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

Start Free Trial

The Hemingway Heroine: Study in Female Characterization in “Hills Like White Elephants”

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ernest Hemingway is well known as a man’s man. In his life and in his writing, he occupied an extremely masculine world—a world of war, hunting, and bull fights. Hemingway’s macho characters are so strongly drawn that critics created a new prototype to define them: the “Hemingway hero.” This hero has almost always been a man.

But what are readers to make of Hemingway’s women? Many feminist literary critics find Hemingway hostile toward woman. Women, they argue, are portrayed as a corrupt influence on men, somehow diluting their masculine powers.

In Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” we discover a female character, Jig, who contradicts this conventional theory. In this essay we will argue that Jig, “a mere girl,” and not the American man, conducts herself more truthfully to the characteristics of the traditional Hemingway hero. We will define the supremely heroic, distinctly Hemingway concept of “grace under pressure” as courage, honor, and the ability to cope with pain and suffering in the most difficult situations.

No doubt, the man and the girl are in an extremely tense situation. She is pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion. They are discussing a life and death situation, literally for the unborn child, and figuratively for their relationship. Hemingway has set a stark scene at a remote train station on a hot afternoon.

Courage to Face Challenges
True heroes demonstrate courage in all aspects of their lives, not just on the battlefield. In this story, Jig is the courageous one. She is willing to call the situation what it is, to speak out, if sarcastically, about their shallow relationship. “That’s all we do isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”

It seems that she is brave enough to go through with the pregnancy while he is too selfish and afraid, “But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else.” He cannot face up to the change and challenge that life brings them. Ironically, he’s the one trying to build up her courage to have the operation.

Honor—In Word and Deed
To speak and act honorably is another important trait of the Hemingway hero. The American man appears devoid of honor. Throughout the story he is nagging the girl, practically begging her to have the abortion because he doesn’t want to deal with it. He returns again and again to the subject despite her objections. Even after her famous line, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”, he persists.

He also tries to manipulate her with passive-aggressive rhetoric: “Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

Further, a man of honor would act honorably. He would accept and not shirk his responsibilities to the girl and their child. He would own up to what he has done and do the right thing. Instead, the American man is not only not honoring his commitment to the relationship and the life he helped to create, but he is also placing the burden of both the decision and the physical procedure squarely on the girl’s shoulders.

Ability to Cope with Pain
In the end, it is the girl, not the American man, who has to deal with the repercussions of their joint action. She will suffer the pain of the loss of her child, the regret of what could have been. She will have to go through with a procedure that is not as simple and risk-free as the man claims, especially if it is to be performed in Catholic Spain, where abortions were illegal.

When the girl realizes that they can’t “have everything,” that their relationship, her dreams, the world is slipping away, she resigns to the situation and copes with quiet resolve. She knows that once the opportunity is taken away, “you can never get it back.” Ironically, she is the one to speak the words every Hemingway hero was supposed to be thinking, “I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I just know things.” And in classic Hemingway style, the girl does not complain or weep or beat her chest but says simply, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”

While Hemingway sets up what seems to be an unequal relationship from the start—she is just a girl, while he is a man—the characters do not act according to the traditional roles established by this designation. Instead the girl is more courageous, more honorable and shows a greater ability to cope with suffering and pain without complaint. The American man appears a coward, he wiggles and squirms his way out of an uncomfortable situation because he simply cannot or will not deal with it. Through this analysis, “Hills Like White Elephants” offers a unique and unconventional example of Hemingway’s code whereby the girl, not the man, is awarded the badge of courage.

Isolation and Estrangement in “Hills Like White Elephants”

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Hemingway’s characters lived during a time of social and political uncertainty. Many of society’s traditional beliefs were shattered by the brutality of the First World War. The “lost generation” rejected their parents, their religion and their traditional roles. One of the results was that young people of the day felt estranged from society and often isolated from each other.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is one of Hemingway’s most poignant inquiries into the nature of this isolation and estrangement. By examining one conversation of one couple, we can understand the themes, typical of the modernist movement of which Hemingway was a part, working on many levels.

Hemingway has selected a setting that establishes a strong sense of isolation and reinforces the divide between the characters. He has placed his characters on a desolate train station, halfway between Barcelona and Madrid, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Symbolically, two train tracks run in opposite directions, parallel but never meeting. On one side of the station, “there was no shade and no trees . . . and the country was brown and dry.” On the other side “were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro.” In this setting, the choice between fertility and sterility, between life and death, is clearly presented.

By placing his English-speaking characters in Spain, a “foreign” country, Hemingway further reinforces his theme of estrangement. The two are literally strangers in the country. Not only must the girl face this difficult decision without the support of friends and family, but she does not even speak the local language! The author further isolates the couple by sitting them outside of the bar, on the platform by themselves. The other travelers and locals are inside the bar “waiting reasonably for the train.”

It is in this context that the heart of the story, the deterioration of a romantic relationship, takes place. The girl, Jig, and the American man, once intimate lovers are now like strangers. We get the sense that their relationship is so strained that despite their promises to each other about “things being like they were,” the relationship is doomed. Ironically, it is the manifestation of their physical union—her pregnancy—that is pulling them apart and foreshadowing their divorce.

