illustration of train tracks with low hills in the background and one of the hills has the outline of an elephant within it

Hills Like White Elephants

by Ernest Hemingway

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Critical Overview

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Hemingway's ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ first appeared in the magazine transition in August, 1927, and within a few months appeared again in the collection Men Without Women. The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s 1926 novel of life in Paris and Pamplona, had already secured the author’s reputation as the spokesperson for his generation. Men Without Women further solidified critical approval of his early work. ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ was singled out for special attention from reviewers. For example Dorothy Parker enamored with Hemingway and his prose, called the story in an early review ‘‘delicate and tragic.’’ She further added, ‘‘I do not know where a greater collection of stories can be found.’’

Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, did not seem to appreciate Hemingway or his prose. Her review, contemporary with the publication of the story, was filled with what could be termed ‘‘left-handed compliments.’’ For example, she wrote, ‘‘There are . . . many stories which, if life were longer, one would wish to read again. Most of them indeed are so competent, so efficient, and so bare of superfluity that one wonders why they do not make a deeper dent in the mind than they do.’’ She criticized Hemingway for ‘‘excessive’’ dialogue and ‘‘lack of proportion.’’

A final contemporary reviewer, Cyril Connolly, offered a more balanced critique of Men Without Women. He wrote that the volume ‘‘is a collection of grim little stories told in admirable colloquial dialogue with no point, no moral and no ornamentation.’’ Although he called Hemingway’s work ‘‘irritating,’’ he also found the stories ‘‘readable and full of . . . power and freshness.’’

In the years after the initial publication of the story, an increasing number of critics have offered readings of ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’ Indeed, as the story began to appear ever more frequently in anthologies of short stories and American literature textbooks, it also generated many critical articles. Criticism of the story most generally focuses on structural issues, such as the use of dialogue and/or figurative language; examines the sources, analogues, and biographical material used in the story; or discusses Hemingway’s construction of gender and language.

Robert Paul Lamb, for example, has studied Hemingway’s role in the development of twentieth-century literary dialogue. He argues that in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’ Hemingway ‘‘blurred the line between fiction and drama, allowing dialogue an unprecedented constructive role in a story’s composition.’’ He demonstrates the way that the dialogue simultaneously reveals and hides the subject of the story.

Other critics such as Howard L. Hannum concentrate on the symbolism of the story, exploring the many meanings of the term ‘‘white elephant’’ and the contrast between the fertility and sterility of each side of the railway station. He also noted the story’s connection to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in his discussion.

An important way of reading the story for many critics has been to examine gender and communication. Pamela Smiley, for example, in a 1990 article, discusses the story in terms of gender marked language, basing her analysis on the gender communication theory of Deborah Tannen. Peter Messent includes a chapter called ‘‘Gender Role and Sexuality’’ in his book-length study of Hemingway. He argues that ‘‘Hemingway’s texts show divided attitudes to matters of sexual politics.’’ Further, Messent writes, while many of Hemingway’s stories privilege the male protagonists, ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ is a story in which ‘‘women's sensibilities’ are certainly not ignored but rather highlighted in an extremely sensitive manner.’’ Messent points out that it may be for this reason that the story has become more frequently anthologized in recent years. Finally, critic Stanley Renner in a 1995 article argues that a close analysis of the language reveals that the story’s ending is not as ambiguous as most readers have thought. He believes that Jig’s final words reveal that she has decided to keep the baby. For Renner, the story ‘‘side[s] with its female character’s values’’ and ‘‘understands and sensitively dramatizes her struggle to take charge of her own arena, to have a say about the direction of her own life.’’

In addition to this sampling of critical approaches, many other critics have undertaken readings of the story. Such variety and diversity in approach suggest that ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ is a rich and open story, one that will continue to engender multiple readings from its many readers.

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Essays and Criticism