Hills Like White Elephants

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"Hills Like White Elephants"
Author Ernest Hemingway
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) short story
Published in Men Without Women
Publication type short story collection
Publication date 1927
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.[1]


The story focuses on a conversation between an American man and a girl at a Spanish train station while waiting for a train to Madrid. The girl compares the nearby hills to white elephants. The pair obliquely discuss an "operation" which the man wants the woman to have, which is implied to be an abortion.[2]

Symbolism and setting[edit]

This story was rejected by early editors and was ignored by anthologists until recently. The early editors returned it because they thought that it was a "sketch" or an "anecdote," not a short story. At the time, editors tried to second-guess what the reading public wanted, and, first, they felt as though they had to buy stories that told stories, that had plots. "Hills Like White Elephants" does not tell a story in a traditional manner, and it has no plot.

In part, some of the early rejection of this story lies in the fact that none of the editors who read it had any idea what was going on in the story. Even today, most readers are still puzzled by the story. In other words, it will take an exceptionally perceptive reader to realize immediately that the couple is arguing about the girl's having an abortion at a time when abortions were absolutely illegal, considered immoral, and usually dangerous.

Early objections to this story also cited the fact that there are no traditional characterizations. The female is referred to simply as "the girl," or, later, "Jig", and the male is simply called "the American." There are no physical descriptions of either person or even of their clothing. Unlike traditional stories, wherein the author usually gives us some clues about what the main characters look like, sound like, or dress like, here we know nothing about "the american" or "the girl." We know nothing about their backgrounds. Can we, however, assume something about them — for example, is "the American" somewhat older and "the girl" perhaps younger, maybe eighteen or nineteen? One reason for assuming this bare-bones guesswork lies in tone of "the girl." Her questions are not those of a mature, worldly-wise woman, but, instead, they are those of a young person who is eager and anxious to please the man she is with.

It is a wonder that this story was published at all. When it was written, authors were expected to guide readers through a story. In "Hills Like White Elephants," though, Hemingway completely removes himself from the story. Readers are never aware of an author's voice behind the story. Compare this narrative technique to the traditional nineteenth-century method of telling a story. Then, such authors as Dickens or Trollope would often address their readers directly.

In contrast, we have no idea how to react to Hemingway's characters. Had Hemingway said that the girl, for example, spoke "sarcastically," or "bitterly," or "angrily," or that she was "puzzled" or "indifferent," or if we were told that the man spoke with "an air of superiority," we could more easily come to terms with these characters. Instead, Hemingway so removes himself from them and their actions that it seems as though he himself knows little about them. Only by sheer accident, it seems, is the girl nicknamed "Jig." The second definition of the word is "a device that holds a piece of work" which can be interpreted as the girl being the device holding the work, her baby.

That said, during the latter part of the 1990s, this story became one of the most anthologized of Hemingway's short stories. In part, this new appreciation for the story lies in Hemingway's use of dialogue to convey the "meaning" of the story — that is, there is no description, no narration, no identification of character or intent. We have no clear ideas about the nature of the discussion (abortion), and yet the dialogue does convey everything that we conclude about the characters.

In addition, the popularity of this story can be found in the change in readers' expectations. Readers in the 1990s had become accustomed to reading between the lines of fictional narrative and didn't like to be told, in minute detail, everything about the characters. They liked the fact that Hemingway doesn't even say whether or not the two characters are married. He presents only the conversation between them and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions. Thus readers probably assume that these two people are not married; however, if we are interested enough to speculate about them, we must ask ourselves how marriage would affect their lives. And to answer this question, we must make note of one of the few details in the story: their luggage. Their luggage has "labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights." Were these two people, the man and the girl, to have this child, their incessant wanderings might have to cease and they would probably have to begin a new lifestyle for themselves; additionally, they might have to make a decision whether or not they should marry and legitimize the child. Given their seemingly free style of living and their relish for freedom, a baby and a marriage would impose great changes in their lives.

Everything in the story indicates that the man definitely wants the girl to have an abortion. Even when the man maintains that he wants the girl to have an abortion only if she wants to have one, we question his sincerity and his honesty. When he says, "If you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to," he is not convincing. From his earlier statements, it is obvious that he does not want the responsibility that a child would entail; seemingly, he strongly wants her to have this abortion and definitely seems to be very unresponsive to the girl's feelings.

On the other hand, we feel that the girl is not at all sure that she wants an abortion. She's ambivalent about the choice. We sense that she is tired of traveling, of letting the man make all the decisions, of allowing the man to talk incessantly until he convinces her that his way is the right way. He has become her guide and her guardian. He translates for her, even now: Abortion involves only a doctor allowing "a little air in." Afterward, they will be off on new travels. However, for the girl, this life of being ever in flux, living in hotels, traveling, and never settling down has become wearying. Their life of transience, of instability, is described by the girl as living on the surface: "[We] look at things and try new drinks."

When the man promises to be with the girl during the "simple" operation, we again realize his insincerity because what is "simple" to him may very well be emotionally and physically damaging to her.

The man is using his logic in order to be as persuasive as possible. Without a baby anchoring them down, they can continue to travel; they can "have everything." However, the girl contradicts him and, at that moment, seems suddenly strong and more in control of the situation. With or without the abortion, things will never be the same. She also realizes that she is not loved, at least not unconditionally.

Thus we come to the title of the story. The girl has looked at the mountains and has said that they look "like white elephants." Immediately, a tension between the two mounts until the man says, "Oh, cut it out." She maintains that he started the argument, then she slips into apology, stating that, of course, the mountains don't really look like white elephants — only "their skin through the trees."

From the man's point of view, the hills don't look like white elephants, and the hills certainly don't have skins. The girl, however, has moved away from the rational world of the man and into her own world of intuition, in which she seemingly knows that the things that she desires will never be fulfilled. This insight is best illustrated when she looks across the river and sees fields of fertile grain and the river — the fertility of the land, contrasted to the barren sterility of the hills like white elephants. She, of course, desires the beauty, loveliness, and fertility of the fields of grain, but she knows that she has to be content with the barren sterility of an imminent abortion and the continued presence of a man who is inadequate. What she will ultimately do is beyond the scope of the story.

During the very short exchanges between the man and the girl, she changes from someone who is almost completely dependent upon the man to someone who is more sure of herself and more aware of what to expect from him. At the end of their conversation, she takes control of herself and of the situation: She no longer acts in her former childlike way. She tells the man to please shut up — and note that the word "please" is repeated seven times, indicating that she is overwhelmingly tired of his hypocrisy and his continual harping on the same subject.


"They look like 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.[3] 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.[4]


  1. ^ http://foxhonorsenglish10.wikispaces.com/file/view/Hills+Like+White+Elephants+criticism2.pdf
  2. ^ "Hills Like White Elephants: Plot Overview". SparkNotes. Retrieved 29 March 2015. 
  3. ^ Smiley, P. "Gender-linked Miscommunication in 'Hills Like White Elephants.'" Hemingway Review, Fall 1988. Vol. 8 No. 1. p. 2
  4. ^ 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.