"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Short Story Review: Hills Like White Elephants By Ernest Hemingway

“Hills Like White Elephants” is one of the many great Hemingway short stories.  I may have said this elsewhere, but I’ll also say it here.  Hemingway was over rated as a novelist.  The Sun Also Rises I think stands as his one great novel but his other novels are either OK (such as A Farewell To Arms) or not so good.  His greatness rests with his short stories and shorter than novel length works such as The Old Man and the Sea and his memoir, A Moveable Feast.   Some of his short stories are the best ever written.  If you enjoy reading short stories, get yourself The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vegia Edition, which is the most comprehensive collection.  It contains “The First Forty-Nine Stories,” which were collected during Hemingway’s life time, and I assume the stories he considered his magnum opus, but it also pulls together the other existing stories, ones that were published during his lifetime and others which have been found and published posthumously. 

I have owned “The First Forty-Nine Stories” for a long time, well before they started collating the other stories into a collection.  If by chance you come to a used book sale and you find it at a real cheap price, get it instead of The Complete Stories.  The first forty-nine are the great ones.  I’ve read two of the unpublished and they were not remarkable.  I don’t know if the ones outside the forty-nine contain any gems but they probably don’t stack up.  The last few years I’ve been reading three to five sequentially of the forty-nine every year as I make my way to reading them all.  I’m just about a little half way.


Very little that Hemingway wrote is available free on the internet.  He mostly published after the1923 cutoff for free distribution.    However for some reason “Hills Like White Elephants” is currently available online as a pdf.  It’s only four or five pages long, so if you wish to follow this analysis and you don’t have the story, you can read ithere.  It’s a quick read.

The first thing you might ask is what the heck is this story about.  The couple (the man is referred to as the American and the female as “the girl,” though the man at one point calls her Jig) talks about some sort of medical procedure he wants her to undergo.  When I first read this story as a very young man, I could never pick up what they were talking about.  I did find out later that the procedure is an abortion.  This story is essentially a discussion on whether the girl should accept having one.  You can read the story’s Wikipedia entry. 

Here’s the situation.  The couple is sitting outside at a train station bar in Spain.  They decide to have some drinks while they wait for the next train, observing the rural terrain before them and the hills in the distance.  It’s hot, they drink a few beers and in between try an anise based liquor that is advertised.  They talk about the hills, the liquor, and the sort of meaninglessness of their lives.  Then the conversation turns toward the procedure, and that makes up for the bulk of the story.  When the train’s arrival is imminent, the man moves the baggage to the other side of the station, and while inside the bar has another drink alone, and goes out to the girl.  You wouldn’t think that’s much of a story, but what makes this great is what is unsaid and the tension of the conversation.

Before I get to the analysis, there are three questions I think the reader must try to answer in order to come to a conclusion on what this story is about.  First, is the man in the story trying to manipulate the girl into having the procedure?  Second, is Hemingway sympathetic to the man or to the girl in their conflict?  Finally, is the girl more worried about the morality of the abortion or her relationship with the man?

The story’s structure divides into three parts: the part where they discuss the liquor and their wasteful lives, the part where they discuss the procedure, and the conclusion where the man steps away and has a drink inside the bar. 

The first part situates the story and identifies it with the sort of life characterized by T.S. Eliot as a waste land.  Here’s a key passage from the first part.  The man and girl are discussing the Anis del Toro drink.

“Yes,” said the girl.  “Everything tastes of licorice.  Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

“Oh, cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said.  “I was being amused.  I was having a fine time.”

“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

“All right.  I was trying.  I said the mountains look like white elephants.  Wasn’t that bright?”

“That was bright.”

“I wanted to try a new drink.  That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”

“I guess so.”

A number of reasons why their lives are associated with Eliot’s characterization of modern life.  First, they say it: all they do is look at things and drink, a soulless existence.  Second this story was written in 1927 when the influence of Eliot’s The Waste Land was most prominent in literary culture and just after Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, of post WWI waste land life.  This story is a variation of similar characters in that novel. 

Another reason is the allusion to absinthe.  Characters in The Sun Also Rises drink absinthe.  It was a banned drink in many places around the world, including the United States.  You can read about it here and here, but in addition it was associated with satanic activity.  It’s an allusion to a life of the damned and with people who are heading to hell.  Another reason for the Waste Land association is the fertility motif in the description of the landscape and the fact that the girl is pregnant.  Abortion also figures in The Waste Land as I mentioned it earlier this year when I blogged on the poem.

The second part of the story features the key discussion, but what I think one needs to fully ascertain the dynamics between the couple is the tone within the dialogue.  Here’s the beginning of that section.


“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said.  It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig.  It’s really not anything.  It’s just to let the air in.”

The girl did not say anything.

