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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The theme of abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"

Summary:

The theme of abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants" is central to the story, as it captures the tension and communication breakdown between the couple. The narrative revolves around their discussion about whether or not to proceed with the abortion, revealing underlying issues in their relationship and differing perspectives on their future together.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

The dialogue between the American and Jig makes it clear that she doesn't understand a word of Spanish. This means that she is most likely a native English speaker but probably not an American. Here she is in a foreign country, pregnant, perhaps without any money of her own, and completely dependent on this man who is taking her to Madrid to have an abortion. Instead of asking whether she actually had the abortion, one might ask if she actually got on that train.

Towards the end of the story the woman who is waiting on them tells them, "The train is coming in five minutes." If the girl gets on the train we can assume she is going to get the abortion. But if she refuses to get on the train, what will happen next? If the man leaves her behind at this station in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, and she has no money and can't speak a word of Spanish and is still pregnant...???

It seems that it is not up to Jig to decide but up to the American. If she can't persuade him to let her have the baby, she will have to havethe abortion (el aborto). However, he does seem open to persuasion. He tells her no less than five times in thirty-five miinutes that he is perfectly willing to let her have the baby. For example:

"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."

It seems that what she can't persuade him to do is to want her to have the baby. She must sense that having the baby without his wanting it would lead to a rupture in their relationship. Then she would be a single parent with no reliable means of support.

Hemingway and his first wife Hadley had a baby they called Bumby in 1923 and they were divorced in 1929, about two years after "Hills Like White Elephants" was published. No doubt the short story is largely autobiographical, like so much of Hemingway's fiction.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

I agree with the initial statement of poster 4 - the couple in the story will not be able to stay together. Their trouble is irreparable. I disagree, however, with the interpretation that the pregnancy is merely a symptom of the couple's problems.

There is something to say for that interpretation, certainly, but it seems to me that the fact of the pregnancy is central to the conflict between this man and woman. Each of them would like to stay together as they were. There is no going back to that after the pregnancy.

What Jig clearly understands is that not even an abortion can put things back to the way they were. The past is gone. And it is the pregnancy that has killed it. If an abortion could bring back the past, then she would choose to go that route. Because the abortion cannot achieve that end, she sees no point to choosing to have that done.

The relationship and the past are both over and gone. The man and the woman are powerless to change that fact, just as they are powerless to change the fact of the pregnancy.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Whether or not she gets an abortion is a secondary consideration. Clearly, regardless of whether she gets an abortion or not, the relationship between Jig and the man will never be reparable. The unwanted pregnancy has changed the relationship. Despite what the man says, "That's the only thing that bothers us.  It's the only thing that's made us unhappy." The pregnancy is  just a symptom of what is plaguing their relationship.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is clearly one of his narratives that have the "iceberg effect" as critics have termed Hemingway's method of not saying what is being said.  The connection between the hills that Jig likens to white elephants comes from their shape and the denotation of a white elephant, something that a person is burdened with and cannot easily be rid of.  For, she is actually referring to the unwanted baby of the man that she is carries. It has become a burden to their relationship since Jig does not really want to have an abortion, but she knows that she will lose her lover if she does not.  Through the use of dialogue the reader uncovers their disagreement about her condition:

"I know you would mind it, Jig.  It's really not anything.  It's just 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."

"Then what will we do afterward?"

"We'll be fine afterward.  Just like we were before."

"What makes you think so?"

"That's the only thing that bothers us.  It's the only thing that's made us unhappy."...

"And you think then we'll be all right and be happy."

In the end, after the man goes to the other side of the tracks with their luggage and returns, Jig smiles at him.  When he asks her if she feels better, Jig says, "There's nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine." 

