Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Margaret Anne O'Connor
and John Alberti
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Most students have already read something by Hemingway, and they come
into class with preconceptions. They usually love him or hate him and try
to pin labels rather than give his work a new reading. Also they want to
concentrate on biography and biographical readings of his works, since
most find his well-publicized life even more interesting than his work.
As the headnote to this story suggests, biography is important to understanding
Hemingway's approach to writing, and this is certainly true for A Farewell
to Arms, but I try to turn students' attention biographically from
Hemingway the Adventurer-Philosopher to Hemingway the Writer. Since "Hills
Like White Elephants" is much less often anthologized than other Hemingway
stories, its newness to students might tempt them to read and reread in
order to see how the story fits with other works they've read by him. I
approach teaching this taut story as if it were a poem. Word choice and
phraseology are keys to its success.
One possible strategy might be to ask two students, a male and a female,
to read the dialogue from "Hills Like White Elephants" aloud
to the class as if it were a drama. Then class discussion would move toward
tone of voice. Questions of the man's sincerity and the girl's sarcasm
would naturally emerge. The less preparation for this exercise the better
since a "flat" delivery would remind listeners that Hemingway
expects his readers to "interpret."
Students are interested in the philosophy of life they discern from
Hemingway's works, the code of behavior his characters follow that gives
their lives dignity in the author's eyes. This story seems a self-critique
of that code. Careful readers don't believe the girl at the end of the
story when she says she's "fine." She's composed herself; she
won't make a scene, but she's not "fine." Students want to know
how Hemingway has succeeded in making us know that the man is lying to
the girl--and perhaps to himself--throughout the story. There's no easy
answer to this question, but a close reading of key phrases such as "the
only thing that bothers us," "it's perfectly simple," or
"I feel fine" will help them see how carefully constructed the
Such attention to the nuance of irony and sarcasm in the dialogue of
"Hills Like White Elephants" prepares students for their reading
of the conversation between Frederic Henry and Gino in A Farewell to
Arms by helping to reveal much more ambiguous, even cynical attitudes
towards war than students familiar with the stereotype of Hemingway as
tough-guy writer might expect.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
"Hills" is a good story to shatter the false impression that
Hemingway was insensitive to women. This carefully constructed vignette
has a nameless man and woman discussing their relationship against the
backdrop of the mountain landscape. As in the very best of Hemingway's
novels and stories, the authorial stance is ambiguous; readers must pay
close attention to small details to understand the progress of the narrative.
Students should be encouraged to focus on the dialogue between the man
and girl in order to discern their relationship. The issue of abortion
and how each speaker feels about it is central to the story. Yet abortion
itself is not the main issue; it is the not-too-subtle pressure "the
man" is placing on "the girl" to have the abortion that
is the key issue.
The disaster that was World War One was a defining experience for writers
of Hemingway's generation, especially those, like Hemingway, who served
in the military. Although Hemingway is often simplisitically associated
with the glorification of masculine violence, the excerpt from A Farewell
to Arms suggests instead a highly critical view of war, particularly
in the conscious avoidance of heroic imagery and in Henry's meditations
on the uselessness of the slaughter.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Hemingway's minimalist style in this 1927 story deserves consideration.
If Faulkner confuses
readers because he offers so many details for readers to sift through in
order to understand what's going on, Hemingway confuses by offering so
The central issue in this story is the abortion the girl is being pressured
to have by her male companion. The author's stance on the issue of abortion
is ambiguous, but the story clearly comes out against the male pressuring
the female into an abortion that she doesn't seem to want. Pro-choice and
pro-life students might want to concentrate class discussion not on abortion
alone, but on the issue of subtle pressure at the heart of the story.
A Farewell to Arms, written ten years after the end of World
War One, reflects a growing sense in Europe and the United States of the
horror and futility of that war coupled with an unease over its implications
for the brutality and sterility of a modern world that was unable to prevent
such a bloodbath, despite vaunted claims of technological and social progress
(indeed, increased technological efficiency had seemed to make war even
more horrific). Students might want to consider how attitudes about war,
technology, and progress have or haven't changed in the aftermath of the
conflicts that have followed World War One.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Of many possible works of comparison, one of the most fruitful would
be T. S. Eliot's The
Waste Land. Compare this rootless couple escaping the commitment of
parenthood with Eliot's set of lovers in Book II of his poem. The song
of the nightingale "so rudely forced" is "Jug, Jug,"
which is echoed in the man's choice of a nickname for the girl.
There are conscious echoes of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage
in A Farewell to Arms, and students might also look at F. Scott
Fitzgerald's roughly contemporary short story "May Day" for a
similar evocation of post-war despair and alienation.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Questions for "Hills Like White Elephants"
1. What's the purpose of the trip the two travelers are taking?
2. Why are the speakers only identified as "a man" and "girl"?
How do these designations affect your reading of the story? What nickname
does the man use for the girl?
3. How do the descriptions of the landscape relate to the conversation
between the two travelers? What about the discussion of drink orders?
4. Note each sentence or paragraph that is not enclosed in quotation
marks, and explain how each brief commentary affects your understanding
of the characters and the lives they lead.
5. Why does the girl repeat the word "please" seven times?
Anger? Hysteria? Fear? Frustration? Why does the man leave her at the table?
6. The railroad station setting is important to the progress--the plot--of
the story. How does this physical setting parallel the thematic concerns
of the story as well?
7. How does the title relate to the story?
Questions for A Farewell to Arms
1. How do we read the tone of Henry's conversation eith Gino? Do they
seem frightened? Bored? Excited? How does our reading of their tone affect
our understanding of the war?
2. What could Henry mean by thinking, "Abstract words such as glory,
honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages,
the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and
the dates"? How does this statement trelate to the ethics of the prose
style of the story?
3. What is the effect of Henry's description of battle? What information
do and don't we get? How does this description compare with other descriptions
of warfare you may be familiar with?
Jeffrey Meyers offers an excellent brief reading of this story in his
biography (pp. 196-97).