“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time.  They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”

“Then what will we do afterward?

“We’ll be fine afterward.  Just like we were before.”

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us.  It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold two of the strings of beads. 

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will.  You don’t have to be afraid.  I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl.  “And afterward they were all so happy.”

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to.  I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to.  But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

The tone of the dialogue is critical to understanding the moral implications.  It would be unclear if the girl is worried about the immorality of an abortion or having concerns for her health.  One has to read the line “And afterward they were all so happy” as dripping with sarcasm to come to the conclusion that, despite what the man thinks, the girl is not worried about her health but on something else.  It’s shortly thereafter the girl agrees to have the procedure: “Then I’ll do it.  “Because I don’t care about me.”  What is foremost on the girl’s mind is a return to what apparently once was a loving relationship.  The pregnancy has altered the couple’s romance.  The conversation continues. 

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to.  I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

“Doesn’t it mean anything to you?  We could get along.”

“Of course it does.  But I don’t want anybody but you.  I don’t want anyone else.  And I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“Yes, you know it’s perfectly simple.”

“It’s alright for you to say that, but I do know it.”

“Would you do something for me now?”

“I’d do anything for you.”

“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

Here you can hear the sweat talking tone of the man, and the agitation and sarcasm of the girl that tells us it’s more than the surface issues for her.  Hemingway’s skill at dialogue is on display there.  Notice too that the girl is in a position of power.  She’s the one who dictates the conversation.  The man just simply repeats.

The final section of the story is a bit mysterious.  The waitress (referred to as “the woman”) comes out with another order of beers and tells them the train will be arriving in five minutes.

“What did she say?” asked the girl.

“That the train is coming in five minutes.”

The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.

I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station,” the man said.  She smiled at him.

“All right.  Then come back and finish the beer.”

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks.  He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.  Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking.  He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people.  They were all waiting reasonably for the train.  He went out through the bead curtain.  She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

“Do you feel better?”

“I feel fine,” she said.  There’s nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine.”

Why does Hemingway go through the trouble of this little drama?  He could have concluded the story without it.  He purposely gives her time to think by herself.  He had the beer waiting at the table, why have a drink at the bar?  I can’t fully answer that.  Perhaps it suggests a future separation.  And why does the girl suddenly feel fine.  Has she accepted her fate or has she made up her mind to back out?

Before I present some of my conclusions, I wanted to highlight the dualism that’s all over the story.  We have the dualism of the male and female, the dualism of the hot day and the cool drinks, the sun and the shade, the flat plain before them and the hills in the distance, inside the station and outside, the youth of the girl and the age of the woman that is the waitress, the fertility on one side of the station and the brown and dry sterility of the other side, the two sides of the river which divides into opposite banks.  Why the dualism?  Several reasons.  It subtly heightens the tension between the man and Jig.  It reduces the conflict to elements, and here it may point to an Adam and Eve elemental allegory.  It points to an elemental choice of yes or no.  It suggests a portal that one must cross through.. 

It’s because of that dualism that I believe the key symbol of the story is not the hills that look like white elephants but the curtain of beads that separates the bar from the outside.  The Wikipedia entry has it correct.  The hills form a point of discussion between the couple that distinguishes male and female perceptions.  That in turn underscores the difference in the way the man looks at the abortion (as a health issue) and the girl (as an issue regarding their relationship).  The curtain is that portal of choice that has to be crossed.  Notice how many times in the story the girl looks at or plays with the beads. 

So let’s return to the three questions. 

Is the man in the story trying to manipulate the girl into having the procedure?  I would say so.  He repeats the same “it’s perfectly simple” line.  And while he says he will honor either decision, he never paints a picture of a future with the baby.  That would have reassured her of their future.  He only walks her through the procedure.  And even that delay at the end of the story where he stops to have a drink alone while she waits for him outside is a sales tactic where the salesman has made his pitch and now leaves you to think through the decision.  If he’s made his sales pitch right, you will come to his decision. 

Is Hemingway sympathetic to the man or to the girl in their conflict?  I would say he’s sympathetic to the girl.  She has morality on her side, and the man’s motivation seems to be to keep this wastrel lifestyle going.  So many of Hemingway’s stories have a male figure as a stand in for the author.  And normally that male figure is a protagonist.  The man may still be a Hemingway stand in this story as well, but I think it’s quite clear he’s not a protagonist; he’s an antagonist.  The girl actually has the most insightful moment of anyone.  It happens in the second section, where in the middle of their dialogue the girl gets up.

The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station.  Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro.  Far away, beyond the river, were mountains.  The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

“And we could have all this,” she said.  “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

“What did you say?”

“I said we could have everything.”

“We can have everything.”

“No, we can’t.”

“We can have the whole world.”