Certainly, these last lines are ambiguous.  Jig's little "hill" is also like a white elephant, something one is burdened with. If she does have the abortion, hers and her boyfriend's relationship will still not be the same.  If she keeps the baby, she will lose the man.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

I think that if you read the story carefully, although we are not specifically told whether Jig does or does  not get an abortion, it is pretty clear that she gives in to her partner's demands and does what he wants. One way that this is suggested is related to the title. Note the way that towards the beginning of the story Jig suggests that the hills look like white elephants. When this is obviously not looked upon favourably by her partner, she later changes her mind, apparently, saying that they do not look like white elephants. We see she is trying to change herself to make herself more acceptable to her partner, and thus I think it is clear that she will get the abortion because that is what he wants.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Unfortunately, I have a much more pessimistic view. I think the pressure that the man exerts on Jig and the way that she bends herself to fit in with his views indicates that she will definitely have the abortion. The conversation at the end when Jig again and again repeats negative comments about what they will "have" seems to be her acceptance of the kind of life she is accepting by having the abortion - one that is devoid of joy and full of terrible grief.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

You're going to have to use your imagination to answer this question. Hemingway leaves the story with a cliffhanger ending: the couple is waiting for the train, and the woman says, "I'm fine."

You need to decide what you think she will do. In order to make that decision, you'll need to judge the story based on the era in which it is set, not by what is possible in our own time. Keep in mind these things:

  • the social mores of the era (just after WWII)
  • the social and economic challenges faced by single parents (you can bet he won't marry her)
  • the legality of abortions in that era

I hope this helps. Your teacher has given you this assignment to exercise your critical thinking skills. No matter which side you take--for or against her having an abortion--you can't go wrong as long as you back yourself up with some good reasons why you feel that way.

Good luck!

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Most of my students have argued that the evidence supports the idea that the girl decides to abort the baby.  Hemingway carefully withholds the choice as not being important to the theme of the story, but if you are writing a paper trying to prove one or the other, consider this evidence:

When discussing the issue with her American, Jig says she'll do it, she'll have the operation.  She says so because she believes that it will solve all the couples problems. 

She asks, "'And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?'"  

Jig wants things to be perfect, with no problems.  She goes on to say that she doesn't matter, meaning her feelings and desires don't matter. 

"'Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me.'"

At the end of the story, the man comes back from moving the bags to the train track, and asks Jig how she is doing.  She says:

"'I feel fine,' she said. 'There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.'"

Readers know that she is not fine.  How could she be with such a decision to make?  She is upset and conflicted.  However, by saying she is fine, Jig is devaluing her emotions.  She is making a statement that her feelings don't matter, that she doesn't matter.  By making that statement, she is suggesting that she has chosen to have the abortion - so she can have that perfect ending she spoke of.

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Did the woman have an abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

The reader is meant to be unclear on the end of the story. Hemingway purposefully left the reader to wonder what Jig's decision would be. It is fairly obvious that there would not be a happy ending for Jig no matter what decision she made. If she chose to keep the baby, she would surely lose her American lover. If she chose to abort the baby, she would most likely resent the lover.

The smile that Jig gives the man at the end of the story is puzzling since it follows an angry outburst. The reader is left to ponder the possible ending, but there is no true way to know for sure.

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What suggests the couple discusses abortion in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

One of the highly fascinating aspects of this story is that what is going on between Jig and her lover is only alluded two once during the story and then not referred to again. However, it is important to realise how the abortion, although never directly referenced, is the weight that hangs around both of the characters' shoulders and determines everything else. Through this topic we see the selfishness of the American in wanting Jig to have an abortion and Jig's profound reluctance to have an abortion, and the way that the American imposes his will psychologically on Jig. The reference is as follows:

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

He then says a couple of lines later that it is only "to let the air in," and that it is "not really anything." Note here how the man is deliberately trying to downplay the severity and importance of what he is trying to convince Jig to do. This shows his own selfishness and complete lack of understanding, because for Jig what he is contemplating for her can definitely not be described as "not really anything."

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Why do you believe the story "Hills Like White Elephants" discusses abortion?

The reason we can claim this story conversation, or dialogue, is about an abortion is because the American man gives a clue to the topic substance. He says, "It's just to let the air in."

"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said. "It's not really an operation at all."
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
"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."

