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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Hills Like White Elephants Analysis

  • Ernest Hemingway tackles the issue of abortion in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Without ever using the word itself, Hemingway conveys Jig's hesitation about the operation.
  • The story is told from the point of view of a third-person narrator who doesn't give readers access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings. This is in keeping with Hemingway’s usual writing style. 
  • Hemingway uses repetition to great effect in the story. When the American man insists that he doesn't want Jig to have the abortion if she doesn’t want to, the statement sounds insincere, as the man has repeated it too many times.

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Style and Technique

The impassive, documentary style of “Hills Like White Elephants” is typical of much of Hemingway’s fiction. It manifests the care, restraint, intensity, and control, the economy and precision that characterize his best prose. The author seems to be indifferent both to the characters and to the reader; he pretends to be merely an objective observer content to report without comment the words and actions of these two people. He has virtually no access to their thoughts and does not even interpret the emotional quality of their words or movements by using adverbs; he simply records. Hemingway believed in a precise, naturalistic rendering of the surface; he insisted on presenting things truly.

As was indicated earlier, Hemingway’s ironic technique plays an important role in this story. The very use of a clear and economical style to reveal a relationship that is troubled and complex is ironic. The story seems to be void of artifice and emotion yet is carefully fashioned and powerfully felt. The dispassionate style appears to be absolutely appropriate to the cold, sophisticated, literal-minded, modern sensibility of the protagonist, yet in fact the man is revealed to be disingenuous and destructive. The deeper levels of this story are disclosed by examining not only what is implied through the irony but also what is indicated by symbolism and repetition.

The symbolism has already been remarked, and only one other observation seems necessary here. It is important to note that anything that can be said to operate symbolically does so without violating the realism of the story in any way. Hemingway uses banal repetition quite effectively here. The insincerity of the man is apparent in his dependence on empty phrases: “it’s perfectly simple”; “if you don’t want to you don’t have to.” Both the man’s duplicity and the girl’s perceptiveness, anger, and despair are evident in the way in which she echoes his transparent lies: “And afterward they were all so happy . . . I don’t care about me. . . . Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.”

In terms of style and technique, “Hills Like White Elephants” is a quintessential early Hemingway story. The use of the language of speech as the basis for the story, the insistence on presentation rather than commentary, the condensation, and the intensity are all basic elements of his theory of fiction.

Historical Context

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Europe Between the Wars
Hemingway wrote ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ in 1926 while living in Paris. Europe between the First and Second World Wars provided the historical and cultural context for the story. Hemingway was twenty-two, newly married and ready to begin a career as a serious writer when he arrived in Paris in 1921. His experiences as an ambulance driver during World War I continued to affect him, and the sense of alienation and isolation characteristic of modernist writing can be found in the writing he produced during these years.

Europe was in the process of recovering from the war; however, it was a time of political and economic upheaval for most of the nations. Many nations suffered political struggles as right and left wing factions attempted to wrest control of their particular countries. In Italy, for example, strikes, violence, and political unrest led to the 1922 Fascist March on Rome. Mussolini established himself as dictator in that country. In Germany, the heavy reparations called for in the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI caused economic chaos. The German mark steadily lost ground as the rate of inflation spiraled upward. Germans would rush to buy goods the moment they received cash because the value of their cash would decrease by the end of the day. The other nations of Europe, their countryside scarred and their young men dead or wounded, reeled under a deep and severe recession.

The Lost Generation
In the United States, however, the economy boomed. The stock market reached dizzying heights and the dollar enjoyed an extremely favorable rate of exchange with most European currencies. In addition, many young Americans had been in Europe during the War, allowing them to feel more comfortable in the different cultures. Armed with the strong American dollar and the familiarity with the language and culture, many writers found Paris a very attractive milieu—collectively, these writers became known as the ‘‘Lost Generation.’’ According to Michael Reynolds, some six thousand Americans lived in Paris at the end of 1921; by ‘‘September 1924, the city’'s permanent American population was thirty thousand and rising.’’ Hemingway brushed shoulders with many notable writers and literary figures while in Paris, including Ezra Pound Gertrude Stein Alice B. Toklas F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce among others.

