Hills Like White Elephants
|"Hills Like White Elephants"|
|Published in||Men Without Women|
|Publication type||short story collection|
|Preceded by||"In Another Country"|
|Followed by||"The Killers"|
"Hills Like White Elephants" is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. It was first published in August 1927, in the literary magazine transition, then later in the 1927 short story collection Men Without Women.
The story takes place at a train station in the Ebro River valley of Spain. This particular day is oppressively hot and dry, and the scenery in the valley is barren and ugly for the most part. The two main characters are a man (referred to only as "the American") and his female companion, whom he refers to as "Jig".
While waiting for the train to Madrid, the American and the girl with him drink beer and a liquor called Anís del Toro, which the girl compares to liquorice. Their conversation is mundane at first, but quickly drifts to the subject of an operation the American is attempting to convince the girl to undergo. Though it is never made explicit in the text, it is made clear (through phrases of dialogue such as, "It's just to let the air in", and, "But I don't want anybody but you", among numerous context clues) that the girl is pregnant and the procedure in question is an abortion.
After posing arguments to which the American is largely unresponsive, the girl assents to the operation, while declaring that she does not care about herself. The man tries to give the girl a feel that he is letting her decide but tries to convince her to proceed with the operation. The girl is uncomfortable with their conversation and tries to persuade the man into quieting. He does not concur.
The barmaid comes out through the beaded curtains with two glasses of beer and puts them down on the felt pads. She notes that the train will be arriving shortly. The girl is distracted, but then smiles brightly at the woman and thanks her.
The American leaves the table and carries their bags to the opposing platform, but there's still no sight of the train in the distance. He walks back through the station, and everyone else is still waiting reasonably for the train. Pausing at the bar, he drinks another Anis del Toro, alone, before rejoining the girl. He then asks her, "Do you feel better?" She again smiles at him, "I feel fine. There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine."
Symbolism and setting
The girl's reference to white elephants could be in regards to the baby. The American could see the baby as a white elephant and does not want to raise it because of the cost, while the girl could see the child as an extraordinary addition to her mundane life of drinking and mindless traveling. "Hills Like White Elephants" shows Hemingway's use of iceberg theory or theory of omission: a message is presented through a story's subtext; for instance, in the story the word "abortion" is never mentioned, although the male character seems to be attempting to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion. The symbolism of the hills and the big white elephant can be thought of as the images of a pregnant woman's swollen breasts and abdomen, and the prenatal dream of the mother of the future Buddha in which a white elephant appears in her (in this case, as a symbol of prestigious leadership).
Apart from the hills, other parts of the setting provide symbolism which expresses the tension and conflict surrounding the couple. The train tracks form a dividing line between the barren expanse of land stretching toward the hills on one side and the green, fertile farmland on the other, symbolizing the choice faced by each of the main characters and their differing interpretations of the dilemma of pregnancy. The girl focuses on the landscape during the conversation, rarely making eye contact with the American.
"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer.
"No, you wouldn't have."
"I might have," the man said. "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything."
The girl looked at the bead curtain. "They've painted something on it," she said. "What does it say?"
"Anis del Toro. It's a drink."
"Could we try it?"
The reader must interpret their dialogue and body language to infer their backgrounds and their attitudes with respect to the situation at hand, and their attitudes toward one another. From the outset of the story, the contentious nature of the couple's conversation indicates resentment and unease. Some critics have written that the dialogue is a distillation of the contrasts between stereotypical male and female relationship roles: in the excerpt above, for instance, the girl draws the comparison with white elephants, but the hyper-rational male immediately denies it, dissolving the bit of poetry into objective realism with "I've never seen one." By saying, "No, you wouldn't have" she implies he hadn't had a child before, or hadn't allowed birth in the past. She also asks his permission to order a drink. Throughout the story, the girl is distant; the American is rational. While the American attempts to frame the fetus as the source of the couple's discontent with life and one another, the tone and pattern of dialogue indicate that there may be deeper problems with the relationship than the purely circumstantial. This ambiguity leaves a good deal of room for interpretation; while most critics have espoused relatively straightforward interpretations of the dialogue (with the girl as the dynamic character, traveling reluctantly from rejection to acceptance of the idea of an abortion), a few have argued for alternate scenarios based upon the same dialogue.
- Johnston, Kenneth G. (Autumn 1982). "Hills Like White Elephants". Studies in American Fiction 10 (2): 233–38.
- Mellow 1992, p. 348
- Weeks Jr., L. "Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in 'Hills Like White Elephants.'" Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1980. Vol. 17 No. 1. p. 75
- Fletcher, M. "Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants." Explicator, Summer 1980. Vol. 38 No. 4. p. 16.
- Smiley, P. "Gender-linked Miscommunication in 'Hills Like White Elephants.'" Hemingway Review, Fall 1988. Vol. 8 No. 1. p. 2
- Renner, S. "Moving to the Girl's Side of 'Hills Like White Elephants.'" Hemingway Review, Fall 1995. Vol. 15 No. 1. p. 27
- Berryman, John Dream Song 14 "The tranquil hills & gin"
- Mellow, James R. (1992). Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-37777-3.