Hills Like White Elephants Analysis

  • Ernest Hemingway tackles the issue of abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants." Without ever using the word "abortion," Hemingway conveys Jig's hesitation about the operation and the American man's desire for things to be just "like [they] were before." Hemingway focuses on the emotional rather than the moral questions raised by abortion.
  • "Hills Like White Elephants" 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 writing style. He states things plainly, without adornment, and provides a matter-of-fact account of Jig's conversation with the American man. His spare prose allows readers to fill in the emotional content of the story.
  • Hemingway uses repetition to great effect in the story "Hills Like White Elephants." 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, in large part because he repeats it one too many times. It becomes clear that he doesn't want the child and is trying to manipulate Jig into having the abortion.

Analysis

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

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...

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Literary Style

Setting
In ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ the setting serves both to locate the story in space and time and to...

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Compare and Contrast

  • 1920s: Post-war American economy roars, fueled by a growing stock market. Credit is easy, and fortunes are made and...

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Topics for Further Study

  • Read The Sun Also Rises and the other stories in Men Without Women. How do you characterize...

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Media Adaptations

  • “Hills Like White Elephants” is one of three short stories filmed as a cable television movie. The other two stories on the film...

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What Do I Read Next?

  • The Sun Also Rises (1926) is a semi-autobiographical account of Hemingway’s post-World War I experience as an expatriate. The well-received novel earned Hemingway the title of spokesperson for his generation.
  • Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988) is a collection by short story writer Raymond Carver. Most critics agree that Carver’s style was influenced by Hemingway’s early stories.
  • Michael Reynolds’s Hemingway: The Paris Years(1989) is a careful examination of Hemingway’s expatriate period in Paris as a member of the ‘‘Lost Generation.’’ The time period covered includes the years when Hemingway...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
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...

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Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.