Men without Women (1927)

© Copyright MacMillan Publishers Ltd
© Copyright MacMillan Publishers Ltd

Check this out: I’m about to prove the worth of a literary classic with math. Ernest Hemingway, known for crafting full, complex narratives with just a few short sentences, often uses exterior elements to symbolize his protagonists’ inner turmoil. Take any of the short stories in his 1927 collection Men without Women. In “Hills like White Elephants”, for example, the setting of the train station serves as a metaphor for the crossroads the couple has reached in their relationship: the woman is pregnant and wishes to keep the child, while the man wants her to have an abortion. The nearby hills represent both characters’ respective views: the shadows symbolize their conflict and confusion, and the two railroad lines embody their potential futures.

The importance of the setting is immediately brought to the reader’s attention by the title, which makes no reference to the conflict between the two characters. Rather it concentrates on the sight on the side of the station, the “hills across the valley of the Ebro”. As a symbol, the “hills like white elephants” can be interpreted in two ways.

First, they can be a reference to the white elephants of South Asian culture, which are viewed as cursed gifts, causing the economical downfall of their proprietor. This perception corresponds to that of the male character regarding the pregnancy. He believes having the child would add unneeded responsibilities to their lives: “once they take it [the world] away, you never get it back.” The second way to view the hills is as a woman’s belly during the later stages of her pregnancy. This befits the woman’s perspective. The future she envisions involves keeping the baby, thus experiencing the full cycle of her pregnancy.

The uncertainty regarding the hills’ symbolic meaning is similar to that of the couple’s relationship. This latter uncertainty is represented by shadows. The couple is seated “at a table in the shade”. They are presently in the dark. In order to clarify the state of their relationship, they need to make a decision. The railways, symbols of their potential decisions, are therefore situated “in the sun”, where there are no shadows.

Both physically and emotionally, any step forward can bring the couple into the light and out of the dark. This occurs when the woman contemplates having the abortion in spite of herself: “I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it [the abortion].” At that moment, she “stood up and walked to the end of the station”, where there is “no shade and no trees”. However, the narrative hints that the situation is not yet resolved as the “shadow of a cloud moves across the field of grain.” The man wants her to want the abortion: “I don’t want to do anything that you don’t want to do.” As he talks the woman out of her self-destructive decision, he asks her to “come on back in the shade”, in the uncertainty of their dilemma.

There are two possible outcomes to this dilemma, each symbolized by a line of rails. The first line embodies abortion. It leads back to Barcelona, to their old lifestyle. When the train from Barcelona to Madrid, their original destination, comes near, the man takes “the bags to the other side of the station.” He wants to go in the opposite direction, toward the past. He believes they should return to the way things were. The woman, on the other hand, wishes to take the line that leads to Madrid. Symbolically, this path involves keeping the child. It leads to a new environment. Nature had originally set the couple on this line. At the beginning of the story, the couple was waiting for “the express from Barcelona […] to Madrid.”

Nature has forced this couple into a difficult dilemma: keeping the child or having an abortion. The two positions are symbolized by the surrounding hills; their consequences, by the two lines of rails; and the uncertainty of the couple’s decision is represented by the shadows. The couple must choose a path. “The train comes in five minutes.” This deadline is an omen to their true concern as a child may soon be born.

I guess what I’m trying to convey here is that, where Hemingway is concerned, a single word can evoke a thousand images, and we all know what those are worth. Now, there are, to my count, a little under fifteen hundred words in “Hills like White Elephants” and fourteen short stories of similar length in Men without Women. Mathematically, you’re getting quite a bit of bang for your buck, wouldn’t you say?

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."