Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is set in Spain, and much is made in the story of the Spanish landscape. Yet Hemingway never makes entirely clear why the American (the only male character described) happens to be in Spain. Several possibilities help suggest why the American is in Spain and why Hemingway may have wanted to give his story a Spanish setting. Among those possibilities are the following:
- The story was first published in 1927 and is probably set in the 1920s. In the 1920s, many Americans were travelling in Europe. Many Americans had fought in World War I and were exploring the continent of Europe in the aftermath of the war. These people, known as “expatriates,” often had wealth (the economy was prospering at the time), and sometimes they became romantically involved with Europeans. The “American’s” presence in Europe, then, would not have seemed especially strange to Hemingway’s first readers.
- The Spanish setting, because it is hot and dry, is a perfect setting for a story that involves the drinking of alcohol and a heated, tense conversation between two people. If the story had been set in Norway, the need to drink to alleviate thirst, as well as the need to cope with oppressive heat, would not have been nearly as plausible as both details are in a Spanish setting.
- The Spanish setting allows Hemingway to emphasize the symbolic contrasts between the nearby, desert-like landscape (associated with death) and the distant landscape near the river (associated with life):
The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry. . . 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.
Few other major countries in Europe, besides Spain, have landscapes that we typically think of as “brown and dry,” and so Spain makes a good setting for this kind of symbolism.
- The main reason that the American seems to be in Spain is that he appears to like to travel. He apparently moves around frequently and doesn’t stay in one place long. This likelihood is suggested by the reference to the couple’s luggage or “bags”: “There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” Apparently the American is in Spain mainly as a tourist or explorer, not as anyone who has an intention of settling down or establishing a residence there.
- Finally, another reason that Hemingway may have placed the American in Spain was that Hemingway himself was personally familiar with Spain and had a real interest in Spanish culture, as he showed in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway could write about Spain with authority, and he could write with special authority about Americans travelling in Spain.
Americans were also living in Europe because the cost of living was cheap, and Spain was probably the cheapest of all. When the man calls the waitress to order two Anis del Toros, she thinks they are finished and says, "Four reales." That is four reales for two large glasses of beer. It is hard to figure the exchange rate between American dollars and Spanish currency in 1927, but according to an article in Wikipedia the U.S. dollar would apparently have been worth 122.6 pesetas. In other words, a peseta was worth less than one cent. And a real was worth one-quarter of a peseta (!!!). So it would seem that Jig and the American are getting two beers for less than the equivalent of one American penny.
It seems likely that the American is a struggling writer, like Hemingway himself, and is able to devote his full time to writing only because the cost of living is so low in Europe. There is also the fact that prohibition is the law of the land in the U.S. This drove many younger Americans to Europe. Hemingway frequently mentions alcoholic drinks in his stories and novels (notably in The Sun Also Rises); it seems as if he is taking a delight in making his American readers see how they have been deprived from an innocent pleasure by a sanctimonious minority of provincial voters. The fact that drinking is illegal in the States would naturally make the cost of bootleg liquor abnormally higher.