What is "Hills Like White Elephants" really about?

Although the meaning of "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway is inferred in the dialogue and not directly stated, the story is really about a couple who are on their way to Madrid so that the woman can get an abortion. The man is trying to reassure the woman that everything will be fine, but she is concerned that their relationship will not remain the same.

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The famous short story "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway seems difficult to understand on the surface because the author uses his so-called "iceberg theory" to great effect in it. According to Hemingway, a writer who knows what his story is about can leave much of it unsaid, and this will strengthen the story. In his nonfiction work Death in the Afternoon he writes:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as if the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

At surface level, "Hills Like White Elephants" appears to be about a couple having drinks while waiting for a train to Madrid at an isolated station in the Ebro Valley in Spain. They talk together and they argue, but the motivation for their argument is not directly stated. In fact, a careful reading will show that they are on their way to Madrid so that the woman can get an abortion there. The woman is unsure whether she wants to go through with it. She is concerned that after the abortion things will be different between them. She asks him, "And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?"

The man reassures her over and over that it is completely harmless and that after it is over they will go on living as they did before. He tells her things like,

It's really an awfully simple operation,

It's not really an operation at all,

It's just to let the air in,

It's all perfectly natural.

Even with the reassurances of the man, though, the woman is anxious. Despite the seemingly innocuous dialogue, tension builds throughout the story until the woman exclaims that if the man doesn't stop talking she will scream. Hemingway leaves the ending ambiguous. The woman tells the man that she feels fine, and there's nothing wrong with her, but she is obviously not okay. It is unclear to readers at the end whether she will go through with the abortion and also whether the couple will be able to remain together after this traumatic experience.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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