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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Is abortion a theme in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

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Well, interesting question, because the answer to this is that yes, abortion is definitely a theme, but I would argue it is linked to the far bigger theme of how the partner subtly forces Jig to get the abortion.

What is interesting about this story is that although the abortion hangs over this couple, nowhere is the word actually used. Reference is only made to the "awfully simple operation" that is "not really an operation at all" and is "just to let the air in." It is a topic that is avoided head-on by the couple, especially Jig, who, while her partner gives her his medical opinion about abortion first pointedly "looks at the ground" and then "says nothing."

What is clear as you read the story carefully is that Jig does not want the abortion, but the unnamed partner does. Jig has to choose between saving the baby and saving her relationship, which, to be honest, doesn't look that good anyway. The partner shows incredible lack of empathy and understanding. From his point of view her unwanted pregnancy is "the only thing that bothers us" and he promises that everything will be "alright" and "nice again" once she has had the operation performed. What is particularly sinister is the way that the partner keeps on repeating, again and again, the phrase "But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to." The fact that he keeps on bringing up the topic and keeps on saying this, even when Jig is desperate to change the topic and not talk about it even more, indicates that he will make sure Jig has the abortion but he wants to come across as reasonable and not pressuring her:

"All right. But you've got to realise--"

"I realise," the girl said. "Can't we maybe stop talking?"

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the day saide of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

"You've got to realise," he said, "that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you."

As we read the story it becomes clear to both the reader and Jig that the partner will have this abortion one way or another and the imposition of his will against Jig reveals his dominance and brutality. The irony of the story is that it ends with Jig saying she is "fine" when it is obviously a lie.

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What are some sentences that indicate that abortion is the theme in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

You do have to read this story pretty carefully to pick up the central theme of abortion and how it is presented. Hemmingway seems to focus on this theme and how terrible it is by actually only including very oblique references to it, so we have to read between the lines to identify what is being talked about. Have you every had a conversation with somebody when the most important thing you need to discuss, is actually never referred to or only referred to in passing? In a sense, this only serves to emphasise the importance of the topic, as the silence and avoidance only highlights its power and strength. Hemmingway uses this strategy in this short story.

Let us consider what references there are to abortion. It is, of course, the man who brings up the first reference to abortion. After making some small talk about the coolness of the beer, he finally can restrain himself no longer, and says:

"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said. "It's not really an operation at all."

He doesn't seem to pick up the body language of Jig, who obviously doesn't want to talk about it, and looks at the ground, to avoid his gaze. So he continues:

"I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in."

The girl did not say anything.

"I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."

This is actually the last reference directly to the medical prodecure, though of course the rest of this short story is dominated by it, as Jig seeks to learn what will be the impact on their relationship and bows to the inevitable dominion of her partner. Key to considering how the theme of abortion is presented is how it is linked with the theme of power. The man deliberately presents abortion in a way that minimises how invasive and destructive the procedure is, and the way that he keeps coming back to the topic, even when Jig does not want him to, indicates his manipulation and determination to ensure that Jig has this operation.

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