In 1938, Ernest Hemingway wrote several short stories. One of those stories was "Hills Like White Elephants," a subtle, yet profound story. It is heavily focused on dialogue, portraying the characters through their spoken words without delving into their thoughts. The story is told from an observer's standpoint as opposed to the viewpoint of one of the characters.
The story begins with a description of the setting, a train station in Spain. A man, known only as the American, and a girl called Jig are sitting at a table waiting for their train and drinking. The man, who speaks Spanish, orders beer for them then translates the conversation for the girl, who doesn't speak the native language.
A terse conversation ensues between the man and the girl, which at first seems shallow and insignificant, but which is profound on another level. They order more beer, drink and discuss an operation. Hints scattered throughout the dialogue indicate tension in the relationship between the characters. The story ends without any clear resolution, leaving the reader to consider the possible outcomes.
The subtle impact of the symbolism lends power to the story. It allows Hemingway to point to the cause of the tension between the characters without speaking of it directly. Several portions of the story serve as symbols to identify the nature of the relationship between the man and the girl, the depths of their characters and Jig's dynamics.
The title of the story comes from the girl's observation that the hills look like white elephants. In passing, such a statement seems innocent, but identifying the symbolism involved, we can see her statement as profound. A white elephant refers to a gift that is too expensive too keep, but which cannot be given away, thereby forcing the recipient into poverty. Considering the title and the operation discussed by the couple, it can be assumed that the white elephant is a pregnancy and the operation in question is an abortion.
Later in the piece, Jig says, "They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees." Her new statement indicates her changing view of the pregnancy. She's no longer seeing the baby as a white elephant--just something that fits the description in an abstract sense.
The bamboo curtain in the story also indicates the girl's changing state of mind. At first, it's covering the doorway, creating a barrier between her and the American. The next mention involves writing on the curtain, perhaps indicating that she's seeing something she can't make sense of in the separation between them. The man calls through the curtain to the waitress, who misunderstands him. Perhaps this indicates a failure of communication between the girl and and the American. Additionally, drinks are brought through the curtain, possibly demonstrating the power of alcohol to erase inhibitions and unlock emotional barriers.
The Passage of Time
Despite the fact that the story can be read in approximately six minutes, examination of the activity and dialogue demonstrates a passage of time closer to half an hour in the story. The time between the ordering of the drinks and the delivery is ignored, leaving the reader to work out the fact that time has passed. Several areas of the story leave out actions that would occur between dialogue.
Hemingway's approach to the passage of time allows readers to realize that tension has built up as the story progresses. While waiting for drinks, the couple could be staring at each other, the scenery or even the table legs. Based on their responses to each other, it's obvious that the silences are not comfortable.
The story is set in a time when abortion was not legal and dangerous. The man's attempts to convince Jig that abortion is a simple operation speak volumes about controversial issues. Similarly, Jig's questions to the man and her statement that she does not care about herself provide insight into the mind of a submissive woman who is dependant on the acceptance of her man.
Because this story deals with issues of female subordinance and abortion, it continues to resonate in our modern culture. Despite Roe v. Wade and past progress made by women in America, both abortion and feminism are subject to a variety of views. There are extremes on either side, but the debates often fail to take into account the human aspect portrayed so well by Hemingway in this piece.
Lane, S. M. (1992) Teaching Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" Retrieved September 23, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~lanes/hills.htm
Answers.com (2006) Hills Like White Elephants, Retrieved September 23, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.answers.com/topic/hills-like-white-elephants
Wikipedia (2006) Ernest Hemingway, Retrieved September 23, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway
Hypertext (nd) Hills Like White Elephants, Retrieved September 23, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://www.has.vcu.edu/eng/webtext/hills/hills.htm
Wikipedia (2006) White Elephant, Retrieved September 23, 2006 from the World Wide Web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_elephant