Hemingway himself popularized the idea of a lost generation through his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. In his later memoir of the Paris years, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes of a conversation he had with the writer Gertrude Stein in which she called all young people who had been in the war ‘‘a lost generation.’’ Subsequently, Hemingway used Stein’s comment as one of two epigraphs that open the book. Hemingway, perhaps better than any other writer of his generation, captured the sense of waste and loss and the resulting aimlessness that the War engendered in the young people of his era.

Social Change
The years between the war were ones of rapid social change. In the United States, the economic boom caused by easy credit and technology allowed people to own products as never before. Middle class people were able to own cars, radios, and telephones.

Social change was reflected in other important ways as well. Perhaps most important, women received the right to vote in 1920 and entered the work force in growing numbers. Women bared their legs, lit up cigarettes, and cut their hair. Such expressions of emancipation threatened traditional male values, and the clash between the genders figured in many of the literary works of the day.

Many writers left the United States, preferring the less restrictive morality of Europe. Disillusioned with civilized society, alienated from traditional values, and shell-shocked from a brutal War, these writers experimented with literary form, content, and style.

Literary Style

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In ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ the setting serves both to locate the story in space and time and to function as an important symbol. The story is set in Spain, in the valley of the Ebro River. More immediately, the setting is a railway station ‘‘between two lines of rails in the sun.’’ The American and the girl sit at a table. On one side of the station, the land is parched and desolate. A number of critics have noted the similarity between this landscape and that of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. On the other side of the station, there are trees and grain. By dividing the setting in half, with one side sterile and the other fertile, Hemingway uses the setting to reinforce the division between the couple. They can choose sterility through the abortion, or fertility through the pregnancy. The landscape outside the couple’s conversation reflects the inner landscapes of the relationship.

The most striking feature of this story is that it is constructed almost entirely of dialogue. There are only seven short descriptive paragraphs that are not part of the dialogue itself. Further, there is very little action in the story: the girl walks from one side of the station to the other, they drink beer, and the man moves the luggage. By controlling the narrative so tightly, Hemingway forces the reader to participate in the scene almost as an eavesdropper. The reader ‘‘hears’’ the dialogue, but cannot break into the characters’ inner thoughts. With so little else present, the weight and the meaning of the story depend on the reader’'s ability to decipher the cryptic comments the two characters make to each other. Hemingway himself once suggested that a short story is like the tip of an iceberg, the meaning of the story submerged beneath the written text. Certainly in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’ only the smallest portion of the story’s subject is apparent, and the reader must guess at the rest.

Lost Generation
The term ‘‘Lost Generation’’ has come to apply to a group of young writers, most born around 1900, who fought in the First World War. As a group, the Lost Generation found that their understanding of life had been severely affected by their experiences during the war. Many of the Lost Generation lived in Europe, notably in Paris, during the post-War period. The term came from a comment that Gertrude Stein made to Hemingway, ‘‘You are all a lost generation.’’ Hemingway used the comment as a epigraph in his novel, The Sun Also Rises. Other writers included in this group are F. Scott Fitzgerald Hart Crane, Louis Bromfield, and Malcolm Cowley.

The aimlessness of the characters in ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ is one of the characteristics of the fiction of the Lost Generation. Jig and the Americans are expatriates, moving from place to place to ‘‘look at things and try new drinks.’’ They are people who live in hotels, out of luggage, rather than being rooted in one place. The lack of rootedness, then, becomes an important motif in the literature of this generation.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1920s: Post-war American economy roars, fueled by a growing stock market. Credit is easy, and fortunes are made and lost in a day. The culture becomes increasingly consumer-oriented as new technology puts desirable products into the hands of the middle classes.

    1990s: The United States enjoys a period of nearly unprecedented prosperity. Credit is easy, and the stock market spirals upward. The growth of technology has made computers, video games, digital cameras, and cell phones affordable for the middle classes.

  • 1920s: Women finally receive the right to vote in the United States. They use their new-found voting power to make the consumption of alcohol illegal in the United States through a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the making or sale of alcohol. Women work outside the home, and the “flapper” becomes the symbol for a generation of young women.

    1990s: Women hold elected offices, serve on the Unites States Supreme Court, and manage large corporations. Nevertheless, the earning power of women still lags behind that of men. Sexual discrimination and harassment laws protect women from being fired or demoted because of their gender.

