Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“Hills Like White Elephants” calls to mind the “A Game of Chess” section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); like Eliot’s masterpiece, Hemingway’s story deals with the sterility and vacuity of the modern world. The boredom of the man and the desperation of the girl reveal the emptiness of the postwar generation and the crucial necessity of taking responsibility for the quality of one’s own life. Both Eliot’s poetry and Hemingway’s fiction are filled with a sense of missed opportunities and failed love, of a fullness of life lost and never to be regained: “Once they take it away, you never get it back.” As in Eliot’s poem, the landscape takes on powerful symbolic dimensions here. On the side of the tracks where the couple is waiting, the country is “brown and dry”; “on the other side, were fields of grain and frees . . . the river . . . mountains.” The girl calls attention to the symbolic value of the setting and indicates that in choosing to have an abortion and to continue to drift through life they are choosing emotional and spiritual desiccation.
Hemingway’s characters seem to live in a world without a God, without traditions or clear and established values; they are, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “condemned to be free” and consequently are responsible for their own meaning. The man here is unequal to the challenge; he is a bored and listless fragment of a human being. He resolutely refuses to speak...
(The entire section is 644 words.)
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Choices and Consequences
“Hills Like White Elephants” presents a couple in the midst of a crisis. Although unmarried, the girl is pregnant and the man who has made her pregnant wants her to have an abortion. His belief is that the choice for abortion will free them to return to the lives they had lived before the pregnancy. He does not want to share the girl with anyone, particularly not a baby. He believes that the consequences of having the baby will lead to the breakup of the relationship.
Jig, however, seems to have a more realistic assessment of the choices and consequences in front of her. She knows that she is the one who must make the choice about the child she carries. Although she asks for reassurance, and wants the man’s love, she also knows that the chances of them finding long term happiness are remote, regardless of the decision she makes. For her, the choice to abort or not to abort will, in all likelihood, render the same consequences: life without the American.
Doubt and Ambiguity
The story of Jig and the American is a story of doubt and ambiguity for the American, for Jig, and for the reader. While the American speaks in the language of certainty, he may or may not mean what he says. In addition, he can have little knowledge of what it would mean to the girl to have the abortion he so desperately wants her to have.
Although she seems unconvinced that the abortion...
(The entire section is 786 words.)