Examining Gender Styles in Dialogue

Part B -- Short Stories

Even more than a playwright, who has the advantage of an actor's body language, the short story author must carefully craft dialogue to convey character and meaning to the reader. His/her characters' words are critical to the meaning of the short story, even if these words lead the reader between the lines for the real plot of the story.

Few authors can so skillfully craft a conversation between characters as Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is an excellent example of the importance of dialogue to a short story. In just a few pages Hemingway conveys setting, story, character and relationship, and a powerful undercurrent of communication with deliberate description and dialogue. What is not said in this story is almost more important than what is.

But consider this excerpt from Heminway's story in terms of gender styles of communication. During the characters' conversation, the girl searches for reassurance and confirmation from the man. In trying to have a "fine time" with the American she comments on the mountains in the distance. She adds "Wasn't that bright?" as though she needs praise from the male for her conversation skills. Her comment is an example of what Robin Lakoff terms a tag question. The girl does it again when she says, "That's all we do, isn't it...?" Then, she tries to justify her comment, because the man is responding unenthusiastically, which she interprets as disapproval. Finally, the American changes the subject, and the girl does not resist.

Hemingway was writing before the onset of serious discussion of gender styles in language. Were gender roles so socialized in him that he could craft a character, complete with stereotypical language, whose speech was convincingly female? In addition to the awkward (but not obvious) discussion of abortion in the story, the searching comments on the part of the girl and the stiff responses by the American made me uncomfortable reading this story. Hemingway effectively conveyed the discomfort of the characters to his readers by crafting subtle but powerful dialogue.

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