The short story Hills Like White Elephants by Earnest Hemingway was published in a 1972 collection of the book Men Without Women. The story is generally about a couple grappling with an abortion situation. The dialogue between the pregnant girl and her husband, takes place in a train station. The husband would like the girl to have an abortion while the girl does not echo his sentiments. Hemingway develops the story by focusing on the two elements, characters as well as the story setting. The heavily symbolic setting draws the characters in a passionate dialogue that captures the theme that the author tries to evoke right from the start of the short story.
Hemingway sets this story in the 1920’s and it takes place in Spain somewhere between the cities of Barcelona and Madrid. The author from his first paragraph of this story describes the tense atmosphere that will be reminiscent in the rest of the story. In highlighting this condition the author describes it as “there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines in the sun”. He goes on to say that the weather at that time was “very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes”. Hemingway creates a sense of distance between the couples right from the way he introduces them. He only describes them as the “American and the girl” (Hemingway, 155)
In the beginning of this story, we learn that the man is an American but the girl’s identity is hidden until latter as the story progresses. The author by not giving the man a name even as the story progresses portrays him to be a person that cannot be trusted and the author does this perfectly by contrasting the characters of both the girl and the man. This is where the real meaning of the story starts to show up. The conversation that ensues in the story about an operation on the girl shows us that the American wants her to have an operation she doesn’t want to have which is an abortion. The author by writing this short story gives his insight to the issue of abortion.
The couple in this story is faced with a dilemma of making a decision on an issue that would affect them both whether they agree to go with it or otherwise. The setting as the author has put it only leaves room for maneuvering only in two directions just like the railway lines. Hemingway uses the landscape as a fundamental part in detailing how the conflict in decision making is unfolding. The landscape is very symbolic of how the story unfolds. As the girl catches a glimpse of the long white hills she describes them to resemble “white elephants”. With this description of the landscape the girl sees the birth of her baby as something that is an uncommon occurrence just like a white elephant. The girl through the use of the color white signifies the innocence of her unborn baby. The man in contrast does not however feel the same as he asserts his position when he responds by saying that “I’ve never seen one” (Hemmingway, 252).
The two rail lines which are located in a valley where a river which symbolizes life and act as the border between two totally different landscapes. The river which symbolizes life also acts as a symbol of the situation in which the two couples find themselves in. It actually acts the crossroads in that whatever decisions the couple decides to make, the outcome will be totally different. Hemingway through Jig’s observations describes a side of the valley as being “fields of grain and trees along the banks of Ebro”. This as the author tries to point out is the fertility that Jig harbors in her thinking mentality. The author then contrasts this landscape when Jig glances at the other side of the valley and views it as “dry side of the valley” which is the side of the American.
The American in this short story is portrayed as an antagonist who wants to escape from his responsibility of being a father. He wants the easier way out by trying to convince Jig to have an abortion. The American does not care about how the girl feels and tries in everyway to manipulate her by arguing that the abortion is just something simple. The author captures this in the conversation when the American says that “It’s really an awfully simple operation” he goes further to make it look even simpler by claiming that “It’s not really an operation at all” (Hemmingway, 252).
After having a conversation with the American, Jig stands up and walks to the end of the station where she witnesses a shadow of a cloud moving across the grain field. This as the author points out prompted her to see “the river through the trees” (Hemmingway, 252). This as the author seems to put it represents the shadows of the death of the unborn child while the river represents the child’s life. However, the author leaves room for maneuver with this symbolic representation. The American hypocritically tells Jig that “if you don’t want to you don’t have to”. This was in reference to the abortion and although he says this he also cunningly says that “it’s perfectly simple” (Hemmingway, 252).
Jig after witnessing the landscapes has a sense of hope about her unborn baby and afterwards the American calls her back so they can talk further about the issue. Although she joins him physically, her mental perception after witnessing the landscapes has changed. The author captures this moment by saying that “they sat down at the table” (Hemmingway, 252). This as the author seems to suggest is that the American may have approached her and they sat down together which seems to imply that he started seeing her side of thinking. The American “picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks” (Hemmingway, 253). This is symbolic that he could have in fact accepted to see her side of the story.
This transition marks the turning point of the whole short story since the other side in which the American moved is actually the girl’s side. After the American had returned to this other side, he walked “through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking”. The American had a drink and looked at the people. Jig after seeing him, smiled at him. The American in reciprocation asked her if she was feeling better. Jig in response said that “I feel fine”. This is symbolic that they felt a mutual feeling about each other (Anonym, 4).
Although the American doesn’t give up completely his manipulative egoistic role, the author highlights the change in Jig’s character and line of reasoning. Through the dialogue the author also brings out a sarcastic element in her. This is clearly evident when the American points out that he knew a lot of people who had undergone abortion. The girl in response answered “So have I” and then she continues in sarcasm by stating “And afterwards they were so happy”. This shows that the girl has learnt to counter his manipulative nature and even though she is afraid to make decisions on her own, the conversations they have indicate that she is growing confident of herself with each passing moment. The girl’s repetition of the word “please” to the American for him to stop talking indicates her growing sense of wanting to stand firm in her decision (Hemmingway, 253).
The girl’s submissiveness in reaction to the manipulative ways of the American shows how she is slowly learning to be her own decision maker even though we can see through the short story that she depends on him. The girl throughout the story is caught up in a fix about the baby inside her and the love she has for the American. Although the rail is two-way symbolizing that only one decision is possible, the girl has the ability to have both. The girl throughout the short story tries to avoid conversation with the American since she doesn’t want him to manipulate her into having an abortion. Her misery is evident in the story as every time they seem to talk, she orders drink in order to drown her miseries.
The authors setting in this story illustrates how selfishness has the ability to destroy a relationship as well as morals. The author right from the beginning does not hide his perception on abortion and how he thinks of the American. The author has intentionally decided not to give the man any name and only refers to him as the American. The author portrays abortion as a cruel decision which in one way or another causes pain and grief. Hemmingway through this short story leaves a sense of suspense on the decision that the couple may have made afterwards. It is not just a short story but it provokes critical thinking on the abortion issue (Anonym, 7).