‘Hills like White Elephants’ is a very clever story written by a journalist, turned ambulance driver, turned military, turned prose and fiction writer. Ernest Hemingway was popular for his novels and short stories, but before he entertained his passion for the art of storytelling, he worked for the Kansas City Star as a reporter; he was also an ambulance driver during World War I and enlisted in the Italian infantry.
He took every opportunity to wield the pen, in fact, after the war; he worked for the Toronto Star. Hemingway was more in love with the pen than with the musket as during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, he even worked as a news correspondent. This brilliant writer produced exceptional pieces of literature that are cherished for their quality to this day such as ‘Death in the Afternoon’, ‘The Green Hills of Africa’, ‘A Farewell to Arms’, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.
Hemingway drew from his experiences in the motifs of his pieces which usually had masculine motifs like hunting, war, and other activities associated with the masculine gender. For some strange reason, however, Hemingway committed suicide in 1961. His works of short fiction were far better than his novels; however it is with his novels that he built a reputation for himself. ‘Hills like White Elephants’ is one of his short stories that quite reflects the skill of Hemingway as a fictionist.
‘Hills like white Elephants’ is a piece of literature that demonstrates what is known to literaturists as literary control in tackling the main theme which is abortion. It is a story that addresses a very sensitive issue with the use of allegory and a philosophical approach to fiction known as existentialism.
The story ‘Hills like White Elephants’ is a relatively ‘short’ short story that is ridden with symbolism; for all its worth, it might have as well been a piece of poetry, if not for its obvious narrative style. It is about two individuals, an unnamed American and Jig who have a discussion over some drinks at a train station in Spain.
The matter of their discussion is vague at first, and becomes clear to be abortion later on. The piece is a ‘silent’ commentary about the difference of views between males and females in general as well as the poignant reaction of both genders to news that may or may not change ones way of life. In this particular story, Hemingway used the third person perspective to give the audience a sense of distance when reading the story. By this, it means that the audience, instead of closely associating themselves with the characters in the story, would instead, identify themselves on a different level, thus, giving even the subject matter of the story a metaphorical feel, despite its being a tangible and quite material issue.
This distinct level of identification in the story because of the narrative is a technique used by most writers to create a more general feel to the story; so that the audience, in reading the story, does not have to attach themselves to a particular detail and identify with that detail. Noticeably so, this same quality of the story is also achieved by Hemingway’s use of direct, relatively short sentences for the conversation of the two characters. This technique, again, gives the story a distinct indifferent feel.
It allows the reader to explore the story on various levels instead of just zooming into one particular aspect of the story. It also prevents the audience from succumbing to the temptation of making specific conclusions about the story early on; from the temptation of simply disregarding other details in the story and focusing on the main subject matter, which is abortion. Even this particular issue is never mentioned in the piece, except in the form of symbols and indirect statements from the characters.
This particular style of writing, where the writer skimps on words, and instead, attaches multi-level meanings to the text is known as literary control. The main theme of abortion is addressed in this particular style, to begin with the title itself, “Hills like White Elephants”. (Hemingway, 1950) The title, which is illustrated more in the first paragraph of the story which describes the setting, acquires a new level of interpretation from the passage, “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.” (Hemingway, 1950); and the girl continues to describe the barren landscape, “They look like white elephants”. (Hemingway, 1950)
What this does in particular is it foreshadows the main theme of the story by presenting something decrepit or useless. ‘White elephants’ are accepted to be symbols of huge structures that are not functional, and in the way this particular phrase is used to describe the hills in the story, it takes on a different meaning – that the hills, barren and dry, supposedly representations of abundance and fertility, are apparently ‘white’ or ineffectual on a superficial level.
This particular style combines two opposing images, that of fertility in the hills, and emptiness, in the perception of Jig. What this does is it confirms Jig’s pregnancy, but alludes to this pregnancy being empty, in the sense that she feels that her pregnancy is meaningless, if not to her, to her lover. The tension in the conversation is given another push with the man’s remark about Jig’s description of the hills, “I’ve never seen one (white elephant)”. (Hemingway, 1950)
Then Jig responds, “No, you wouldn’t have.” (Hemingway, 1950) On the level that has been discussed, this particular exchange in their conversation basically presents the man as being indifferent not only to the feelings of Jig but to the concept of emptiness and aloneness; that other than not being able to sense how Jig is feeling at the moment, he also is naturally and habitually indifferent, selfish, even.
This early in the story, there is also an indication as to the personality of Jig being very dependent and attached to the man because of her requiring his approval first before she does anything; in having a drink, she asks, “What should we drink…Could we try it (Anis del Toro)?” (Hemingway, 1950); and when she is asked if she would take the drink with water, she asks (addressing the man), “I don’t know…Is it good with water?” (Hemingway, 1950)
These statements from the girl show how valuable the man’s approval of her decisions is. These show the weightiness of the man’s decisions even with matters concerning Jig. This particular exchange also gives the audience an idea of how the tone will be when the main issue of abortion comes into play. At this point, the girl also senses the indifference of the man and indicates this with the line, “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” (Hemingway, 1950)
The girl here makes an indirect reference to their lifestyle – that nothing is new with them – and suddenly, when something new happens – she gets pregnant – the man refuses to accept the change. In particular, this also gives a slight indication that the girl wants to continue the pregnancy when she implied that it is a change that she ‘waited so long for’ (Hemingway 1950) This interpretation is further strengthened when the girl remarks, “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?” (Hemingway, 1950)
Another indication as to the lifestyle of this couple comes later in the story, with the author’s description of the bags at the station, “He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” (Hemingway, 1950) This description of the bags creates the imagery of the owners of the bags being people who are on a pleasure trip from one place to another. Bags are also used here to represent the emotional or mental baggage that the man is carrying as a consequence of the pregnancy of Jig.
