Hills Like White Elephants


'Hills Like White Elephants' is one of Ernest Hemingway's most famous short stories. It was initially published in August 1927 by the literary magazine transition, it also appears in Hemingway's second compilation of short stories Men Without Women. At first glance it appears to be little more than a conversation between a couple who are waiting for a train at a train station in the Ebro Valley in North-eastern Spain. None of the characters are given names, the only real information provided for the reader is that the man is American, the nationality of his girlfriend isn't revealed but she cannot understand Spanish. To understand why this short story is so significant one has to delve into the subtext which underlies this ostensibly casual conversation, and appreciate the symbolism behind the title.

'Hills Like White Elephants' under closer consideration is revealed to be a short story about abortion and the extremely strained relationship which exists between the two protagonists. While the word abortion is never explicitly mentioned within the narrative, the operation which the American unceasingly talks about is strongly implied to be an abortion. The girlfriend seems resistant to the idea and tries to avoid the subject altogether, frequently asking the American to stop talking about it. In general the relationship between the couple is tense and neither character communicates effectively. In particular the American often appears insincere, telling his girlfriend whatever he thinks will be the most effective thing to pressure her in to having the operation. However once the girlfriend concedes in an attempt to end the conversation the American continues talking. Equally the girl refuses to speak clearly as to what she wants, and is very passive in the discussion. At times she does give the reader some insight in to the greater problems which pervade the relationship, particularly when she mentions that all they seem to do is try new drinks. The fact that they order two beers immediately upon arriving at the bar and then ask for a new drink, suggests that they use drinking as a way to avoid confronting and discussing meaningful issues in their relationship.

In addition to the dialogue 'Hills like White Elephants' is rife with symbolism which alludes to the true subject of the story, abortion and the relationship struggles of the couple. The title itself is adapted from a line in the story in which the girlfriend describes the hills near the train station as being like white elephants. A white elephant is an idiom which refers to a burden that is difficult to dispose of. Essentially it is how the American perceives the unborn child. The girlfriend at one point retracts her statement that the hills look like white elephants, indicating her desire to keep the child, but she is mostly ignored by the American. In addition to the subtext of this simile the hills and the landscape itself are also representative of the decision facing the girl. On one side of the railroad track is a barren, hilly landscape while the other side is described as fertile and lush. This reflects the two possible choices which lie on either side of this moment at the train station, represented by the train track. This symbolism is highlighted by the description of the girlfriend staring out at the landscape as if she is looking out towards her future.

Overall this short story is very typical of Hemingway, it is predominantly dialogue with only short descriptive passages and very little embellishment. Hemingway does not confront the subject head on but rather communicates it to the reader through subtext, motifs and symbolism. It rewards the reader for careful, contemplative reading and in this understated manner it achieves its striking impact.

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