In "Hills Like White Elephants," what are the character's perpectives on modern culture regarding travel, intimacy, and medicine?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

The characters' perspectives on travel, though railroad travel isn't a new cultural development at the time of the story (1927), is represented by the labels on their "bags" and by an otherwise cryptic remark Jig makes.

The bags have travel labels from "all the hotels where they had spent nights." This reveals they travel a lot (probably more than the average American traveling in Europe) and that they don't travel for extended holidays but for short stays of a night or a few nights at a time. It also indicates that this travel doesn't happen across a brod time span but over a compressed time span. In other words, the American man and Jig have not know each other for years and years during which time they frequently traveled, but rather they have known each other a short time and all they do is travel. This inference--and an implication of a shallow relationship--is confirmed in Jig's telling remark:

‘I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things [sight-see] and try new drinks?’

This correlates to their perspectives on post-World War I moral standards. The war, with its desperate destruction and relentless slaughter and lost loves, spawned a new carelessness toward moral standards and marital relations. Physical intimacy without benefit of marriage became more common during wartime and carried over into the deep despair that continued after the War. As a result more men and women had an opportunity--wanted or unwanted--to test their perspectives on the medical procedures in abortion, what debate in the story is about. The man, showing no regret, has the perspective (1) that their moral behavior and travels are fine and (2) that medical science has developed so far that it can easily solve the inconvenience to their travels and (3) that an abortion would be nothing to mind about at all:

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.... ‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. ... It’s just to let the air in. ...  and then it’s all perfectly natural.’

Jig is of a different opinion, but this must be carefully inferred from what she says. She realizes abortion is a serious procedure with serious consequences. She realizes that since they can't agree about the value of her pregnancy or, therefore, about the need for an abortion that the happiness they might have had becomes less and less feasible every day:

‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’

The inference about her perspectives from this is that she regrets their behavior and choices and that seeing things and trying new drinks pales in comparison to the deeper realities of life and living.

epollock | Student


This story is particularly timely in view of the controversy that has developed in the last decades over the issue of abortion. Students have many fixed ideas: some for, some against. There are other issues, of course.

An important one is the apparently developing isolation between the two major characters. Another is the way in which Hemingway, stylistically, is able to make the identities of the speakers clear, even though he does not resort to many phrases varying the formulas “he said” and “she said.”

As the story develops, we come to understand that the couple is facing a major crisis in their relationship. Jig, the woman, is pregnant, and wants to go through with giving birth to the child that she has conceived with the man who is identified as the American.

On the other hand, it is clear that the American wants her to have an abortion. Truly, they are having a serious argument here, and their relationship is being seriously undermined.

It is clear, when Jig says “every day we make it more impossible”, that she is no longer thrilled by the American’s wishes, as she might have been at one time. Her annoyance with him, requesting that he not talk, indicates her frustration with continuing to hash over their division of opinion.

The characters are clearly not going to reconcile their differences at the end of the story and would likely separate if it were to continue. Their views on other issues should parallel their views in the story.

Read the study guide:
Hills Like White Elephants

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