When the man finally reveals in the story that he wants Jig to have an abortion, in the passage, “”It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig, … It’s not really an operation at all.” (Hemingway, 1950), the tension begins to rise, and more symbols emerge. Of course, with this remark from the man, the girl becomes silent and does not react.
However, her first line after this revelation is “Then what will we do afterward?” (Hemingway, 1950) Basically, what this does is it amplifies the emptiness of the woman in relation to the abortion – her asking ‘what to do afterwards’ (Hemingway, 1950) shows that she does not see anything after the abortion; that everything after the abortion is covered in haze. The man further refers to the pregnancy as something that has made them both unhappy (Hemingway, 1950), in response, the girl takes hold of two strings of beads from the bead curtain and says, “”And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”. (Hemingway, 1950)
However, note that although the girl almost validates the statement of the man regarding the pregnancy, notice the action of holding the beads – while this can easily be passed off as an unconscious musing, it could also be symbolic for ‘prayer’. Beads are derived from the old Middle English word ‘bede’ which means prayer. The string of beads as described very much look like the ones in rosaries; hence, it could be interpreted that although the girl seems to agree with the man, she is praying or hoping against all hope that abortion was not the solution to their problem.
The girl is at a loss for words at this point and refers back to the ‘white elephants’ in her earlier exchange with the man specifically pointing out his earlier reaction to this remark, “But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” (Hemingway, 1950) Now, if the previous interpretation of ‘white elephants’ being emptiness is applied to this statement, it becomes quite sarcastic as opposed to the tone at which it is said – the girl here is submitting to the man and implying that she will be empty with the abortion, but will the man like her in this state, anyway?
The man responds, “I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it.” (Hemingway, 1950) Slowly, from their exchanges, a brute nature emerges from the man, insensitive, and indifferent. Their conversation then continues on to indicate that the girl will be having the abortion but not because she wants it, but because this would make her man happy, also implying that her own happiness is not a matter of concern, because she has put the man’s happiness before her own; this she conveyed with the lines, “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” (Hemingway, 1950) Here we can see that a resolution is not met between the two characters, only a submission, which, by the way, is against the will of the lady.
The author alludes to the lady’s desire of having the child when he put in a description of the scenery at the other side of the station – which, in this story, represents a ‘crux’ or a point of decision. The station here is symbolic of a turning point in both of the lives of the characters, and so, the author, earlier, describes that the hills are dry and barren, while at the other side of the station, “were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains.” (Hemingway, 1950)
All these images represent fertility, life, and renewal, and at this point also, when the lady sees this particular scenery, she experiences a change of heart and realizes that she should at least take another chance at convincing the man that the abortion will leave her empty, which should be the main issue between the two of them, if the man was sensitive enough. This realization is clear in their rapid exchange of lines, “”I said we could have everything./We can have everything./No, we can’t./We can have the whole world./No, we can’t./We can go everywhere./No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more./It’s ours./No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.” (Hemingway, 1950)
In this exchange, it is evident how totally unrelated the man’s arguments are in relation to the girl’s. Here, they don’t really ‘meet’ each other in terms of what they are talking about. This ‘not meeting of minds’ has another indirect symbol in the ‘railroad tracks’ which are parallel and never meet. Notice the last statement of the girl in the above exchange; in this particular line, she is referring to the child in her womb, while earlier on in the conversation, the man is actually referring to the material and carnal pleasures that they had both been enjoying.
The man says that they can have all these, but the lady disagrees. In the end, there is no closure in their argument and Hemingway leaves the audience hanging as to whether the girl decides to have the abortion or not. What is known, however, is that in the end, the girl indicates that she is all right (Hemingway, 1950); considering her previous arguments, then it can be assumed that she will not be going for the abortion.
While the story is fairly simple in its presentation, it tackles a very deep philosophy known as existentialism, appropriately so because the writer lived in an era when this philosophy was in force. Despite the girl’s seeming submission to the man’s will in this story, she actually exercises her individual existence and choice; two very basic concepts of existentialism.
From the text, it is evident how the lady struggles to assert her own individual set of beliefs, and how she, although in a very subtle way, dismisses the man’s arguments in favor of her own set of beliefs and her freedom to choose. So, while we can easily say that for a superficial reader, the story is just an exchange of conversation between two people regarding an abortion, the symbols and the clever use of language comes into play to coax the reader to digest the story and interpret it a different level; at which level, the references to existentialism become clear.
In closing, the story is indeed a hotbed of symbolism and a classic example of literary control. It does not spoon-feed the audience nor takes all the thinking away from the reader. It very discreetly, but very accurately infers various meanings into the text by way of allegory, and profoundly presents the idea of existentialism simply by playing around with the conversation of two people, the introduction of a sensitive matter, and finally, the unspoken assertion of the lady of her individual nature and her own freedom.
Hemingway, E. (1950). Hills like White Elephants. Retrieved March 25, 2009, from