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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Hills Like White Elephants Themes

The three main themes in “Hills Like White Elephants” are choices and consequences, doubt and ambiguity, and men and women.

  • Choices and consequences: The characters must make a decision that will have life-altering consequences.
  • Doubt and ambiguity: The characters are unsure of what to do and what the outcome will be.
  • Men and women: The story explores the relationships between men and women.

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Themes

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Choices and Consequences
“Hills Like White Elephants” presents a couple in the midst of a crisis. Although unmarried, the girl is pregnant and the man who has made her pregnant wants her to have an abortion. His belief is that the choice for abortion will free them to return to the lives they had lived before the pregnancy. He does not want to share the girl with anyone, particularly not a baby. He believes that the consequences of having the baby will lead to the breakup of the relationship.

Jig, however, seems to have a more realistic assessment of the choices and consequences in front of her. She knows that she is the one who must make the choice about the child she carries. Although she asks for reassurance, and wants the man’s love, she also knows that the chances of them finding long term happiness are remote, regardless of the decision she makes. For her, the choice to abort or not to abort will, in all likelihood, render the same consequences: life without the American.

Doubt and Ambiguity
The story of Jig and the American is a story of doubt and ambiguity for the American, for Jig, and for the reader. While the American speaks in the language of certainty, he may or may not mean what he says. In addition, he can have little knowledge of what it would mean to the girl to have the abortion he so desperately wants her to have.

Although she seems unconvinced that the abortion is the best plan, Jig nonetheless wants reassurance from the man that she is with that he will stay with her. ‘‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’’ she asks the man. His reassurances seem to fall flat, however. For Jig, the path ahead is unclear. If she chooses to have the abortion, she may be unhappy with the loss. The American may leave her anyway. She may not survive the operation, in spite of the American’s reassurances that it is ‘‘perfectly simple.’’ If she chooses not to have the abortion, she may be left alone in Spain, without support, in a country where she does not even speak the language.

Even at the very end of the story, there seems to be no resolution. What does Jig decide? Does she get on the train or not? Does the couple stay together or separate? The clues in the story are sparse, and can be read either way. Thus, the doubt and ambiguity facing the characters are mirrored by the story itself.

Men and Women
In ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants,’’ Hemingway explores the way that men and women relate to each other. Hemingway’s stories are often heavily masculine, and his protagonists are often patriarchal and sexist. As Peter Messent argues, however, in this story, Hemingway ‘‘foregrounds a woman’s point of view.’’ The more the American speaks, the more ridiculous he becomes. For example, he tells Jig, ‘‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig. . . . It’s not really an operation at all.’’ Jig does not respond to this statement for several reasons. First, she knows what an abortion is and how it will be performed. It is, after all, her body. In addition, it is not simple: abortions are not legal at this time and place (abortion was not legalized in Spain until 1985), and sometimes women die. Jig knows this, and the man’s denial of the complexity of what he is asking the woman to do only serves to highlight his own selfishness.

In addition, throughout the opening part of the story, the American tries to talk Jig into the abortion by telling her how simple it is. He claims superior knowledge and wants her to acquiesce. The moment, however, that she says she will have the abortion because he wants her to have it, the man says, ‘‘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.’’ The use of ‘‘it’’ in this line is revealing: it refers not only to the abortion, but to the baby as well. And although the American wants Jig to have the abortion, he does not want to assume the responsibility for it. Not only must she have the abortion to keep him, she must also agree to the abortion on his terms, as something she wants. In this story, Hemingway suggests that sometimes a man wants to control not only the situation he finds himself in, but also the reactions a woman has to the situation as well.

Themes and Meanings

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“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.

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