On an individual level, we see the girl experiencing a sense of isolation from herself. It is clear that she wants to keep the baby, but she appears to deny this part of herself presumably for the sake of the relationship. She is, in effect, estranged from her own emotions. She claims, “I don’t care about me. . . . ” and “I don’t feel any way. . . . ”

The man, on the other hand, is hardened to his own potential as a father and a husband. He is too selfish and immature—despite his manhood—to take on the responsibility of a family. He is so separated from his parental instinct that he argues vehemently for the destruction of his own child. He doesn’t want any interferences or inconveniences in his life. One can easily see him twenty years down the road, sitting alone in a café, drunk and depressed, like so many Hemingway characters, regretting this decision.

In classic Hemingway style, the author presents all of the contrasts and conflicts with the greatest economy of language and the powerful technique of omission. So detached are the characters to the action that never in the story do they even mention the essence of their disagreement: the abortion. In a sense, Hemingway separates the core of the story from the actual words on the page.

The girl looked across at the hills.
“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”
“Should we have another drink?”
“All right.”
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.

The characters must make one of the most important decisions of their lives and they spend the majority of the story talking about what to drink, what the hills look like, and only in the most general terms what they are to do and if it even matters.

In setting, in theme and in the story-telling technique, Hemingway skillfully represents the modernist themes of separation, isolation and estrangement. And though we never find out where they are going—Madrid or Barcelona, or if Jig goes through with the abortion, or if the couple stay together, the power of the story rests in its ability to make us feel the characters’ sense of loss and emotional emptiness.

Hemingway’s Use of Dialogue in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ernest Hemingway’s fiction is renowned for revealing more in its sparseness than the writing of many more verbose authors, and the dialogue in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ proves no exception to that rule. Without once using the word ‘‘abortion,’’ Hemingway graphically evokes the tension between a man and woman waiting for a train as they discuss whether she should have this operation. The author’s use of repetition in the dialogue emphasizes a sense of division between the couple. Hemingway also conveys the man’s selfish temperament and willingness to rationalize through dialogue, contrasting it with the woman’s more emotional and arguably deeper view of the situation.

At the start of the story, when the ‘‘American and the girl with him’’ are waiting for the ‘‘express from Barcelona,’’ it becomes evident that the woman is avoiding something. Rather than looking at the man or trying to engage him in meaningful conversation, she is ‘‘looking off at the line of hills’’ in the distance or at ‘‘the bead curtain’’ shading the door to the bar. Her suggestion that they get something to drink also seems like an attempt to put off an unwelcome discussion. The woman finds herself ‘‘carrying the burden of conversation’’ with her oblique observations (Flora 34). Clearly, there is a problem here, and it is more the woman’s than the man’s.

When the man says, ‘‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’’ the nature of that problem starts to become evident, even though it is never explicitly stated. As Joseph Flora observes: ‘‘The narrator makes the moral quality of the story more intense by never using the word ‘abortion’’’ (34). The woman speaks with a ‘‘simple, yet bitter, honesty’’ when she is not keeping silent (Waldhorn 36), while her companion continues to provide glib reassurances about how ‘‘natural’’ the procedure will be. Even his repeated insistence, ‘‘I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to,’’ comes across as self-serving. The man’s attitude contrasts with the wider view the girl takes by implication when she rises and looks at the nearby ‘‘fields of grain and trees.’’ This action apparently reflects her desire to ‘‘have the child and live a life of normality with the hills and valley—the region of fecundity’’ (DeFalco 170).

Hemingway’s use of dialogue is particularly compelling in the key conflict of interest that ensues. Without resorting to any exterior description, Hemingway conveys the depth of the woman’s conviction that both she and her partner will lose something valuable and will ‘‘never get it back’’ if they go through with the abortion. The man makes such grandiose claims about their future prospects as ‘‘We can have everything,’’ ‘‘We can have the whole world,’’ and ‘‘We can go everywhere.’’ But the woman’s curt rebuttal is the same in every case: ‘‘No, we can’t.’’ Even though they have not decided what to do yet, she appears to feel that they are already letting an intangible quality of warmth and freedom slip away from their relationship by having this argument.

In a final bid to save her unborn child, the woman verbally turns the tables: ‘‘Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.’’ In other words, it would not be such a bad thing to have a baby in their lives; in fact, life would go on. But the man responds with some rather cunning rhetoric that simultaneously accords his freedom first place yet makes it sound as if his first concern is for the woman: ‘‘But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else.’’ For him, it is fine to have this woman in his life, but the presence of a baby would mean that he would no longer be the center of her attention, an unappetizing and unacceptable prospect.

The woman’s seemingly hysterical outburst, ‘‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’’, emphasizes her weariness with her partner’s attempts to talk the problem away, so to speak. As the train approaches the station and they order a final two glasses of beer, she tries to find a solution in once again muting or openly denying her feelings: ‘‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’’ Although we may infer that she is likely to accede to the man’s pressure to go through with the abortion, she clearly has not made herself comfortable with the issue.

‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ represents one of the most skillful uses of dialogue in the entire Hemingway oeuvre. The dialogue is sparse but reflects a wide range of emotion. Repetition drives home the key points. And the male-female gap at the heart of the story also comes through in the dialogue. The popular saying, ‘‘Talk is cheap,’’ does not hold true here.

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway’s Short Stories. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963.

Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

Hemingway’s Autobiographical Inspiration for ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’ Ernest Hemingway reformulates and reassesses his own experiences in terms of male-female relationships and decisions about childbearing. The story bears clear marks of autobiographical inspiration, and Hemingway chose a rather odd time to write it: his honeymoon with his second wife, Pauline. The author would marry four times in total during his sixty-one years, and ‘‘Hills With White Elephants’’ reveals some of his inner conflicts about intimacy. To understand the genesis of the story, it is necessary to examine Hemingway’s early years.

As Kenneth Lynn observes, Hemingway ‘‘habitually recreated his life through his work’’ (34), and this story appears to be a vehicle through which he could come to terms with a part of his life he was rejecting. Hemingway married Hadley Richardson in 1921 and they moved to Paris, where he participated in the community of expatriate writers. But many issues put their relationship under strain, including Hadley’s losing of Hemingway’s original manuscripts during a train trip to Switzerland. The 1923 birth of their son John, nicknamed ‘‘Bumby,’’ compounded things, as ‘‘the baby's presence . . . profoundly altered their lives’’ (Lynn 254). Hemingway loved his son, but also wished he could enjoy the freedom of his bachelor and courting days.

By the time of Hemingway’s divorce from Hadley and marriage to Pauline in 1927, he still had not reconciled his ambivalence about having children and the responsibilities this entails. At a time when a newlywed man is normally focused on his bride and the euphoria of the honeymoon, Hemingway spent several days brooding over the composition of ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ in the fishing village of Le-Grau-du-Roi, where he and Pauline had chosen to vacation together. The story, with its focus on a woman resisting her lover’s suggestion to have an abortion, seems to condemn the man’s ‘‘brutal persistence’’ (Lynn 363). And yet it also comments obliquely on Hemingway’s apparent feeling that ‘‘if only the two of them had not allowed a child to enter their lives they never would have parted’’ (Lynn 363).

Hemingway, ‘‘uncommitted to place or to marriage,’’ thus emerges as the villain of the story, if we are to identify him largely with the male character. But the man’s villainy is less a product of his desire for freedom than of his insistence on having his own way at the expense of others, despite repetitiously proclaiming: ‘‘I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’’ He is plagued by a ‘‘refusal to recognize and accept the normal processes of life’’ (DeFalco 168). The ‘‘atrocious notion of retroactively thwarting the birth of Bumby’’ is what overshadows and gives ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ a certain ominous flavor (Lynn 363).

Oddly, Hemingway scribbled a note at the end of his original draft of this story: ‘‘Mss for Pauline—well, well, well.’’ It is not known why he would dedicate such a morbid tale to his new bride, but perhaps it was really to warn himself at some level of the marital troubles he anticipated on the horizon. He published ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ in the short story collection Men Without Women in 1927, and would remain married to Pauline until the early years of the Second World War. Pauline often felt an implicit rivalry between herself and Hemingway’s first wife and often strove to demonstrate to him that she was ‘‘more literary,’’ ‘‘much trimmer,’’ and ‘‘much younger’’ than Hadley (Lynn 301). Nonetheless, the couple divorced in 1940.

Is understanding the autobiographical inspiration behind ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ essential to appreciating the story? Not necessarily. As Joseph M. Flora comments: ‘‘Hemingway’s fiction begins with the actual, but his goal was not merely to reproduce actuality’’ (27). This story takes place in a Spanish setting that would be intimately familiar to Hemingway, but he differentiates his characters and integrates symbolism into his landscape so that we do not merely identify the man and the woman with himself and Hadley. The ‘‘underlying antagonism and hysteria of the couple’’ (Pullin 172) speak to a greater deficit, in Hemingway’s view, in male and female views of how life ought to be lived. His dark moral vision gives the story continued resonance today.

DeFalco, Joseph. The Hero in Hemingway’s Short Stories. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963.

Flora, Joseph M. Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction. G. K. Hall & Co., 1989.

Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Pullin, Faith. ‘‘Hemingway and the Secret Language of Hate.’’ Ernest Hemingway: New Critical Essays, edited by A. Robert Lee. Vision and Barnes and Noble, 1983.

Tragic and Comic Elements of ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In 1927 Ernest Hemingway completed and published his collection of short stories, Men Without Women. The collection included several important stories, stories that have been closely examined by critics almost since the day of their publication. Among the stories in the collection, however, ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ has become the most widely anthologized and the most frequently taught. The story continues to generate scholarly interest and heated debate among students.

‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ is a very short story. Only about one thousand words, the story itself is comprised almost entirely of dialogue. Although there is a situation, there is no plot; although there are words spoken between the main characters, there is no resolution. The topic of their conversation, an abortion, is never even mentioned by name by either of the characters. In spite of the brevity of the story, and in spite of the absences created by the dialogue, scholars continue to produce pages and pages of critical commentary. Such critical interest at least suggests that the story is a rich, open text, one that invites reader participation in the process of meaning-making.

The story appears deceptively simple. A man and a woman sit at a table at a Spanish railway station, waiting for a train. They engage in a conversation, Hemingway seems to suggest, that has been going on for some time. The reader is dropped in the middle of the conversation without context and must glean what information he or she can from the words the characters say. The setting of the story is contemporary with its writing; that is, although there is no definite mention of the date, it seems to be set sometime during the years after the First World War, but before the Spanish Civil War. In addition, the setting is narrowly limited both in time and space. The story is framed by the narrative announcement in the first paragraph that the ‘‘express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes’’ and by the Spanish woman’s announcement near the end of the story, ‘‘The train comes in five minutes.’’ Thus, all of the story takes place within the thirty-five minutes. In addition, the characters never leave the train station itself.