“No, we can’t.”

“We can go everywhere.”

“No, we can’t.  It isn’t ours any more.”

“It’s ours.”

“No, it isn’t.  And once they take it away, you never get it back.”

‘But they haven’t taken it away.”

“We’ll wait and see.”

“Come on back in the shade,” he said.  “You mustn’t feel that way.”

“I don’t feel any way,” the girl said.  “I just know things.”

What she sees in a transcending vision is a paradise lost.  Her insight is that there will be a loss of innocence no matter what the decision.  If she has the baby, they can’t be children any more.  If she has the abortion, she will have crossed a moral divide, and it’s not really clear that her relationship will be repaired.  Either way, innocence will have been destroyed.  The shade signals a darkness.

Is the girl more worried about the morality of the abortion or her relationship with the man?

Her agreeing to have the abortion suggests she what she really wants is the loving relationship she once had with the man to return.  She’ll do anything to get it back, but I think she realizes that no matter which choice she makes the relationship will never be the same.  Her decision to go through with it is almost exactly midway into the story.  There is more to the story than making the decision.  This is a story about a loss, almost an Edenic loss.  That allusion to paradise lost suggests a decision that is sin.  She too never paints a picture of what life will be like with the baby.  She never envisions the baby.  It remains abstract, almost as if it will never be born.  When she looks at the waitress toward the end of the story, the girl looking at the woman, I can’t help but feel that’s a suggestion that the girl will become a woman now.  That realization is why she suddenly feels fine.    

Now I could be wrong.  What do you think?


  1. I had no idea these authors wrote about abortion! This kind of dialogue is tough to decipher. I kid of felt that when the girl said she felt fine, that she was referring to the way she was right a that moment, that being pregnant was actually natural, "nothing wrong with me," and fine. And he seems pretty passive-aggressively pushy, saying how simple it is all the time.
    I do know that in real life, all that drinking would not be helping her baby any! lol
    I can;t really dissect things the way you do...I only get impressions and big-picture conclusions.

    1. Thanks for reading Kelly. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone will read a blog this long. But it did take me almost a week to write this to my satisfaction. The story is deceptively difficult. Hemingway doesn't explain everything; the reader must figure it out, and there are parts that are ambiguous. Like that ending where she says she's fine. I'm still not sure what to completely make of it. Yes, she's fine, but she was so full of anxiety throughout the story. What's changed now? Has she decided to back out of the abortion? Or has she overcome her fears and is committed to the man? I don't know.

      Passive-aggressive - that's the perfect term. I was trying to come up with that and it kept escaping me. Thanks!

      I had the same thought on the drinking and pregnancy...lol.

      And thanks on the compliment on being able to dissect literature. I am trained in it, and it's been the passion of my life since late teen age years. Which is a heck of a long time. ;)

  2. Hi Virgil, this is Qimi. Good dissection of one of my favorite Hemingway stories. I read this for the first time in college, and loved it, as much for what it didn't say as for what it did. I'd never read anything before that so masterfully implied almost all of the emotional details of the two characters.

    I feel that when the man went to check on the train and then to get yet another drink alone, that that was foreshadowing his future and of course his desire that his life continue on as it had before.

    I also feel that when he went back out and said to her "Do you feel better?" and she replied "I feel fine. There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine," that her decision had been made, and it was to keep the baby.

    As you said, a comparison had been made, that their previous lives were, as it were, an Eden, and I think this was simply the last of several conversations they'd had where they each tried to talk the other into their way of thinking. I think it's very telling that when he's drinking the Anis in the barrom, the other people are "waiting reasonably for the train." The implication to me is that Jig is not waiting reasonably for the train.

    I think she hoped he would go forward with her, but I think she has realized that that will not happen. Maybe it's that realization that has brought her a measure of peace, and so she is able to leave behind their life and what is left of their love for another life without him. Will it be the dry and sere side of the tracks, or one that is lush with life? What will it be like for her to leave Eden and become a real adult?

    They don't talk about the baby much, but I don't think it means that it's not important. It is, but at this point it's important because it's the game changer. And it's Hemingway. And he has kept this story with it's deep and complex emotions as spare as elephant bones on the African savannah.

    I enjoyed all your comments on the story and reading once again one of your fine reviews.

    1. Qimi! Thank you for stopping by and providing some great thoughts on this story. Perhaps you're right, she will have the baby. It seems like the most probable suggestion by the points you make, but if I had to put odds on it I would say 55% yes, 45% no. The argument against her keeping the baby might also be that she seems so dependent on him. Will she grow up? Yes, maybe she will. I have to say you make a great point that never occured to me that she is "not waiting reasonably." Yes that might tip the scale over to her keeping the baby. I know it's fiction, but I certainly hope that's what happens. :)