What is the irony in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

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With irony being a contrast between what a character thinks and what the reader or audience know to be true, the reader must seek the difference between what the characters think and what he/she discerns about them.

Since the girl mentions the hills being like white elephants, she understands their meaning:  She tells the man who says he has never seen a white elephant, "No, you wouldn't have." She is the one who expresses doubt about having an abortion.  But the young man, who tries to convince the girl to have the operation, says that everything will be all right and the couple can return to their life beforehand. (He "buys" the white elephant, something one thinks has value, but does not.)

The irony of the title, then, is that the man "buys" a white elephant believing that the action under consideration can return him and his girlfriend to their former relationship, but the girl, like the reader, knows they will never be the same, for she turns from the vision of life, fields of grain and trees, and agrees to the man's putting their bags on the "other side of the station."

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While there are other examples of irony in the story, my favorite example comes from the title. "The Hills Like White Elephants" should refer to the surrounding environment, and indeed it does. However, the girl is pregnant, and her belly will soon swell into a "hill." The infant is a classic "white elephant" for the man. As Wikipedia notes, a white elephant "is a valuable possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) exceeds its usefulness." That baby is valuable, and the man is trying to get rid of it; it would cost too much (in terms of change, commitment, etc.) to keep it.

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The most beautiful irony in the story comes through the imagery.  The American and Jig are discussing an abortion.  When Jig gets up from the table to look out over the landscape, all she sees are images of fertility:  green trees, a flowing river, fields of grain.  However, she turns from this image to return to the man, having lost the will to fight for her unborn child.  Here is the fertile passage:

The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

The other irony comes in the man's argument with the woman.  He spends his time telling her how simple it will be and how it is the best thing - he clearly wants her to have the abortion.  However, as soon as she says that she'll do it for him, he backs up, saying he doesn't really care, he just wants what is best:

'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.'

He clearly wants her to decide to have the abortion, but doesn't want to be seen as having made the decision himself.

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I think another irony in the story has to do with the fact that these two individuals, Jig (the girl) and her lover, only known as "The American," have clearly been physically intimate with each other, and yet they seem unable to name the thing they are discussing or even to discuss it in what feels like a frank, open, emotionally-intimate way. Then, the fact that we don't know the man's name and he only refers to the woman by a presumed nickname makes them seem all the more alien to us and to each other. The man says, of the abortion, "'I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.'" He keeps trying to reassure her about the operation itself, while she continues to ask about if it will make them happy. He focuses on the tangible aspects of their problem—reassuring her that he'll be there, that it won't hurt, and so on—while she focuses on the intangible: their happiness and their love for each other, and how those might be affected. Eventually, the girl no longer even wants to talk, and ultimately, she claims to feel "fine" despite the fact that she is clearly not fine.

In the end, then, it is terribly ironic that these people who have evidently been so physically intimate with each other are incapable of being emotionally honest or candid and communicative with each other.

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White Elephants (the animal) are very rare and beautiful, making them precious animals. In Southeast Asian cultures, they were considered holy creatures, and it was believed they needed specialty food to care for them. This made the beasts financial burdens on their owners, much like an unexpected pregnancy can be seen as a financial, emotional, and social burden on a couple. This certainly seems to be Hemingway’s meaning.

Common now around Christmastime, a “white elephant gift” is one that no one really wants, and may not even be an item of quality. Once the joke is evident to its recipient, it is usually discarded. Even though the couple seems to be debating the possibility of abortion, and though Hemingway never directly indicates what their final decision will be, it appears that the answer is right in front of them in the landscape.

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Another irony in the story "Hills Like White Elephants" is in the fact that this young man and woman have been traveling around together and presumably making passionate love, but then when the inevitable happens and the girl finds herself pregnant, the man doesn't want her to have the baby. The pleasure of love-making did not evolve for the sake of enjoyment but for making babies and bonding men and women together so that they could both provide protection and nurturing for the baby. The girl called Jig understands this, but the man--like many men--does not understand the connection between love and reproduction.

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As a small addendum to that excellent response is the fact that they cannot mention--name--what in fact they are talking about.  They do not mention the word "abortion," leaving a gap in the conversation that says more than the word itself ever could.  The irony is that not saying the word carries more meaning to us, the audience, than if they did mention the word:  absence is stronger than presence. 

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The irony of the story lies within the title. As the couple has their tense discussion of an unwanted pregnancy and a possible abortion, they overlook a hillside that the girl says reminds her of white elephants. This is ironic because white elephants are very rare and considered "precious." This also how the girl views her unborn child; she does not want the abortion (even though she orders a alcohol). Additionally, despite the beauty and rarity of a white elephants, they are also quite burdensome due to their size and insatiable appetite. The couple's baby also seems burdensome-- the girl risks losing her man if she does not have the abortion and she risks being unhappy if she does have the abortion.

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