Themes and Meanings
“Hills Like White Elephants” calls to mind the “A Game of Chess” section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); like Eliot’s masterpiece, Hemingway’s story deals with the sterility and vacuity of the modern world. The boredom of the man and the desperation of the girl reveal the emptiness of the postwar generation and the crucial necessity of taking responsibility for the quality of one’s own life. Both Eliot’s poetry and Hemingway’s fiction are filled with a sense of missed opportunities and failed love, of a fullness of life lost and never to be regained: “Once they take it away, you never get it back.” As in Eliot’s poem, the landscape takes on powerful symbolic dimensions here. On the side of the tracks where the couple is waiting, the country is “brown and dry”; “on the other side, were fields of grain and trees . . . the river . . . mountains.” The girl calls attention to the symbolic value of the setting and indicates that in choosing to have an abortion and to continue to drift through life they are choosing emotional and spiritual desiccation.
Hemingway’s characters seem to live in a world without a God, without traditions or clear and established values; they are, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “condemned to be free” and consequently are responsible for their own meaning. The man here is unequal to the challenge; he is a bored and listless fragment of a human being. He resolutely refuses to speak truthfully, to acknowledge his own hypocrisy. His unwillingness to be honest—and, by extension, modern humanity’s refusal to live honestly—is a consistent motif of this sketch. The girl is, at least, profoundly distressed by the aimless and sterile nature of their existence and does not give in to vacuity without a struggle.
One particularly interesting aspect of Hemingway’s uncompromising dissection of the poverty of the modern world in this story is the juxtaposition of reason and emotion or imagination. The man is perfectly reasonable. He lives in a senseless and violent world; he has the financial resources to do as he pleases; he reasonably concludes that he should enjoy his life, not encumber himself with unnecessary conflicts or responsibilities, certainly not trouble himself with relationships that are demanding or in the least unpleasant. He is quite literal-minded, quite pragmatic, quite unemotional: an admirable fellow by modern patriarchal standards. The woman, on the other hand, is unreasonable enough to imagine that hills look like white elephants and that there might be some virtue to having a child who would surely be like a “white elephant,” a sacred beast in some cultures, but in Europe and America something that is only apparently valuable and is in actuality more trouble than it is worth. Reason here is associated with dissimulation, death, nonmeaning; emotion with life, imagination, growth. Hemingway suggests that reason (the God of modern humanity) is an insufficient standard by which to live. The reasonable male here is a cipher, a man of straw who declines to acknowledge the necessity of making his every moment intense, honest, full.
Another interesting facet of this story in the context of Hemingway’s fiction is the clear superiority of the woman to the man. Hemingway is not particularly kind to women generally, certainly not to women who want to have children. Usually such women are interested in asserting their sexual power over men and in depriving men of their freedom and their maleness. This girl may prove to be angry and frustrated enough to evolve into a castrating harridan; in this story, however, she is a tragic figure seemingly driven into a barren and empty existence by her love for this man.
Hemingway’s brief and seemingly objective story is a powerful condemnation of the aimlessness, hypocrisy, and moral and spiritual poverty of the modern world.