There are several important ways that critics have read ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’ Some concentrate on the structure of the story, noting the use of dialogue and the placement of the few short descriptive passages. John Hollander, for example, suggests that the story develops the way a film or play might develop and that the short descriptive passages read almost like stage directions. Other critics develop careful and complicated readings of the story based on word level analysis, examining the way that Hemingway uses allusion, simile, imagery, and symbolism. Some of these critics also include an examination of Hemingway’s sources, connecting the story to T. S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece, The Wasteland. A more recent group of scholars concentrates on the use of gender-marked language in the story, looking closely at the different ways the American and Jig use language to communicate. Still others try to use Hemingway’s autobiographical manuscripts and letters to read parts of Hemingway’s life into the story. However, the fact that so many critics read this story in so many ways does not mean that the story is flawed; it means, rather, that it is a text that invites participation. As Paul Smith argues, Hemingway does not tell the reader ‘‘how the characters arrived at their present condition, or how they will resolve their conflict; we do not need to be told, for the answers are embedded in what we so briefly do see and hear.’’ Although Smith seems to suggest in this statement that the ‘‘answers’’ are there for the reading, it is possible to arrive at a multiplicity of answers, using the same lines of text.

In an early review of the story Dorothy Parker described the story as ‘‘delicate and tragic.’’ Although it is unlikely that Parker meant to suggest that ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ is a tragedy in the classical Greek sense of the word, it is possible to use her statement as an entry point into the story. An examination of both the comic and the tragic elements reveals how these ideas function in the story, and how modernism has transformed the ideas themselves.

To begin, it is important to make clear that the term ‘‘comic’’ here does not imply humor, or laughter. In this discussion,‘‘comedy’’ does not refer to a television situation comedy that is designed to be funny. Rather, for the purpose of this discussion comedy is a shape that fiction can take. Comedy has its roots in the fertility rituals of spring. It celebrates marriage, sexual union, birth, and the perpetuation of society. Comedy is not always light-hearted, however; it frequently carries with it pain, frustration, and near-catastrophe. The threat of death is always located in the underside of comedy. Ultimately, however, it is the triumph over death that gives comedy its characteristic shape.

Tragedy, on the other hand, has its roots in death and sterility. It announces the end of the line, the end of a family, the end of society. Its characteristic images are winter and wasteland. Modernism the period of literature generally placed as beginning during World War I reflects the culture’s loss of history, tradition, and certainty in the face of the War’s carnage, made possible by human-made technology. Modernism reduces the scope of the tragic in literature, focusing on smaller characters in more limited settings. Unlike the tragedies of the past, they no longer need to be about larger than life characters, trapped by their own tragic flaws. Rather, tragic movement can be seen in the alienation and isolation of contemporary life. Modernist tragedy tends to emphasize ironic detachment and T. S. Eliot’s quiet, ‘‘not with a bang but a whimper’’ ending.

Close examination of ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ reveals that Jig and the American are in a moment that teeters on the border between the comic and the tragic. They are at a moment of decision, one that will push them one way or the other. The landscape around them reflects both possible futures. On the one side of the station, the land is fertile and green. The water from the river nourishes new life. This is the comic landscape, the landscape of regeneration. On the other side of the station, the land is bleak and dusty, lacking in sustenance and life. The American, an essentially flawed character, fails to note the dichotomy of the landscape. His vision is limited by his own needs and desires. He lives in the perpetual ‘‘now,’’ wanting only momentary pleasure, not lasting growth. The girl’s pregnancy, a state that necessarily points toward the future, has upset his equilibrium in the moment. Acknowledging the pregnancy itself forces him to acknowledge the future. Strikingly, he never mentions the word ‘‘pregnancy’’ in the entire story, as if the mere mention of the word will both implicate and complicate his life.

Jig, on the other hand, seems highly aware of the precipice on which she stands. What she wishes for is the comic resolution, one in which the American will marry her, they will return home, and they will establish a family. She will participate in the birth of the next generation, and will focus her attention forward. However, she also realizes that what she wishes for is not likely what she will get. When she stands and walks to the end of the station, she observes the fertile valley of the Ebro in front of her, and she understands the connection between that landscape and the future she desires. As Barry Stampfl argues, ‘‘Jig indicates the truth about her relation with the American and about her feelings for her unborn baby by talking about landscapes.’’

In some ways, this is a choric moment, that is, a moment when a detached observer makes a judgement about the characters and their actions. In this tiny story, Jig must play the part of her own chorus. At this moment, Jig stands outside herself and sees the larger situation. Looking out over the valley she says, ‘‘And we could have all this. . . . And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’’ It is as if she realizes that the comic ending is slipping away from her. She may be about to play a role in a modernist tragedy, a tragedy in which she finds herself, at best, isolated and alone, keenly aware of the absence of life in her womb. At its worst, she may find herself dying in an abortion clinic, surrounded by people who do not speak her language.

