The scene opens on a railway station in Spain where the Barcelona-to-Madrid express is expected in 40 minutes. A man referred to as “the American” and his girl, Jig, sit at a table outside the station’s bar drinking beer. The landscape surrounding the station is described as the valley of the Ebro River, with long white hills on each side and brown dusty ground in between. Jig remarks that the hills look like white elephants, and the remark is not well received by the American.
The two decide to try a new drink, the anis del toro, with water. Jig remarks that it tastes like licorice, and the two begin bickering again. As they start on another round of beers, the man introduces a new motif into the conversation, saying that a particular operation is very simple and that Jig would not mind it. If she gets the operation, he says, their relationship will be fine again, as it was before. Jig is quiet and obviously skeptical.
The American says he does not want Jig to have it if she does not want to, but he says it would be best if she did. He maintains, however, that he loves her and that he is snippy only because he is worried. Jig says in return that she will get the operation because she does not care about herself, which guilt-trips her boyfriend into saying that he does not want her to get it if she feels that way.
Jig pauses to contemplate the scenery and says they could have everything. When the American agrees, she contradicts him, saying it has all been taken away from them and that they can never get it back. Then she asks him to stop talking.
They are silent for a while, but the American brings the operation up again, and Jig tells him in return that they could get along if she did not have it. He counters that he does not want anyone else in his life but her and that the operation is perfectly simple. She asks him to stop talking again.
The barmaid brings another round of beer and the announcement that the train is due in five minutes. The American brings the bags to the other side of the tracks, drinks an Anis at the bar and returns to the table. Jig greets him with a smile and in answer to his question says she is fine.
“Hills Like White Elephants” centers on a couple’s verbal duel over, as strongly implied by the text and as widely believed by many scholars, whether the girl will have an abortion of her partner’s child. Jig, clearly reluctant to have the operation, suspects her pregnancy has irrevocably changed the relationship but still wonders whether having the abortion will make things between the couple as they were before. The American is anxious that Jig have the abortion and gives lip service to the fact that he still loves Jig and will love her whether she has the procedure done or not. As the story progresses, the power shifts back and forth in the verbal tug-of-war, and at the end, though it is a topic of fierce debate among Hemingway scholars, it seems that Jig has both gained the upper hand and made her decision.
Hemingway’s feat in this story is to accomplish full, fleshed-out characterizations of the couple and a clear and complete exposition of their dilemma using almost nothing but dialogue. This dialogue even omits the main causes of disagreement: the words “abortion” and “baby.” He also gives the reader a clear sense of how the power shifts in the couple’s relationship.
The American is anxious for Jig to have the abortion because he “doesn’t want anybody but [her]”. He is interested in his life with Jig continuing as it has, globetrotting, and having sex in different hotels, as Hemingway’s description of the couple’s bags confirms: “He…looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” To make the operation seem less frightening, he asserts that it is perfectly simple. Interestingly, he never mentions that the operation is “safe,” a notable omission.
Ultimately, the American’s ammunition in this verbal duel with Jig is the ability to make the relationship emotionally hostile for her, as evidenced by his reactions to her comments about the appearance of the hills and the fact that everything she waits for tastes like licorice. Hemingway implies Jig is more emotionally invested in the relationship, which for the American is clearly mostly about sex.
Jig, for her part, is very reluctant to have the operation, cares to some degree about the baby (“Doesn’t it mean anything to you?”), believes the couple’s relationship has been irrevocably altered simply by the pregnancy (“It isn’t ours anymore”), and does not believe an abortion will solve their problems anyway. Jig’s ammunition is that the American will probably have to support her and the child in some way if she forgoes the abortion; the fact that he has not already left her signals that she has some kind of hold over him, though she may not be married to him. Perhaps he does actually love her, as he claims.
