What differences in the characters' underlying attitudes and values emerge from their conversation? Which character seems to be the more honest and mature? One critic says that "the story is...

 What differences in the characters' underlying attitudes and values emerge from their conversation? Which character seems to be the more honest and mature? One critic says that "the story is about transience and loss-about failed possibility." Do you agree?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The man who is described only as the American is confronted by a problem which threatens his way of life. The "girl" is pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion. She is obviously the more honest and mature of the two. She wants to have the baby and settle down to a normal life. She is fed up with their meaningless existence, with being strangers in a strange land. She realizes that life offers very little in the way of happiness and that he has been chasinig after an illusion while she has been simply following him. At one point she says:

That's all we do, isn't it--look at things and try new drinks?"

Their heavy luggage with all the hotel labels shows that they have been traveling around Europe for a long time. It is very cheap in Europe in those days. The price of the first two beers they buy amounts to only about two cents in American money.

Having the baby would mean that the man would have to give up his vagabond life and get a steady job. He is selfish, but he is not a complete cad. He tells her no less than five times that he is willing to let her go ahead and have the baby and face the consequences. For example:

"Well," the man said, "if you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to. But I know it's perfectly simple."

"You've got to realize," he said, "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."

The girl asks, rather desperately and pathetically:

"Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along."

She is torn between wanting to have the baby and wanting to please the man. She knows she is asking him to give up his freedom. She knows he doesn't want the baby, regardless of how many times he tells her he is willing to "go through with it." By going through with it, he must mean that he is willing to settle down and lead a normal life, which would probably mean moving back to the United States. It is not clear whether or not they are married. There is no mention of marriage in the story, but the girl wouldn't want to have the baby without being married--not in the 1920s.

It sounds typical of a critic to say that the story is "about transcience and loss--about failed possibility." This sounds impressive but it probably means nothing. What is important is the feelings that Hemingway conveys. We feel especially sorry for the girl. She is almost like someone facing execution--and the man is like the executioner. The train for Madrid is going to arrive in minutes. One of the most touching things in the story is the following sentence:

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

She has wanted to have a baby ever since she was a little girl. The beads remind her of the beads that come with so many of the things people buy when they have babies and of things she has dreamt of buying for hers, including beads on baby cribs, play pens, highchairs, and strollers. She is imaging the joy of having a beautiful baby and doing all the things that mothers do for theirs. She can't explain her feelings to the man.

He has no imagination. When she says that the distant hills look like white elephants, he takes her literally and says, "I've never seen one." She replies, "No, you wouldn't have." She is talking about imaginary white elephants; he is talking about real white ones, which hardly anybody has ever seen.




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Hills Like White Elephants

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