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Jean Pierre Nikuze

Associate Professor Ernest

English 101

5 December 2010

Hills Like White Elephants

Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants is a short

story that starts off the reader in media res of a couple’s

conflict which is slowly splitting them apart. The girl, as soon

as the train stops, appears to be ill and splints to the toilet.

It is only after they have sat down, ordered drinks and talked a

while that the audience learns that she is pregnant and that the

man is trying to dissuade her from having the baby merely

because he doesn’t want anyone else. They talk about beer, the

possibility of an abortion, and how better life would ostensibly

be after the procedure. The man is just referred to as The

American and the girl’s name is Jig. The type of relationship

the couple share is amorphous and the girl shows signs of

discontent, as if she wants to experience something different.

The fact that the story is narrated from the middle makes it

hard to follow as the reader is oblivious to what series of

events led to this particular moment. Therefore, he is required

to carefully observe the nuances, anticipate some symbolic

meaning behind everything, and hold each word in high esteem.


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The story’s title, “Hills Like White Elephants,” is

invaluable when attempting to ascertain what it entails. Here

the image conjured up is not easy to discern but has to do with

the unborn baby. A white elephant is a large, useless object

that may be expensive to own and maintain, an idea which

resonates in the whole story. The man doesn’t think much of the

imminent birth of his child. He sees it as something not worth

looking forward to and the child a worthless possession. He even

goes as far as to declare bluntly, “… [I] don’t want anybody but

you. I don’t want anyone else” because he thinks any additional

being will just rely on them for everything and prove tedious to

care for. He is only looking out for his own self-interest and

shows no signs of changing this. He is not going to listen to

Jig no matter how much she talks trying to convince him. For

him, capitulation would mean a lack of power. It would

automatically give the girl the high status in the relationship

which he covets now more than ever. He is too proud to remove

himself from his pedestal where he has a grand view of the

situation below. To reason with her and work on a compromise

would be to abase himself—something which he cannot do.

In order for one to understand what is currently happening,

one has to know what happened before. This story frustrates the

reader and intensifies his curiosity because it doesn’t satisfy

the voracious human need to know. Although there is not enough


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information given, the description of the story’s setting helps

the reader understand what is going on. This is especially vital

because the main theme of the story is only but alluded to

implicitly. It is the work of the reader to try and decipher

what, if anything, the setting means. The barren side of the

Ebro which has “no shade and no trees” is symbolic of the grave,

potentially divisive issue of abortion. From this, one gets the

idea that the story may be about emptiness, infertility, or even

scarcity, but it is not until the man alludes to the procedure

as, “… just to let the air in. They just let the air in and then

it’s all perfectly natural,” that the reader learns than the

sickness the girl has is related to pregnancy and not the long

journey by train.

Since the story’s background is excluded, it is the duty of

the reader to decipher the recondite information that the

writer, by means of bits and pieces, has distributed throughout

the story. This hidden information is the key to understanding

the whole story and is ubiquitous in the exchange the couple is

having. The reader has only to look closely and there,

interwoven together with this unusual dialogue, he will find the

information he needs. These unapparent details help us learn

more about the characters and how they relate to each other in

everyday conversation. When they address the issue of abortion,

the man’s sentences change in structure due to the austerity of


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the matter. Instead of his short sentences, he joins them so

that they appear long, each holding a certain amount of weight

in order to distribute in and not leave it to one sentence. In

this case, one fragmented sentence would prove inadequate in

providing the needed effect. These short sentences put together

comprise his argument for abortion--a painstakingly thought out

defense. It also reveals his deftness with the English language.

He perspicaciously constructs his sentences so that they carry

with them a force that is capable of coaxing the girl into

seeing things his way without revealing his true intentions.

This is brought out with exemplary lucidity when he says about

the abortion, “it’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig…it’s

not really an operation at all.” Here, the two consecutive

sentences help bring out his determination to not have the baby.