The American, as scholars have noted, clearly wants Jig to say she wants the operation in order to absolve himself of blame, and Jig clearly refuses to give her partner that satisfaction. If she has the operation, she maintains wordlessly, it will be because he has forced her to. That, at least, is her attitude throughout the story. Whether an inner struggle will produce a different attitude later on remains unclear. However, at the end of the story, Jig seems to have gotten the upper hand. Jig all of a sudden begins smiling at the barmaid and at the American; she seems to have a new confidence and serenity about her, and the American gives up the argument to take the bags to the other side of the tracks. It seems that he realizes he has lost the argument and he takes a few minutes away from her to drink another liqueur in the bar before returning to their table. Once there, he asks if she feels better and she smiles serenely at him, telling him she is fine and betraying no anxiety of any kind.
One of the most notable aspects of this story is that Hemingway breaks with his typical “bitch goddess” characterization of women. Jig is a sympathetic character, ultimately more sympathetic, scholars have argued, than the American. She sees the issue of the abortion as a multilayered question, and considers the impact it will have upon her relationship with the American, upon the child itself, and upon the couple’s economic means (“We could get along.”) The American, on the other hand, considers only that he wants life to continue in a carefree fashion and that he wants to evade the responsibilities of fatherhood. Accordingly, he tries to bully Jig into the procedure, and this very bullying, and Jig’s resistance to it, make her the protagonist of the story.
Another important feature of the story that backs up the idea that Jig is the protagonist is that Jig appreciates the beauty of the train station’s natural surroundings. Hemingway was a great believer in the power of nature to edify and uplift people, and the fact that Jig understands and values “fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro,” along with their attendant mountains and shadows of clouds, indicates that she is the character with her priorities straight. Later in the story, Hemingway states, “the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.” Once again, Jig is looking to nature as a guide in her time of crisis while the American ignores the scenery.
The title of the story has led many to speculate on what the “white elephant” symbolizes for the couple. A white elephant is generally thought of as unusual and cumbersome, in short, a problem. Various theories exist. The white elephant could be the pregnancy, the baby itself, the abortion, Jig’s reluctance to get the abortion, the American’s insistence that Jig abort, Jig herself and the American himself. The most popular choices among scholars are that the white elephant is the baby/pregnancy (the obvious choice) and the American himself, given his bullying of Jig.
“Hills Like White Elephants” is full of similes and metaphors as the language is throughout devoid of the words “abortion” and “baby” while that is all the characters are talking of. For example, at the beginning, Jig comments that the anis del toro tastes like licorice, and the man says that’s the way with everything, to which the girl replies “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” The man then replies, “Cut it out,” rather a strong reaction to a seemingly innocuous comment. It is possible that “absinthe” stands for something to the couple that the reader is not aware of, but it is also possible that Jig is referring to how she has waited her whole life to get pregnant and have a baby but now it is being spoiled for her by the American.
**Note: 9/25/12 – I am still amazed that so many people (literally 200 to 400 a week steadily every semester since I posted it) visit this particular paper. Seriously, if you have any questions, go ahead and send a comment. I will try and help any way I can – same goes for any of my other papers on this blog.**
**Note: 3/14/17 – Still 50 – 100 visits to this essay come each day during spring and fall semesters. I check in for comments and questions three to four times a week, so if you have a question or something you want to bounce off of me, please know that I will respond and try to help. I also would appreciate if anyone has done well with their research papers that they send me a link or the text in an email so I can see how ya’ll did. Some of you have some really good premises you’re working on per the comments section at the end.**
Besides the symbolism in the story which has been gone over ad nauseum, I wanted to approach my analysis from a different direction. Keep in mind that in a literary analysis, you need to be focused on just the point you are trying to make and it can be difficult not to go off on tangents, like symbolism. We beat the symbolism to death in the discussion board section of the class, and I found I disagreed with most of the other online analyses I had read on this story that declared that the story’s outcome was that the girl was going to abort the baby and that the couple would part ways. She got lighter at the end – not many people noticed that – kind of like she was going to get her way. I won’t give it away. Here’s my analysis. I got a 98. The link to Hemingway’s story is at the end under the “Works Cited” section. I was never a big Hemmy fan, but I do appreciate and applaud his presentation of this particular story.
