This afternoon novelist Una McCormack retweeted a link to a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency piece by Rachel Klein titled Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” from “The Girl”‘s Point of View. I don’t read McSweeney’s as often as I feel that I should, so I was glad that I read this.
Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” centers on two characters, sitting in a bar at a railway station somewhere in the middle of Spain in the mid-1920s. One character is “the American.” The other character is “the Girl.” They order drinks and have a cryptic conversation. The Girl is going to have an operation of some sort. It’s widely believed by critics that the operation is, in fact, an abortion, since the cryptic conversation turns on the relationship between the two characters, whether they love each other now, and whether they will continue to love each other if the operation happens or does not.
Klein’s piece takes the widely assumed belief about the operation in Hemingway’s story and makes it explicit, profanely and humorously: “It’s an abortion, folks. That’s what we were talking about, except that I knew if I said the actual word to him he’d fucking freak his shit, but, like, not tell me so directly. Instead he’d say something about how cold his beer was and I’d be like, ‘Is that some sort of veiled reference to my pregnancy?’ and he’d be like, ‘Were those clouds there a moment ago?'”
Klein’s piece prompted me to dig out my collection of Hemingway’s short stories, and I read through “Hills Like White Elephants” in about five minutes. (It’s a very short story. In the collection I have, it runs four pages.) It’s pretty much all dialogue, from top to bottom, with the usual Hemingway quirks (like lapsing into Spanish for no particular reason). I am unabashedly a Hemingway fan, but I can’t say that I found anything particularly compelling about “Hills Like White Elephants” except for one thing — I wondered if “the American” was none other than Indiana Jones.
Obviously it’s not; Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t filmed until twenty years after Hemingway’s suicide. But within the universe of Indiana Jones, Ernest Hemingway and Indiana Jones were good friends and shared several adventures. Perhaps that Ernest Hemingway modeled some of his characters on his globetrotting adventurer friend, Indiana Jones. Why not? Hemingway modeled some of his characters, Nick Adams and Jake Barnes notably, on himself.
Let’s assume for a moment that the American is Indiana Jones. He could have been on an archaeological dig somewhere in Spain, either as a grad student or as a post-grad. While there, he becomes romantically involved with a woman, perhaps someone working alongside Indy on the dig as well. She becomes pregnant, Indy is in his mid-twenties and neither one is really ready for parenthood, and Indy suggests strongly that she have an abortion because he doesn’t want her or his potential child to tie him down and keep him from achieving his “fortune and glory.”
This backstory works. Whether it’s a good backstory or not I leave to others to ponder. I could imagine Hemingway and Jones meeting up in Paris and having a drink, Hemingway hearing the story of Jones’ expedition in Spain, and deciding to write up one part of it as a literary experiment. And then the telegram from one to the other:
ERNIE -[STOP]- TOLD YOU STORY IN CONFIDENCE -[STOP]- ANNOYED BY HILLS -[STOP]- WILL DISCUSS IN PAMPLONA -[STOP]- INDY
The unfortunate thing about Hemingway’s story is that the Girl is such an utter cipher. We don’t know her age or her nationality. She doesn’t know a great deal about alcohol. Presumably she speaks English, but that’s not at all certain. For all we know, in Hemingway’s story all of the dialogue in the story happens in Spanish; even the use of “cervezas” instead of “beer” in one line isn’t enough to make any sort of determination one way or the other.
It’s all so vague. Not one of Hemingway’s finest works.
Still, if one squints just so, it’s quite easy to see Indiana Jones as the unnamed American in Hemingway’s “Hill Like White Elephants.” Quite easy.