What does this conversation tell the reader about man and woman communications and the characters in the story "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ernest Hemingway’s writing is often journalistically styled with clear dialogue and few descriptive words.  Very little direct information is given about the characters or the scene. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” the reader discovers a brief but important conversation between a couple that is facing a problem

This conversation is still being repeated today.   Reading the dialogue more than once may be required to pick up on the nuances in the conversation.  Few details are given about the couple.  Only her name is learned later in the story. Age, ethnicity, citizenship—this information has been left unwritten. 

 The woman’s seemingly innocent statement that the hills are like white elephants quickly turns into a competition with the man over who has traveled more. This is not the conversation that both of them know is needed. 

 Underneath this conflict lies a major complication. Without much emotion from the characters, the discussion is about the woman getting an abortion.  The reader feels that she wants him to say that he does not want her to get one.  Their banter is never specific enough to directly address the subject. The man is not unpleasant toward her and repeatedly tells her that it is up to her.  She becomes colder as the conversation progresses.  The communication between the two is poor and elusive.

The lady is called Jig.  There are certain things that the reader does learn from the conversation about Jig:

  • She relies on the man because he speaks Spanish and she does not.
  • She has seen white elephants before.
  • She is drinking.
  • She has known women who have had abortions, and it did not go well. If she has an abortion, it will mean that she no longer cares about herself.

It is obvious that she wants to have the baby and settle down. Like many women, she hints and smiles to tell him what she really feels.  Men usually do not understand this kind of communication.

Reading their conversations is frustrating because the reader wants to shake them both and tell them to lay the problems out on the table and actually discuss them.

I said that we could have everything.

We can have everything.

No, we can’t.

We can have the whole world

No, we can’t.

We can go everywhere.

No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.

It’s ours.

What in the world are they talking about with this back and forth jibber –jabber!  Truthfully, she feels sorry for herself, and he is trying to make her think that nothing has changed. At the end of the story, the topic is left hanging in the air.

There are choices for the couple: having the baby; the woman raising it alone; adoption; getting married and raising the child; having the abortion. If they do not stop the circular discussion, nothing will improve in their positions. 

The man tells Jig that he loves her which speaks well for him The reader learns that he does not want to get married but will if she wants to. Obviously, he wants her to get the abortion and seems to think that it is no big deal.  

Read the study guide:
Hills Like White Elephants

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