Hills Like White Elephants Questions and Answers

Ernest Hemingway

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Hills Like White Elephants questions.

Are the American and the Girl Married?

Though it is never said explicitly either way, there are many reasons to believe that the American and the “girl” in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” are married. Their conflict is about her having the baby, not about getting married. The subject of marriage never comes up. But in the 1920s it seems unlikely that the girl would want to have the baby without being married. The American actually tells her five times that she can go ahead and have the baby if it is important to her—although he makes it obvious that he does not want to get tied down to domesticity and a steady job. The labels on their luggage show they have been traveling all over Europe together. It would have been difficult for an unmarried couple to share the same hotel room in the 1920s. In some countries it may have even been illegal. People could register as Mr. and Mrs., but they would have to turn over their passports each time they registered, and it would be obvious if they were not married.

Hemingway based many of his short stories on personal experience. He wrote about some things as a sort of confession to free himself from his guilty feelings. He and Hadley, his first wife, had actually had a baby they called Bumby a few years before Hemingway published “Hills Like White Elephants” (Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were his godparents); the story could have been written long before Hemingway managed to get it accepted for publication. It seems extremely likely that he was recalling his mixed feelings when Hadley told him she was pregnant. If there had been a conflict over the issue at that time, apparently it was Hadley who had prevailed. Hemingway, however, did not adapt well to fatherhood and domesticity. He and Hadley were divorced in January 1927, when Bumby was only about three years old.

Also, Hemingway may not explain that the couple in “Hills Like White Elephants” are married because he was trying to avoid exposition almost entirely. His next short story, “The Killers,” is written in a similar objective style. Hemingway at that time was trying to see how much he could “leave out” of a story in order to focus on drama. One of his many biographers, A. E. Hotchner, quotes him as saying the following:

I guess I left as much out of "The Killers" as any story I ever wrote. Left out the whole city of Chicago.

And in The Green Hills of Africa (1935), Hemingway expressed his now-famous “iceberg” theory:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

How Does Jig Feel About Motherhood?

The American and Jig have to wait for a train to Madrid, where she is going to have an abortion. The reader can sense an awkwardness in both of them, despite the fact that they have had an intimate relationship for a long while. Jig does not want to talk about what is on both their minds, so she chooses to talk about the things that are the farthest away, the distant mountains. The story opens with a description of them: "The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white." She is trying to direct the man's attention away from her and away from the subject she knows intuitively that he wants to discuss. They have been traveling around Europe for a long time just sightseeing. Later she will say to him sarcastically, "That's all we do, isn't it—look at things and try new drinks?" When she comments on the white hills in the distance, she is just saying the same kind of thing she has been saying during their travels. She is not as interested in sightseeing as he is, but she has been trying to be a good companion. She is probably not interested in trying Anis del Toro either, but she wants to avoid thinking or talking about the coming abortion. She dreads it, and she really wants to have the baby. We can perhaps sense her maternal wish in the following sentence: 

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

Many of the things that are made for babies have beads on them, including cribs, playpens, and strollers. Perhaps, Jig is thinking about the baby inside her as she fondles the beads on the curtain advertising Anis del Toro. She has almost given up arguing with the American about having the abortion. She does make one last attempt to defend her unborn child after he has insisted on bringing up the subject of abortion. She says, "Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along." After that she gives up. She realizes he is adamant. But she does not want to hear any more of his persuasion and rationalization. She asks, "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?"

What Techniques Does Hemingway Use to Tell This Story?

As early as the 1920s, motion pictures had an strong influence on novelists and short story writers. Some of Ernest Hemingway’s stories are like movies—which explains why so many were adapted to movies. The same was true for Dashiell Hammett, who wrote in an objective way and relied heavily on dialogue to convey exposition. His novel The Maltese Falcon was made into movies three times. When a movie opens—that is, when the camera "fades in"—there is usually no explanation of the problem, the setting, or anything else. There may be a so-called “establishing shot.” For instance, if the story takes place in Paris you will see the Eiffel Tower and know you are in Paris. If it takes place in New York you are likely to see a lot of skyscrapers. Movies usually can only show people doing things in outdoor or indoor settings and talking to each other. The viewer has to pick up information from the actors’ dialogue. Sometimes there is a "voice-over" narrator, which is equivalent to prose exposition in a story; but movie makers do not like voice-over narrators. "Hills Like White Elephants" opens with the equivalent of an "establishing shot":

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.

This is description, not exposition. Hemingway tried to avoid straight prose exposition because it makes the author intrusive and at the same time distances the reader from the characters. 

Why is This Story Titled "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Early in the story Jig and the American have the following exchange of dialogue regarding the long and white hills across the valley of the Ebro:

"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer.
"No, you wouldn't have."
"I might have," the man said. "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything."

Jig does not mean that the man would not have seen a real white elephant. What she means is that he would never have seen a mountain that looked like a white elephant. In other words, he doesn't have any imagination. This illustrates a difference between them which may ultimately lead to their separation. The American is practical, realistic, literal-minded. The man does not want to talk about any "white elephants." He is concerned about the logistical problems involved in getting an abortion in a foreign, Catholic country. He is also concerned about keeping Jig "on board," so to speak, with the idea of having an abortion.

To some degree the American resembles Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. Clyde is worried and frightened about Roberta Alden's pregnancy, which she has agreed to terminate if he can find someone to perform an abortion; but Clyde has to pretend to be confident and to know what he is doing.