Unlike traditional comedies and tragedies, however, ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ does not offer a recognizable resolution. Rather, the end of the story is inconclusive, the possible endings fragmented. For Jig, the longing for the fertile valley is both a longing for an Edenic past and the longing for progeny to carry on into the future. Neither of her choices offers the fulfillment of that longing, and she knows it. The American’s glance at their suitcases covered with hotel labels signals his desire to remain in the permanent present, a present without past or future. Again, regardless of their choice, the man’s desire will remain unfulfilled.

The story ends, the train still five minutes down the track. Frozen in the space between comic and tragic resolution, the characters remain, Jig and the American, the conversation ended. Although critics, academics, readers, and students may argue about what will ‘‘happen next,’’ the truth is that nothing happens to the characters after the story ends. Hemingway leaves his characters as he found them, in the middle of something larger, outside the margins of the story. Jig and the American truly come to represent the lost generation at this moment. Without resolution, each isolated and alienated from the other, they remain in the no man’s land of inconclusivity, the possibility of tradition and continuity represented by the fertile valley just outside of their reach.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Overview of ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. Henningfeld is an Associate Professor of English at Adrian College, in Adrian, Michigan. She writes widely on literature and history for a variety of academic and educational publishers.

‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’: Lean, Vintage Hemingway

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

His stories came back in the mail, slipped through the slit in the saw-mill door where he lived, ‘‘with notes of rejection that would never call them stories, but always anecdotes, sketches, contes, etc. They did not want them, and we lived on poireaux and drank cahors and water.’’ Those were the early, lean years in Paris when Ernest Hemingway was submitting to the discipline of hunger and to the discipline of his new theory of fiction: ‘‘That you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood’’:

Well, I thought, now I have them so they do not understand them. There cannot be much doubt about that. There is most certainly no demand for them. But they will understand the same way they always do in painting. It only takes time and it only needs confidence.

Time has proven Hemingway right, although his short fiction based on the theory of ‘‘omission’’ is not universally admired, or fully understood, not even by some of his fellow craftsmen. Frank O’Connor, for instance, complains that ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ does not provide the reader with enough information to make the necessary moral judgments. ‘‘The light is admirably focused,’’ admits O’Connor, ‘‘but it is too blinding; we cannot see into the shadows.’’

One does not take lightly criticism by a short story writer of O’Connor’s stature and talent, but O’Connor is wrong. The reader can see, clearly and deeply, into the shadows if he submits to the discipline of close reading and fleshes out the implications of this lean story. A rich pattern of dialogue, setting, action, and allusion is carefully woven into ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’ With swift, sure strokes, without a wasted word or motion, Hemingway creates a taut, tense story of conflict in a moral wasteland.

‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ opens quietly. The day is hot, and a young couple, who are waiting for the train from Barcelona, are relaxing in the shade of the station and discussing the small matter of ordering a cool drink. When the girl remarks that the hills across the valley look like white elephants, an argument flares, but is quickly extinguished by the girl. But moments later it flares again, this time sparked by references to licorice and absinthe. These small clashes, one gradually realizes, are part of a larger conflict that centers on the question of abortion. Hemingway makes no mention of that key word, nor does he explicitly state that the conflict has been smoldering and flaring for weeks. But since nearly every topic of conversation rekindles the argument, it is quite apparent that this is not the first time that this vital issue has been discussed. The unborn child is dominating the couple’s thoughts and emotions and has been for some time. The man’s impatience with the girl is attributable in part to his anger at discovering, with the bags all packed, and apparently with the final decision made, that the issue is not settled at all. Now, once again, they resume their intense dialogue, with the unborn child’s life hanging in the balance. . . .

Hemingway has skillfully used the setting in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ to help reveal and reinforce situation, characterization, and theme. The Spanish setting contributes to the ironic tone of the story, for the moral drama takes place in a predominantly Catholic country where the church stands in firm opposition to abortion. However, the girl does not understand Spanish, a fact which helps to reveal her essential helplessness and dependency. She is a stranger in a foreign land where her male companion is her only interpreter and guide. Their rootless existence is symbolized by the train station and by their baggage, with ‘‘labels on them from all the hotels where they spent nights.’’ The station sits between two lines of rails to suggest the two directions in which the couple may go—toward Madrid and the abortion or away from Madrid toward a settled, family life. The description of the Ebro valley embodies the poles of the conflict too: It is both barren and fruitful. On the side which they sit facing, there are no trees and no shade, and in the distance the country is brown and dry; on the other side of the valley, there are ‘‘fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro.’’ Only the girl looks at the fruitful side of the valley where she glimpses the life-giving water through the trees. But as she watches the scene, ‘‘the shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain,’’ foreshadowing the death of her unborn child. (This shadow line is one of several important revisions that Hemingway made in a titled pencil manuscript of ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’: He changed ‘‘The girl looked away’’ to ‘‘The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on’’; He inserted ‘‘The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads’’; He inserted ‘‘The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.’’)

