HILLS LIKE WHITE ELEPHANTS [Full Text & Analysis]
By Ernest Hemingway
Full text of short story attached
Hills like White Elephants
By Ernest Hemingway
The story is about a couple sitting at a train station, somewhere in Spain, drinking and talking while waiting for the train. The man is referred to as “the American” while his companion is “the girl,” which probably suggests that there is an age difference between them. The story is extremely confusing and it looks like a map of clues but once you connect the dots, it becomes apparent that the couple is talking about “the girl” having an abortion. The man is trying to convince the girl that the procedure, the “operation” (line 41) is “not really an operation at all” (line 41-42). The man tries to convince the girl that he would be fine with whatever choice she makes but, it is clear that he is worried that their lives would change if they had a baby so he insists that the procedure is “perfectly natural” (line 47) and that he knows “Jig” “Wouldn’t mind it” (line 44) at all because “it’s really not anything” (line 44)
This would be a really boring story if it didn’t have the confusion factor to make it so frustrating and intriguing in the same time. First, I read the story three times and I was still confused, so I came up with a theory as to what the story might be about and I started looking for clues that would support my hypothesis. Fortunately I was right, since I was thinking they might be talking about an abortion, so it became much clear once I underlined all the parts that were “clues.” The way I came up with the theory however, was because I can only think of one thing that would confuse and scare a man so much that he cannot think of anything and he cannot talk about anything else once he “gets the news.” The way the man reacts, trying to convince the girl that he only wants what best for them and that he knows for sure she would not suffer and even going for the emotional blackmail of “I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else,” (lines 90-95), makes it clear that there is an unwanted baby on the way and he is trying to get out of the responsibility that comes with that.
The style contains a lot of hidden meanings, figurative language and metaphors. At lot of what is said is implying so much more that what is given to the reader directly. The style makes the story confusing but, I think it adds so much more to the story because it suggests to the reader that this is a confusing time for these two people; it is a terribly frustrating time for them and the reader becomes more compassionate and shares in their pain and their struggle. For instance, when the girl says that the drink “Anis del Toro,” tastes like licorice, it implies that the news she has is somewhat bitter-sweet and she cannot decide if she likes it or not. She says further that, “everything tastes of licorice, especially things that you’ve waited so long for,” (lines 25-30), which probably means that deep inside she did wait for a baby and she now finds the news hard to swallow because the man is not supporting her in this moment and she feels compelled to do what he is asking her to do.
The white elephants probably symbolize the “possible” unknown. The author says that the man could not see white elephants probably because he has a closed mind and that she can see the beauty behind things; maybe the beauty of what might exist. In lines 30-35, the girl says that her idea about the white elephants was “bright,” which may suggest that the man usually doesn’t have a lot of respect for her and doesn’t think that many of her ideas are bright and this is one of those times when she proves how smart she is. It could also mean that “bright” is used in the sense of “cheerful” and the girl is just trying to get both their minds off the painful subject and on to something more “light,” when it comes to conversation. In lines 35-40, the girl comes back to the subject of the elephants and says that she didn’t mean the hills really look like elephants but she was talking about the coloring, which may mean that she is coming down from her more imaginative world and is starting to see things in the more real light that her partner seems to embrace.
Right in the beginning, lines 10-15, the man responds quite aggressively to the girl’s remark about the white elephant-looking hills. He says that, “just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything,” which reveals that he is obviously feeling judged somehow, he feels accused of something, maybe of a lack of openness to new ideas and possibilities. Later on, when the man is talking about the “operation,” being extremely simple, although the dialogue has been going back and forth, the girl skips a few lines; (lines 40-45) and the man keeps repeating himself while she stays quiet and looks at the table legs. This shows that she is preoccupied and she is trying to come to terms with the arguments her partner is giving. All throughout the story, the girl seems agitated, plays with the beads in the curtain, looks at the hills, looks at the table, tries new drinks, even gets up at some point; it seems as if she is avoiding looking at the man, probably because her eyes would betray that she is not on board with his decision. At the very least, her constant moving shows that she is agitated and restless.
Obviously the reader is not given anything but clues as to what this relationship is about. Hemingway is a “modern” writer and this couple obviously doesn’t live in the middle ages, when a pregnant woman would have been a terrible thing. They also look like they have money, since they can afford to travel and have so many stickers on their luggage. There is probably an age difference between them, since the man is “the American,” while she is just “the girl,” and maybe the man is married and the girl is just the woman he takes on vacation, in which case, would be very hard to pick a side. Still, I don’t think that is the case, since the girl says “we could get along,” (90-95), which probably implies they could get married and be together and raise a family instead of going around the world and seeing things and trying new drinks, which is what they currently do. Finally, I think the woman is the one who should be entitled to make decisions that regard her body and her life so, the man really has no right to try and influence her and make judgments as to how difficult or easy this decision would be for her.
The story doesn’t have a clear conclusion, which probably means the couple hasn’t made a decision either. I think the man believes the thing is settled and they will go through with the abortion but I am not so sure that is the case. The woman says she is fine and the man is obviously worried, since, after he takes the bags on the platform, he comes back and drinks another quick “Anis,” alone, at the bar. He is trying to “clear his head,” with alcohol, which is not necessarily the best thing to do. He asks the woman if she feels ok and she says she is fine, there is nothing wrong with her but really, I think she is more likely to keep the baby than give it up. The only thing that is probably indicating the fact that she might go through with it is the fact that she continues to drink, which is obviously bad for the baby, but, in Hemingway’s time, women were not as informed as today about the effects of alcohol so that just might be an irrelevant detail.
Style is a manner of writing, a personal, unique way of expressing oneself. Every individual has a personal “style,” whether it is referring to how they dress, speak, walk, etc. All people have a “style,” when speaking and this, a lot of time, reflects in how they write as well. A person who speaks really fast, usually thinks really fast and his writing might reflect this idea. Hemingway is a modern writer, with a hidden, symbolic, ambiguous way of writing. You can’t just read Hemingway, you must analyze it, think about and interpret it. A story like “Hills like White Elephants,” requires you to read it, think about it for a couple of days, then come back to it and see how much more meaning you can get out of it at a second reading. While the writing is informal (mostly dialogue), the meanings are very abstract, there are lots of connotation and implied meanings to what is being said and the ideas behind the text are very complex. All complex are the problems the characters are confronted with, and, while seemingly simple and “cool,” the text is sentimental and emotion-filled underneath the surface. Hemingway’s stories are like extremely deep lakes, filled with demons and monsters but with a dangerously calm surface.