f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”—Third Person Objective or Dramatic (Part 3 of series)

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, March 01, 2004

Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”—Third Person Objective or Dramatic (Part 3 of series)

In my haste to list out the most common point-of-view’s the other day, I forgot one: third-person objective. It’s a lesser-used POV and I’m not going to have much to say about it, but that’s okay because I’ve been in meetings all day and my brain feels like it played the part of “Lunch” in Hannibal.

Called “dramatic” or “cinematic,” this third-person POV is absolutely limited to an exterior, “objective” description of action and plot. I couldn’t come up with examples off the top of my head for books that matched this but some searching online helped me out. The most commonly mentioned* is Hemingway’s story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” You can read it online (rather quickly, in fact) here.

You can see that rendering something “objectively” is neither easy nor particularly wonderful to read. This is fine for its length, but can you imagine reading an entire novel like this?

Also, there’s a few lines that push the limits of objectivity.

Toward the end:

“He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.”
How do we know that the labels on the luggage were from the hotels where they had stayed? It’s written as description, but instead it’s actually imposed on the labels from a omniscient narrator. Same with the following:

“He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.”
Again, how do we know that he couldn’t see the train? We’re told. For a split second we enter the American’s point-of-view (the same pov that told us where the labels were from) and are given a hint.

All that to say that truly objective point-of-view writing is nearly impossible. Instead what you end up with is a highly objective limited omniscience. From this you can move further and further toward subjectivity without ever leaving limited omniscience. What you need to do when you pick is understand what your choice will mean for things like tone and writing style. Hemingway’s story sounds the way it does partly because of the pov he chose. And he chose his POV because he’s trying to convey meaning between the lines. If he had full limited omniscience, his American couldn’t help but spill the beans about the troubling decision over which he and his girl are arguing. (Have you figure dit out yet?) This kind of thing is great for a short story or play but lousy for a novel.

*“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is also mentioned. Again, you can take issue with the notion of “perfect” objectivity, but the point is that for the most part you don’t enter characters’ thoughts or the judgments of an omniscient narrator.