Ernest Hemingway

Hills Like White Elephants

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Hills Like White Elephants Summary

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Hills Like White Elephants takes place in the early 1920s at a train station in the valley of the Ebro River, between Barcelona and Madrid, straddling dry, brown country and lush, verdant river valley. It is told primarily through dialogue between “the American and the girl with him”; formal names are not given, though the girl is later identified as “Jig.” The two are waiting for the express train to Barcelona, and have forty minutes at the station before it arrives. They sit on the side of the station that faces the parched, lifeless landscape. The girl suggests they drink beer, and the man translates the order to the Spanish station attendant.

A key and consistent theme in Hemingway’s prose is direct, unembellished dialogue. The narrator does not offer any descriptions or subjective impressions of the two characters, and therefore, no guidance for the reader to determine the characters’ personalities. The only way to determine anything about them is by the way they speak to each other, as well as what is contextually implied but left unsaid. It becomes apparent that the two are communicating about more than they are saying directly; Jig attempts to make small conversation about the scenery, suggesting the hills look like white elephants, which the man dismisses by saying he has never seen a white elephant. It is not long before the man reads between the lines of the girl’s comments; she makes an allusion to “all the things you’ve waited so long for,” to which he responds, “Oh, cut it out…let’s try and have a fine time.”

The man is the first to bring up the reason for the tension. This is also the moment we learn the girl’s nickname, when he says, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig.” A few lines later he says again, “it’s perfectly simple,” unintentionally suggesting that an awful solution can potentially be the perfect one. The operation is implied to be an abortion, which in the early 1920s was a dangerous procedure, in most cases illegal and considered immoral. Their conversation is taking place in a public setting, which keeps their dialogue contained and controlled and prevents either from revealing too much emotion.

A white elephant is an item that is both difficult to maintain and also difficult to dispose of. Jig’s early comment that the hills look like white elephants is both her attempt to elicit a meaningful conversation from the man, as well as indirectly share her feelings on her pregnancy. The man sees it as the “only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy,” but Jig is skeptical. The white elephant in this situation may represent her pregnancy; following through would require the two to revoke their independence for a child, but choosing an abortion places her in a dangerous and unclear position. However, the white elephant Jig refers to may instead represent the way she feels about their relationship; at this point, she feels all they do together is “look at things and try new drinks,” with no deeper fulfillment. Whichever action she takes on her pregnancy, her relationship with the man would be both difficult to maintain and difficult to end.  She shares with him, “I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine,” suggesting that their relationship is not something she wants to end for the sake of avoiding an abortion.

Once the topic of abortion surfaces, their conversation spirals into justifications and affirmations from the man, and skepticism from Jig. He repeatedly assures her that he will stay with her through the entire operation, and their relationship will go back to the way it was before they learned she was pregnant. With every affirmation of the operation, the man maintains that he does not want her to go through with it if she is truly uncomfortable with it. Jig becomes exasperated, and asks her travel partner to “please please please please please please please stop talking.” The station attendant interjects to bring them another round of beers and notifies them that the train will arrive in five minutes. Jig does not speak Spanish, and needs the man to translate for her, indicating that throughout the entire trip the man has acted as her guardian and translator.

There is no traditional plot for the reader to follow from start, to climax, to conclusion. The story’s setting represents a transitional phase, a station between two tracks symbolizing two opposing directions. The characters’ communication also identifies a transitional point; Jig’s pregnancy could represent a permanent bond between the two, or it could instead represent the end of their independence and freedom. It could also represent the choice between continuing or ending their relationship. The key decision to be made is whether or not Jig aborts the pregnancy, which the man carefully but clearly shows is his preference.

The dialogue takes place over 35 minutes. Hemingway does not clarify if or when there are pauses within the dialogue, but considering the short length of the exchange and the number of drinks they are able to finish, there are numerous instances throughout the story where the two sit in silence. There is enough give and take between the two characters, in terms of decision-making, that it is unclear what the outcome of their discussion will be. Jig speaks the final line in the story, telling the man, “there’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”