One of the types of procedures for abortions is called aspiration. The American man might simplistically understand it as letting "the air in." Of course, his understanding is simplistic and limited as is illustrated by his correlated remark that it's "not really an operation at all" and that Jig "wouldn't mind it." So it is very probable that the man understands the whole procedure in simplistic terms as letting "the air in."

Another clue is that later on in the story he says, "I don't want anybody but you. I don't want any one else. And I know it's perfectly simple." This allows us to infer that (1) if Jig does not do "it,"which is perfectly simple, they will no longer be alone; they will be more than "anybody but you"and the American man, and (2) that which will intrude upon just the two of them can be eliminated with the "perfectly simple" procedure that is "not really an operation at all."

These clues combine to paint the picture of an unplanned pregnancy and an upcoming--though still being debated and discussed--procedure to rid them of it. Though not an entirely true description, Hemingway reveals enough through the man's limited thoughts for us to piece the ideas together with a little detective work to arrive at an abortion as being the topic.

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What text from "Hills like White Elephants" suggests it's about a couple debating abortion?

While there is no direct text that definitively proves that the man and woman in the story are debating a possible abortion, there are clues that allow a reader to reasonably interpret the story in this way. For example, the title's reference to white elephants is such a clue. A "white elephant" has a figurative meaning as well as a literal one, and it can be symbolic of something that might seem like a gift but is actually a huge burden. It can be either terribly costly to keep or difficult (or impossible) to get rid of. An unwanted child could fit this bill. People often think of children as gifts, but if a baby is not wanted, then one's feelings about a pregnancy would be dramatically different. In addition, during the era in which this story was written, abortions were not yet legal in the United States. This illegality could be another reason, too, that the couple never explicitly says the word "abortion."

Further, the man says, "Well, let's try and have a fine time," implying that they have something on their minds which might be unpleasant for them. Further, the girl, Jig, refers to the hills, describing "the coloring of their skin," as though hills have skin: large, round, bumps in skin certainly call to mind the idea of a pregnant belly. The man tries to reassure her that "It's really an awfully simple operation . . . not really an operation at all." Further, he says,

I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in . . . 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 . . . We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before . . . That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy.

It seems as though he's trying to convince her to do something that she's not quite sold on. He reassures her that he'll be with her the whole time, which implies that this is something emotionally difficult and/or scary. His reference to an operation lets us know that this is something physical, of the body. Then, the fact that he says that this is the "only thing that bothers" them or has made them unhappy is especially telling. What operation could Jig have that he would be trying to convince her to move forward with? What is something that he could be present for and something that would get rid of the "thing that bothers" them? I can only think of one answer.

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What text from "Hills like White Elephants" suggests it's about a couple debating abortion?

In Ernest Hemingway's story, "Hills Like White Elephants," there is nothing explicitly stated that the couple is talking about an abortion. You are right about that--the textual evidence isn't there, but the contextual evidence is. However, since the couple early on is speaking of a serious topic that seems to be distressing to both of them, readers are forced to try to figure out what exactly they are talking about. The only key words or textual evidence from the text that might point to an abortion as the possible topic is the word "operation." The American tells Jig that it is a simple operation, but does not say which one it is. He also tries to simplify this operation by saying it's only to "let the air in." This description doesn't make a lot of sense on it's own, but if the reader imagines the operation to be an abortion, letting the air in is how the body would be after the operation. The reader must take the textual word "operation" and the description "let the air in" and apply them to the discussion between the man and woman and consider how they may apply to the given context. 

Subtle context clues that point to the abortion are the rounded white hills that Jig keeps commenting on--these bring to mind a pregnant woman's belly. Also, she is resistant to the idea, while he is for it, which makes the operation seem divided along gender lines. The only other thing that might contribute to the notion of the operation being an abortion is that Hemingway wrote this story shortly after he found out he was going to be a father, not a role he welcomed. He enjoyed a bachelor-like lifestyle and did not relish the idea of becoming a father--this might be seen in this story. So, while there is no direct textual evidence in this story to suggest that the operation was an abortion, there are subtle clues and contextual evidence that allow this to be a possible interpretation. 

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

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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Is abortion a 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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