybe I’m personally just of lesser intelligence, but I cannot know if I would have been able to understand just from such comments that the couple is talking about an abortion and not, say, plastic surgery.

Not long after reading this story, I tried to challenge myself to write a piece Hemingway-style. As a writer, I possess an incurable tendency to overwrite; I inject so many details into each sentence that they become borderline extraneous. Needless to say, trying to be inspired by Hemingway proved to be a real challenge for me. And what did I find from my three-day-long project? Not much, to be honest. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, I found myself easing into the flow of minimalism, and the act of consciously leaving out details became increasingly easier. Now, this is not an implied incrimination of Hemingway for being lazy or anything of the sort; I see how he must have enjoyed playing around with his words like puzzle pieces and forcing the gears in his readers’ heads to turn. Still, in thinking back to “Hills Like White Elephants,” I couldn’t help but remember again how I felt borderline cheated upon reaching the conclusion of the story, almost like I had just read four pages of…nothing. But, I was still willing to allow Hemingway the benefit of the doubt, at least for the time being, considering that I still harbored doubts about my own comprehension abilities.

So I put it to the test. I sent the story to a friend who was completely unaware of its existence, much less its premise and tactics, and I asked him to read it and tell me what it was about. After some stumbles, clarifications, and rereading, he hit the same midpoint:

‘“It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig…It's not really an operation at all.’”

Upon reading this section, which might I emphasize again are the most revealing lines Hemingway is willing to give, my friend put down the story and formulated the hypothesis that Jig, the woman, was undergoing an eye operation.

Don’t get me wrong, Hemingway was probably more successful than I ever will be, but “Hills Like White Elephants” and a multitude of other works subject readers to a piece whose ambiguity is so emphasized that it is disruptive to the comprehension of the plot. And, ultimately, where does this put the readers? There may be artistry in the concept of a piece eliciting a diverse array of interpretations, but a story such as “Hills Like White Elephants,” which deals with such a delicate topic, should not be attempting to utilize such artistry. As I’m sure many writers know, there is a fine line between good mystery and bad mystery, and unfortunately, I believe Hemingway’s use of the Iceberg Theory in this story walked this line too haphazardly.

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