The hills like white elephants also serve to remind one of the couple’s conflicting views on abortion. A white elephant, in one meaning of the term, is anything rare, expensive, and difficult to keep; any burdensome possession; an object no longer esteemed by its owner though not without value to others. This is basically how the man feels about the unwanted child. On the other hand, a white elephant is also a rare pale-gray variety of Asian elephant held sacred by the Burmese and Siamese. The girl’s reverence for life is captured by this meaning of the phrase. Her reluctance to have the abortion and the enormity of her sacrifice when she finally capitulates to the man’s insistent demands are clearly suggested by her revealing gesture involving the beaded bamboo curtain. The curtain hangs across the open door to the bar to keep out the flies, and it is repeatedly called to the reader’s attention during the story. It is the girl who first comments on the curtain because she is curious about the Spanish words painted on it. A short time later, when her companion is pressuring her to submit to the operation, ‘‘the girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads,’’ as though clutching the beads of a rosary to give her the moral courage to resist. One need not argue that she is a Catholic, but this scene makes it quite clear that she is calling upon her moral and religious strength in her moment of crisis. On the other hand, the man brushes aside such considerations; at story’s end, ‘‘he went out through the bead curtain.’’

The girl is sympathetically portrayed in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’ She is the man’s superior in imagination, sensitivity, and capacity for love. She has the imagination to see white elephants, whereas the earthbound man can see only long white hills. No doubt she is thinking of her swelling pregnancy as she gazes at the swollen mounds of earth. ‘‘ ‘They're lovely hills,’ she said, ‘They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees’.’’ She senses truly the nature of her dilemma. Her instincts tell her that their relationship will be radically altered, perhaps destroyed, if she goes through with the abortion. But if she refuses, she knows full well that he will leave her: ‘‘I’d do anything for you,’’ he declares, yet he refuses to respond to her silent and sounded pleas for child and family or to take seriously her premonitions of future unhappiness and irreparable loss. His pledge is an empty gesture: ‘‘I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you,’’ he insists, revealing his appalling insincerity and insensitivity. As the girl looks out across the grain fields toward the river, she remarks prophetically, ‘‘We could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’’ “What did you say?’’ he asks. He is not even listening. Finally, against her better judgment, her instincts, and her moral principles, she agrees to ‘‘do it,’’ because ‘‘I don’t care about me.’’ The man does not understand. But her reason is a simple one: she cares about him; she loves him. The man is puzzled because he is incapable of such an act of selflessness, which is the truest expression of love.

The man, identified only as an American, is the villain of the piece. He is a selfish, insensitive, emotional bully, the eternal adolescent who refuses to put down roots or to shoulder the responsibilities which are rightfully his. His empty, barren life style is summed up by the girl: ‘‘That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks.’’ But he will not be baited into a review of the past. The girl is well aware that the intrusion of a child will send the man packing, for he will not tolerate any hindrance to his vagabond, hedonistic life style. He makes no secret of the fact that the ‘‘thing’’ definitely ‘‘bothers’’ him and makes him ‘‘unhappy.’’ One even detects a veiled threat of abandonment beneath his ‘‘if-you-don’t-want-to-you-don’t-have-to’’ declarations. He makes his position very clear: ‘‘I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want any one else.’’ And there are no bonds of legal marriage to hold him if he should tire of their arrangement.

One of the drinks that apparently reminds them both of their passionate past is absinthe, the highly potent (140 to 160 proof), green alcoholic drink. It is the ‘‘forbidden’’ drink, outlawed in France Switzerland, the United States, and other countries, but still legal in Spain. It was banned because it acts powerfully on the nervous system and is thought to cause sterility. However, it is also popularly believed to be an aphrodisiac and, thus, held in high esteem by pleasure seekers. The taste of Anis del Toro reminds the girl of the licorice taste of absinthe, but her remark irritates the man: ‘‘Oh, cut it out,’’ he snaps. Very likely he introduced her to absinthe, too, in hopes that she would become sexually aroused. Now he wishes to be rid of the unwanted by-product of that passion. He is not amused by such ironic references. But it is doubtful that he has the wit to perceive the further irony of linking absinthe, with its connotations of forbidden fruit, to sterility and abortion. Quite obviously he does not appreciate the irony of his own remarks when he refers to the abortion as ‘‘an awfully simple operation,’’ ‘‘perfectly natural,’’ and ‘‘perfectly simple.’’

At story’s end, with the train due in five minutes, the man leaves the girl to take the baggage to the other side of the station. He then stops off at the bar inside to have a drink alone. The people there, he observes, ‘‘were all waiting reasonably for the train.’’ As he sees it, he is the calm voice of reason, the rational man who must convince the emotional, irrational girl that ‘‘the best thing’’ for him is ‘‘the best thing’’ for her. (The titled pencil manuscript of ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ at the Kennedy Library exhibits Hemingway’s talent for honing a scene. Hemingway originally wrote: ‘‘He drank an anis at the bar and looked at the people. There must be some actual world[.] There must be some place you could touch where people were calm and reasonable. Once it had all been as simple as this bar.’’ He changed this to read: ‘‘He drank an anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train.’’) The signs of the man’s discontent are quite ominous. His implicit criticism of the unreasonable girl and, more important, his seeking a moment of pleasure apart from her, tend to confirm the girl’s dark premonitions and to hint at some future dissolution of their relationship, some later permanent abandonment. Meanwhile, the emotionally drained girl looks out toward the dry side of the valley and waits for the train that will speed her toward the irreversible moment.

Source: Kenneth G. Johnston, ‘‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’: Lean, Vintage Hemingway,’’ in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, Autumn, 1982, pp. 233-38.

Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Although subject, setting, point of view, characterization, dialog, irony, and compression all make ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ one of Hemingway’s most brilliant short stories, the symbolism implicit in the title and developed in the story contributes more than any other single quality to the powerful impact.

