What is the claim of "Hills Like White Elephants"?

As a realist text, "Hills Like White Elephants" claims to represent reality as closely as literature can. The claim that people say only a small fraction of what they mean is also implicit in the story. Beyond this, one could draw various morals from the story, some being about the failure of money to buy happiness and the toxic nature of a selfish life.

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There are two observations about this question that are worth making before attempting to answer it. The first is that Hemingway would certainly have been very resistant to the way of reading his story that it implies. He claimed to present life as it is, rather than using short stories as moral fables to illustrate a particular view of the world. The second point, however, is that this is itself a claim. Anterior to any specific claims made within the story is the general claim of the realist writer, that this is as close as text on a page can come to the representation of reality.

Aside from this general claim to verisimilitude is another general claim, which Hemingway called the "iceberg" theory of dialogue. This is the idea that people only say a small amount of what they mean, most of the meaning and the drama in a story remaining beneath the surface. The principal conversation in this story is generally assumed to be about an abortion, yet the word abortion is never mentioned, and the reader has to piece together the state of the relationship between the man and the girl using a series of small clues.

Beyond these two claims, one might draw any number of specific morals from the story. Money does not buy happiness. Modern life has become sterile and meaningless as people withdraw into themselves. A self-centered life tends to increase both selfishness and unhappiness. All these claims could be supported with ample evidence from the text.

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The main claim of the text seems to revolve around communication or the lack of it. The American and the girl, Jig, are really bad at communicating effectively with one another. The fact that neither of them ever actually mentions, explicitly, what it is that they are discussing—a potential abortion for her—is so indicative of their relationship. The American seems clearly, to the reader, to want the young woman to get the abortion, as he keeps describing how "easy" and how "simple" a procedure it is. However, Jig seems to be more concerned about their romantic relationship and its future, how the "procedure" might change things or if it will help them return to the prior contentment they seemed to feel before the unwanted pregnancy, the so-called "white elephant."

The fact that neither person is called by their real name in the story also contributes to our sense that we don't really know them, and they don't really know each other either: the man is only ever called the American, and he refers to her as "Jig," an apparent nickname. By the end of the story, she has become upset and has asked him to stop talking multiple times. In the end, she says, "I feel fine [...]. There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine," when she obviously is not fine at all. She seems to have given up even attempting to communicate honestly. It becomes clear that a successful relationship and the happiness of its members depends on good communication.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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