What is the theme of "Hills Like White Elephants" and a point that supports that theme?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
‘And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I said 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.’
‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’
‘But they haven’t taken it away.’
‘We’ll wait and see.’
‘Come on back in the shade,’ he said. ‘You mustn’t feel that way.’
‘I don’t feel any way,’ the girl said. ‘I just know things.’

Several important themes are choices and consequences; doubt and ambiguity; and men's perspective versus women's perspective. To my mind, however, the most important theme is honesty versus dishonesty.

The foremost instance of this theme is that the American man persists in saying that he only wants Jig to undergo the operation if she wants to yet, at the same time, he persists in claiming that it is a simple and perfectly natural procedure and that he is sure she wouldn't even mind, since it really is nothing. One of these sets of expressions of sentiment and opinion is dishonest. Either he is putting her wishes first or he is putting his wishes for what her feelings and experience will be first. Both can't be true at one and the same time.

'I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -’
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ...
‘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.’

Another example is that he presumes to fathom what a woman's feelings and experience will be in a realm of life that is exclusively female. This too is dishonest. Honesty would require an admission of limited perspective and empathy. Honesty would require the courage to refrain from trying to shape Jig's sentiments and feelings. Honesty would require an unveiled, unambiguous expression of his wishes, which--by all evidence in the text--is that he wishes to not be the father of a living child.

'I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.’
‘Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.’
‘Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. ....'

Finally, the conversation excerpted above further expresses the man's dishonesty. Jig is expressing her perspective of the finality of the circumstance. On one hand, if she has the abortion, her world will be changed forever since an abortion is not an insignificant thing, either physically or spiritually. On the other hand, if she does not have an abortion, her world will be changed forever but in a very different direction: she will lose the frivolous and fun relationship she has with the man--as they travel and collect luggage labels and taste new drinks--and she will have his child to mother. Dishonesty is represented because the man won't admit to the change in dynamics the pregnancy brings into their relationship as a result of the change in dynamics it brings to Jig's life.

mkcapen1 | Student

The first scene in the story gives the reader the impression that the couple is experiencing tension.  They are struggling to talk with one another, with the exception of small talk.  The avoiding of a topic in literature is called "having the white elephant in the room.”  It occurs when people talk around a topic.

In the couple's case the white elephant is identified as the hills, but in reality it is the topic of the woman having an abortion.  The couple has been traveling.  They live a lifestyle that is not one in which to being a child.  The man wants to keep living this way, but the woman seems to want more.

The woman is aware that once the abortion occurs, it is final.  The man wants to see and own the world, but the woman knows that they can't because the reality of her decision will always be present.

The heat increases as the tension increases.  They have to make a decision and it is getting harder for them.  The man actually believes that once the abortion occurs everything in their lives will return back to normal. 

By not giving us a formal identity of the characters other than man and woman, the reader has to create their personalities based on the bits and pieces of revealed information.  Hemingway never gives us the ending to the story to keep the reader contemplating the end.

The theme of the story is the decision of whether or not to have an abortion.  It is man agaist woman.  The man questions the woman's decisions.  He is trying to pressure her into having the abortion. 

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Hills Like White Elephants

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