The “Elephant” in the Room: Hemingway’s Word Not Spoken
Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” uses dialogue almost exclusively to portray a serious conversation in which a major life decision is about to be made by a young female. Whereas other authors would carefully set the stage and provide backstory including insertion of motive and emotion cues of the characters as they interact, Hemingway puts the reader in the role of eavesdropper to the couple’s conversation beginning as they are seated at a table outside the train station bar. Like any eavesdropper who finds him- or herself tuning in to another’s conversation, the reader is left to discern the topic merely by listening and the occasional “peek” over at the adjacent table as to what action may actually be transpiring. Like the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone sees, but no one wants to acknowledge, not once does the couple’s actual dialogue specifically disclose the very serious and particular subject matter that the couple is discussing: abortion.
Although a sore topic for centuries and prior to the 1920s especially, birth control was a hotly contested issue in America, with proponent Margaret Sanger even living in exile in England for several years to avoid imprisonment, eventually returning to the United States to continue her social reform work promoting a woman’s right to access birth control methods and the right to safe abortions. Although as early as 1920, Communist leader Lenin legalized abortion in the Soviet Union, Hemingway’s story takes place in mid-1920s Spain, a staunchly Catholic country where abortion was still a criminal act until 2009 (“History”). The illegality of the procedure was likely the reason the word “abortion” was never injected into their public conversation. However, in any day and age, enough money seems to be able to buy anything, including the desired medical service of an abortion and with the story’s reference to many hotel stickers on their suitcases, money is apparently not an issue for the American. He was most likely aware of Margaret Sanger’s successful and legal opening in 1923 of the first birth control clinic in the United States and the progressiveness it represented.
It is also possible that he would have been aware of one of Sanger’s mantras, “Every child should be a wanted child,” and used it to persuade the young woman to arrive at this point on their journey (“Biography”). As to the American’s references to the “awfully simple operation” that was “not really an operation at all” and “it’s just to let the air in,” the man was avoiding acknowledging that the child that the girl was carrying – his child – was a human being (Hemingway). In fact, his references to her pregnancy were the same as his references to the procedure, both of which he simply called “it.” In fact, his lame attempt at patronizing her was a statement that he would “be perfectly willing to go through with it [having the baby] if it means anything to you” didn’t set well with the girl. Her sharp retort of, “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” tells the reader (or listener in the case of eavesdropping) that the man clearly does not want a baby in his immediate future as confirmed by his reply, “But I don’t want anybody but you” (Hemingway).
Whereas the interchange reveals the selfishness of the American, it also reveals the reflectiveness of the girl. Her various statements such as referring to the hills as looking similar to white elephants, her gazing across the fertile side of the train station and musing that “we could have all this,” and “once they take it away, you never get it back” reveal that she is thinking much more deeply about the issue at hand than is the man, who seems to take everything superficially (Hemingway).
If dialogue alone is not enough to surmise the topic of the conversation, Hemingway gives plenty of clues in the symbolism of his setting. The story opens indicating that the couple is seated facing the dry, barren side of the train station whereas when the girl gets up to look around, she sees that the opposite side of the station has wide open, fertile grain fields and a river. Despite the clouding of judgment one might expect from all of the alcohol the couple consumed in their time of waiting, it’s not the girl who vacillates, but the man. At the end of the story, the man takes the couple’s bags around to the other side of the station to wait for the train – the fertile side. The girl’s response was to smile at him. After his stopping at the bar for a second drink of the bittersweet Anis, he rejoined the girl who smiled again at him. After asking her, “Do you feel better?” her response that she felt fine indicates that she seems to know she has won him over from his preference to proceed with the abortion, although the conclusion is left to the judgment of the reader.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1927. Online reprint. Scribd.com, 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/94569/Hills-Like-White-Elephants>
“History of Abortion.” Wikipedia.com. 11 April 2011. Web. 15 April 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_abortion#1920s_to_1960s>
“Margaret Sanger Biography.” Biography.com. 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <http://www.biography.com/articles/Margaret-Sanger-9471186?part=1>