In what ways is the dialogue at the very end of Ernest Hemingway's story "Hills Like White Elephants" ironic?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Irony is a major feature of Ernest Hemingway’s extremely brief short story titled “Hills Like White Elephants,” and the ending of the story is especially ironic. In this tale, an American male, identified only as “the American,” tries to persuade a reluctant young woman, with whom he has been having a sexual relationship, to have an abortion. As the story develops, tensions between these two characters grow and deepen. Examples of the story’s many ironies include the following:

  • Perhaps one of the most ironic moments in the entire story occurs when the American says about an abortion,

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.

. . . They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”

Jig, of course, obviously considers an abortion anything but “simple”; she knows that an abortion can indeed be seen as a kind of “operation”; and she clearly does not consider an abortion “perfectly natural.”

  • The American tells Jig that if she has the abortion, “We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.” Obviously Jig does not think that their previous relationship has been “fine.”  Nor does she think, contrary to the American’s next statement, that the prospect of having an abortion is “the only thing that bothers us” or that it is “the only thing that’s made us unhappy.” If the American believes any of this (and there is good reason to think that he really doesn’t), he is deceiving himself as much as he may, perhaps, be trying to deceive Jig.
  • Another especially ironic moment occurs when the American, still pressing Jig to have the abortion, says,

“You’ve got to realize . . . that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

Obviously he is not “perfectly willing” to go through with having the baby, and just as obviously the abortion does mean something to Jig.

By the end of the story, it is not entirely clear exactly what decision has been made, although apparently Jig has agreed to board a waiting train that will take them to the place where the American expects her to have the abortion.  In the story’s very final lines, this exchange occurs:

“Do you feel better?” he asked.

“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”

Jig’s final comment seems ironic for a number of different reasons, including the following:

  • Almost certainly she does not “feel fine.” Instead, she seems merely to be telling the American what she knows he wants to hear.
  • Almost certainly Jig does not feel as if there is “nothing wrong” with her.
  • Perhaps Jig’s second sentence is intended (by her or by the narrator, or both) to suggest all the various ways in which there does seem to be “something wrong” with the American.
  • Jig’s very last assertion – “I feel fine” – seems especially ironic since the story has shown all the different ways in which she does not feel “fine.”
  • It seems especially ironic that the very last word of this story is “fine,” when the entire story has dealt with tension, discomfort, and pain.

Ironically, the word “fine” comes from a Latin word meaning “end,” but there is no guarantee that even now the disagreement between the American and Jig has truly come to an end. The tense conversation might easily resume once they board the train.


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