Emphasis by position and repetition clearly suggests the importance Hemingway attached to the comparison. Besides the reference in the title, there are, within this very short three-page story, two references to the whiteness of the hills and four to them as white elephants, although one of these suggests that the hills do not look like white elephants but only have their coloring.

On first reading the title, one assumes the comparison may merely be to the color and to the rounded contour of the hills that constitute part of the setting, a quite literal reference. This impression is reinforced by the first sentence, the subject of which is ‘‘long and white’’ hills. The second time they are mentioned, they are contrasted with the countryside, which is brown and dry, suggestive of the limitations and aridity of the relationship of the man and woman, which begins to unfold and which is the basis of the conflict and the meaning of the story.

Then only twenty lines into the story, the young woman remarks for the first time that the hills look like white elephants; and the first hint of tension between her and the man appears in his ironic reply, ‘‘I’ve never seen one,’’ and her retaliation, ‘‘No, you wouldn’t have.’’ Although they seem to talk of trivia in the next four lines of dialog, the tension increases; and it is apparent that an argument is about to erupt or re-erupt. Talk of the drink Anis del Toro, that they have just tried and that tasted like licorice, leads her to say, ‘‘Everything tastes of licorice, especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’’ The implication as to the casualness and triviality of their lives, in which drinks are of such importance, and the further ironic implication in the bitterness of absinthe, with its wormwood basis, is made apparent. In addition, the belief in absinthe as an aphrodisiac adds another ironic twist to its mention. Color symbolism involving the blackness of licorice and the whiteness of the hills suggests the contrast between sorrow and joy as has the already mentioned contrast between the white hills and the brown, dry countryside. The living green color of absinthe also suggests a contrast with the dry drabness of the countryside.

As the tension increases between the couple, he tries to smooth things over by saying, ‘‘Well, let’s try to have a fine time.’’ She replies, ‘‘All right, I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’’ He agrees, and she continues, making explicit her opinion of the shallowness of their life together, ‘‘That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?’’ He tentatively acquiesces; and she looks across at the hills, saying, ‘‘They’re lovely hills. They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.’’ His unconsciously ironic reply is to offer her another drink. Immediately afterwards and for the first time, we learn what the problem is through his reference to an ‘‘awfully simple operation . . . not really an operation at all . . . just to let the air in.’’ She is pregnant, and he wants her to have an abortion.

Immediately the symbolic significance of the title and the reason for the frequent mention of the hills becomes apparent. A number of images and emotional reactions flood the reader’s mind as the dialog swiftly makes clear that the girl wants the baby, not the abortion, which he says will make no difference in their relationship and which hypocritically he persists in assuring her he does not want if she objects to it.

The final reference to the hills occurs about halfway through the story in the girl’s plaintive but skeptical appeal that, if she does go through with the abortion, ‘‘it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?’’ Our immediate understanding of the white elephant reference when we learn that the story’s conflict revolves around an unwanted pregnancy is probably that associated with the ubiquitous white elephant sale. These sales raise money for worthwhile causes by providing an opportunity for people to donate unwanted objects, white elephants, which will be sold at low prices to people who can find some use for them or think they can. To the man, the child is a white elephant that, in his selfishness, he wants to get rid of. To the girl, the child is a white elephant only insofar as its father rejects it; she would like to bear the child.

Another association and image surely comes to mind in terms of the comparison and is encouraged by the third reference, involving the skin of the hills. This image is of the fully pregnant woman, nude and probably lying on her back with her distended belly virtually bursting with life and with her breasts, engorged by the approaching birth, making a trinity of white hills. However, this image, stimulating as it does, the sense of wonder at the miraculous process of pregnancy and the remarkable elasticity and resiliency of the human body is one that will not blossom into birth for this couple. The man will not permit it; and the woman will be denied the fulfillment of motherhood, the loving support of the child’s co-creator throughout the period of pregnancy, the shared joy of the birth, and the care and nurture of the child.

The richness, complexity, and irony of the white elephant symbol increases as we see the conflict over the unborn child develop and as we recall that the actual white elephant is a rarity in nature, is considered sacred and precious, and is revered and protected. Moreover, we may remember that Buddha’s mother, Mahamaya, before his birth, dreamed of a beautiful silvery white elephant that entered her womb through her side. The priestly interpretation of this dream was, of course, that she would give birth to a son who would become either a universal ruler or a Buddha.

However, like the story’s white elephant child, the actual white elephant is also paradoxical in its nature. On the one hand, it is rare and valuable, associated with potentates, the royal elephant, and has sacred attributes and spiritual powers. On the other hand, the figurative use of the term as a gift or possession that is worthless, a burden, even harmful, or overwhelmingly troublesome is said to derive from the fact that the white elephant has an enormous appetite and, being sacred, can neither be disposed of nor used as a beast of burden but must be cared for and treated with care, respect, and concern until it dies. Consequently, if a king or potentate had an enemy to whom he wished ill, he could present him with a white elephant, ostensibly a mark of singular favor but in reality a burden whose expensive upkeep might bring ruin and would certainly confer hardship.

Hemingway’s use of the white elephant symbol in his title and throughout the story has immeasurably enriched this poignant episode, with its insight into the complexities, the disappointments, and the sadness of life's ‘‘might-have-beens.’’ It is a particularly significant story for our times when radical changes in traditional sexual morality and the issue of legalized abortion seem to emphasize the age-old problem presented in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’

Source: Lewis E. Weeks, Jr., ‘‘Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Winter, 1980, pp. 75-77.

