I’m not a big Hemmingway fan. In fact, I don’t read him much anymore. He’s not someone, like Chekhov or Alice Monroe, who I read every year and every year feel a renewed sense of awe. But there is one story of Hemmingway’s I always go back to--“Hills Like White Elephants.” This story weighs in at about four or five pages. It’s short, elegant, nearly perfect. I still read that one every once in a while and feel that old awe.
Dialogue—H. is a master of suggesting deep emotions in dialogue and of revealing complex emotional entanglements between the characters through conversation.
This is the story about a man and woman who, in my reading, have been in love. The woman is pregnant. The man wants her to have a “simple operation.” They stop at a small village in the mountains to switch trains. There’s just a short time there and they have a drink in a little bar and talk about how they’ve been happy and are now unhappy. The man says they will be happy again if she has the simple operation. The woman says they will never be happy again whether she has it or not. Not much happens, in terms of action, on the surface. H. was famous for saying he wrote so that, like icebergs, one-eighth of what was really happening was in the story and the rest hidden in the cold sea. He wanted, in his writing, all that he didn’t put in to exist in a way that made the reader feel it as she read. I think this story is a near-perfect example of this.
Setting—the setting is a character here. They’re between trains, hills all around them, a small café in a station; it all suggests where this couple finds themselves emotionally. They’re in a place where the decision they’re making will change everything—or just the fact that they’re having this conversation at all may have changed everything already. When they leave nothing will be the same.
What’s left out—A lot of biography. We don't know much about the characters. For example, we don't know what work they do, where they live, much at all about their pasts. He leaves out so much so that the focus is all on this moment in their lives. Even the details of the love affair are left out, but we feel them in what they say and the way they say it. What they’ve lost and what they will never get back is all over this story . As a reader, you can't escape it.
If you want to look at a very short story that does a lot with a little check this one out.