  • 1920s: Abortions are illegal in most countries in Europe and in the United States. Nevertheless, many women have abortions, and many die from poorly performed illegal abortions. Because there is no reliable means of birth control, and because of the great social stigma against unmarried mothers, women endanger their own lives rather than endure social censure.

    1990s: Abortions are legal in the United States. In Spain, abortions have been legal since 1985. In the United States, a growing segment of the population believes that abortion is wrong, with some anti-abortion activists turning to violence. Abortion doctors are murdered and abortion clinics subject to bombings and violent demonstrations.

  • 1920s: Modernism the sense that the old ways of doing things no longer apply, takes hold of art, literature, and culture in Europe and the United States. Artists experiment with new forms and subject matter. In spite of disillusionment with human enterprise, the modernists still believe that art and literature can say something important about reality.

    1990s: Postmodernism grows in response to modernism, now deemed worn out and old. Literature becomes self-reflective and meta-fictional. Reality seems to splinter into ever smaller fragments; truth becomes increasingly contingent.

Media Adaptations

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  • “Hills Like White Elephants” is one of three short stories filmed as a cable television movie. The other two stories on the film include “The Man in the Brooks Brother Shirt” by Mary McCarthy, and “Dusk Before Fireworks” by Dorothy Parker. The ninety-minute film aired on HBO entertainment network in 1990 as Men and Women. The video version of the film is titled Women and Men: Three Tales of Seduction and is a 1996 Front Row Entertainment production. David Brown and William S. Gilmore are the producers. The film stars Beau Bridges, Melanie Griffith, Elizabeth McGovern, Molly Ringwald, Peter Weller, and James Woods.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Connolly, Cyril. A review of Men Without Women. In New Statesman, November 26, 1927, p. 208.

Hannum, Howard L. “‘Jig Jig to dirty ears’: White Elephants to Let.’’ In The Hemingway Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 46-54.

Hollander, John. ‘‘Hemingway’s Extraordinary Reality.’’ In Ernest Hemingway, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 211-6.

Lamb, Robert Paul. “Hemmingway and the Creation of Twentieth Century Dialogue.” In Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 42, Winter, 1996, pp. 453-80.

Messent, Peter. Ernest Hemingway. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992, pp. 90-92.

Parker, Dorothy. A review of Men Without Women. In New Yorker, October 29, 1927, pp. 92-4.

Renner, Stanley. ‘‘Moving to the Girl’s Side of ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’’ In The Hemingway Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 27-41.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Smiley, Pamela. “Gender-Linked Miscommunication in ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’’’ In New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, edited by Jackson J. Benson. Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 288-99.

Smith, Paul. ‘‘Introduction: Hemingway and the Practical Reader.’’ In New Essays on Hemingway’s Short Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 1-18.

Stampfl, Barry. ‘‘Similies as Thematic Clues in Three Hemingway Short Stories.’’ In The Hemingway Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 30-8.

Woolf, Virginia. A review of Men Without Women. In New York Herald Tribune Books, October 9, 1927, pp. 1, 8.

Further Reading
Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. Hemingway: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982. Contains many important contemporary reviews of Hemingway’s books, including reviews of Men Without Women by Virginia Woolf Dorothy Parker and Edmund Wilson, among others.

Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. A thorough and readable biography of Hemingway’s early days by a notable Hemingway biographer.

Rovit, Earl, and Gerry Brenner. Ernest Hemingway. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An excellent introduction to Hemingway studies. Includes biographical material, criticism of many of Hemingway’s works, and a useful bibliography.

Smith, Paul, ed. New Essays on Hemingway’s Short Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 1998. A collection of recent critical essays on Hemingway’s short stories. Contains a useful introduction by editor Paul Smith, ‘‘Hemingway and the Practical Reader.’’

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. Michigan State University Press, 1987. A collection of important reviews and critical articles on Hemingway, spanning his entire career.


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Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.

Berman, Ronald. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the Twenties. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

Burgess, Anthony. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

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

Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Hotchner, A. E. Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. New ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. 1985. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.

Padura Fuentes, Leonardo. Adiós Hemingway. Translated by John King. New York: Canongate, 2005.

Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Blackwell, 1986.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. New York: Blackwell, 1989.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Homecoming. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The 1930’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Final Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

Rovit, Earl, and Arthur Waldhorn, eds. Hemingway and Faulkner in Their Time. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Hemingway: Seven Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998.

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Critical Essays