It shows that he is willing to do anything, add lie upon lie if

necessary to prevent the baby’s birth. He does this again when

he says, “they just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly

natural,” using his expertise with words to underplay the

enormity of this process. These details provided, although easy

to overlook, bring out the man for who he truly is—a desperate,

selfish and unloving man who is ready to do anything possible to

preempt his own child’s birth. He palpably cares more about his

writing than anything else, than Jig even. There is a paradox in

what he says, “Well, if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I
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wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s

perfectly simple.” Here he starts off as though he is willing to

give the girl the freedom to do what she wants but suddenly adds

in this last line as a plea to enforce what he had said before.

This shows that he is conniving and deceitful, one moment he

pretends to care about her; another he impresses his will.

The fact that they shy away from discussing this issue

shows how they go about communication in their relationship. It

shows that they refrain from addressing the significant and opt

for the much simpler nugatory:

MAN. We want to Anis del Toro.

WOMAN. With water?

MAN. Do you want it with water?

GIRL. I don’t know. Is it good with water?

MAN. It’s all right.

WOMAN. You want them with water?

MAN. Yes, with water.

Here they discuss the issue of water in their beer, as

scrupulously as one would some important matter (an abortion?)

and actually reach consensus in the end. They start out with

this humdrum talk perhaps as a means to warm up before the

intense one. This portrays them as people who beat about the

bush and tarry in indecision, which explains why it takes them

so long to tackle the matter at hand.


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The girl reveals her curiosity and willingness to try out

new things when she orders the beer. This act shows that she’s

is on the lookout and will readily attempt whatever catches her

eye, in this case the beer. This may be applied to their

relationship because the girl seems tired of the man. She is

tired of the mundane; tired of doing the same thing repeatedly.

Also, the fact that she asks the man about what she should do

shows her dependence on him, that she can’t do anything on her

own and therefore has to be guided always. She is tractable and

uncertain of what she wants, which makes her a burden to the

man -– a white elephant.

Only the couple's destination is given in the story, there

is no hint of where they are coming from. However, railroad

tracks on which they travel reveal something about them, about

their relationship. The railway tracks are usually parallel to

each other and never overlap. This symbolizes the couple's

relationship inasmuch as none of them wants to impose their will

on the other. They avoid fighting as much as they can and each

opts to use clever argument to try to cajole the other. And just

like the railway is long and stretches for miles and miles, they

have travelled a long way together; each has trod the same

landscape as the other, passed through the same situations.

Together they have gone through the descents of life, and

together they have climbed up on life's ascents. However, just


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as a railroad has side tracks where two trains may go in

different ways, the couple has to deal with a very serious

matter that, if they are not careful, will see them part paths.

If they don't come to a consensus soon they may very well

deviate from each other.

There are some clues on the girl's character when they

begin talking about the abortion. She tries to defend herself

and one learns of her passive aggressiveness and fragility. She

uses a series of questions to try to defend her position, “then

what will we do afterwards? What makes you think so?” These are

to no avail because the man becomes even more determined. When

things seem to exacerbate she backs down and says, “Would you

please please please please please please please stop talking?

She backs down easily because she’s not as aggressive as the

man. She doesn’t want to keep talking about the abortion because

she feels that they aren’t headed anywhere. She threatens to

scream if the man persists because this is what she is used to

doing when things get out of control. This shows that the girl

is not only placid, but also frivolous, as though she is

immature.

In the story, every word is given warranted consideration;

the whole is the sum of the parts, and there is no superfluity

of words. Every written word is imperative in knowing what

transpired in the whole story, like an individual piece to a


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byzantine puzzle. The characters, through dialogue, explain some

of the key elements of the plot, and the setting does the rest.

They manage to paint a barely perceptible picture that reveals a

plethora of key items that have to do with the plot.

Nevertheless, the story feels unsatisfactory as the final

outcome of the conflict is left in a state of quandary.


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Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without

Women. Max Perkins. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,

1927. 50-55.Print.

“Hills Like White Elephants- Literary Analysis.” VCCS Litonline.

Amazon. October 2, 2006. Web. 8 December 2010.

Cummings, Michael. Hills Like White Elephants: A Study Guide.

Cummingsstudyguides.net. Google. 2008. Web. 8 December

2010.