Leitmotif and Irony in Hemingway’s ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ is about a selfish man who wants his girl friend to have an abortion so that they can continue to have fun and be unencumbered by a child. The man’s callousness and sterile view are contrasted with the girl’s sensitive, sensuous response to life. As an ironic contrast to their present disunified relationship, a leitmotif of oneness, or unity, threads through the story. This leitmotif takes the form of the repetition, with variation, of the word two.

Before considering scenic irony and the leitmotif of unity, we should first observe the general features of the scene. The first paragraph creates the stage on which all of the action, what little there is, and dialogue take place (the leitmotif is also unobtrusively introduced in this description—but more about it later):

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

The man and the girl are appropriately positioned on a sterile, wasteland plain with ‘‘no shade and no trees.’’ In the distance are objects that are symbolic of a sensuous, fertile, pure, natural life: ‘‘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 mountains and the river and the fields of grain are as far removed from the railway station café as the man’s and girl’s present strained relationship is removed from their past close relationship. When the girl wistfully views the distant scene, ‘‘the shadow of a cloud’’ moves ‘‘across the field of grain’’ and distorts the purity of her nostalgic vision, bringing her thoughts back to the sordid present. The ‘‘hills like white elephants’’ and other objects in the distance suggest to the girl the sensuous beauty of a love relation that is quickly deteriorating, now that she has become conscious of her lover’s selfishness.

Since these images suggest the man’s and the girl’s past experience, they are appropriately in the background of the story’s canvas. In the center of this prose painting is the railway station, where the Barcelona express stops for two minutes on its way to Madrid. The description of the station’s position between the two railway lines subtly introduces the leitmotif of ‘‘two,’’ to be reiterated in the story, but in this single instance ‘‘two’’ appears in an image of division or separation and suggests the actual state of the lovers; i.e., it is not an ironic ‘‘two.’’ ‘‘Two’’ in ‘‘two minutes’’ is unobtrusively reiterated and prepares the way for the oneness, or unity, images of ‘‘two’’ which follow. All of these oneness or unity images operate ironically in the story, for they suggest a kind of life (symbolized by the river, mountains, and fields) which is the direct opposite of the life now being experienced by the couple. These images are of course integrated smoothly into the literal level of the story, as such symbolic images are in all of Hemingway’s works. Symbols should not stand out like raisins in raisin bread, Hemingway felt.

So far, I have mentioned only two appearances of ‘‘two,’’ both of them in the first paragraph. More such images are needed if a leitmotif strand is to be established. And they are present: ‘‘Dos cervezas,’’ ‘‘two glasses of beer,’’ ‘‘two felt pads,’’ and ‘‘two anis del Toro’’ are images of paired objects in which the two entities of each pair are alike and, as it were, unified. These images serve as ironic contrasts to the divided couple sitting at the table, who, because of their quite different responses to life, are so unlike each other that they cannot in any sense be considered a unified pair. Not one of these ‘‘two’’ images would be construed as a symbol if it were seen only in terms of its literal function in an isolated context. But, collectively, the piling-up of ‘‘two’’ images suggests that their connotative meanings are of more significance in the story than their literal functions.

When the man callously tells the girl that her pregnancy is the only thing which has made them unhappy, the girl, deeply hurt, looks at the bead curtain and takes ‘‘hold of two of the strings of beads.’’ Since she knows that what they once had together can never again be the same, she subconsciously reaches out to take hold of that which is lost to them. Here again their former union is suggested to the reader by the reiterated ‘‘two’’ motif, which at this point in the story has been established and which is now emphatically objectified, or made tangible, by the two strings of beads. And the repetition of ‘‘two’’ is continued in the images of ‘‘two heavy bags’’ and in the reappearance of ‘‘two glasses’’ and two ‘‘damp felt pads.’’

One aspect of the girl’s sensitive, sensuous response to life is her fertile imagination. For example, she imagines that the hills have the skin of white elephants. ‘‘They look like white elephants,’’ she says to the man. ‘‘I’ve never seen one,’’ he replies. ‘‘No, you wouldn’t have,’’ she says, realizing that he is incapable of sharing her fancy. Since elephants, which are herbivorous animals, live in areas of vegetation, perhaps the girl associates them with such images of fertility as the grain fields and the river. Or maybe their largeness and shape suggest a pregnant woman. Or perhaps their whiteness marks them as unnatural elephants—sports—and suggests the unnatural aspects of the abortion the girl fears so much. These are only conjectures. The point is that in looking at the hills she can respond imaginatively, while the man cannot.

Later, her imagination subdued by the man’s flat replies, the girl says, ‘‘They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.’’ But the hills still look like white elephants to the girl. The title, ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’ and the oneness motif both represent her attitude, which is an imaginative, sensuous, warm appreciation of life.

No matter what the girl and the man do now, the man’s selfish desire to avoid complications has hurt them beyond repair. Their present state has a tragic aura that pervades the scene, and their pathetic condition is largely manifested by the ironic contrast provided by the leitmotif of oneness.

Source: Reid Maynard, ‘‘Leitmotif and Irony in Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’’ in The University Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer, 1971, pp. 273-5.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview