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Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Context


Americans in Europe

After World War I, numerous up-and-coming American authors were living in Europe, especially in Paris. These creative individuals felt alienated from the values of the United States and earlier generations. This dissatisfaction led writer Gertrude Stein to dub the group "the lost generation" in a remark to her friend Ernest Hemingway. In addition to Stein and Hemingway, the lost generation included Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Living in Europe gave them perspective on the United States, as well as freedom from its social expectations. It also let them travel easily to other countries, such as Spain, and to live culturally rich lives. Hemingway came to Europe to serve as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I and returned after the war as a foreign correspondent. He lived in Paris and traveled to Spain repeatedly.

There is also a long tradition of American writers visiting Europe and writing about characters that do so. This tradition predates the lost generation of expatriate writers. For Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Europe is a place where their characters can control their own destinies. Because these American characters are surrounded by Europeans, they feel their American identities more clearly. At the same time, they can play at not being American. Being American but living somewhere else is a special kind of freedom. In "Hills Like White Elephants," Hemingway shows two young Americans enjoying that kind of freedom and what happens when circumstances bring it to an end.


The modernist movement in the arts began in the late 19th century. Painters, composers, and writers tried to, as American expatriate writer Ezra Pound would later say, "Make it new." They wanted to create new perspectives on the world, as well as new methods for communicating them. Modernism really came into its own in the wake of World War I as a response to the industrial age and the horror of the war. Hemingway was part of this "lost generation," which could no longer believe in the ideologies and religions that had sustained people before the war. This group turned away from faith and continuity and toward an existential world view in which people had to find or create their own meanings.

While not all techniques of literary modernism apply to Hemingway, his writing strongly reflects several aspects of the movement, such as fragmentation of both narrative and society, a rejection of existing morality (seen in both the premarital sex in this story and relatively casual discussion of abortion), and the emphasis on symbolism (the "white elephants" of the story's title). Scholar Howard Hannum sees this story's use of elision (leaving things out) and suggestion, rather than direct statement, along with its sheer density, as making it "an extraordinary example of Modernist writing."

Hemingway's Style and Minimalism

Hemingway's writing style is very distinctive, so much so that for a number of years, there was a competition to see who could best imitate (and parody) the master. This contest, the Harry's Bar & American Grill Imitation Hemingway Competition, ran long enough to produce an entire book of The Best of Bad Hemingway (1989). His style came in part from his training as a journalist: written news emphasizes clean prose and facts over interpretation. Hemingway built on this early training with conscious study and rigorous revision: he famously said he revised the final page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times—but later scholarship indicated the actual total was more like 47.

While Hemingway's style emphasized dialogue and vivid description, a major element is the stripping away all excess. Hemingway referred to his approach as the "iceberg principle": his goal for his writing was to state only a small fraction of the story, but to do it so well, the rest is implied, like the bulk of the iceberg that lies unseen below the surface of the water. This focus applies both to Hemingway's narration, and to character dialogue: what's left out and implied is as important as what's actually said. While this emphasis on economical communication can be seen in other traditions like the haiku form in poetry, literary minimalism really emerged as an identifiable style in the 20th century. Scholars can trace Hemingway's influence on later writers like Frederick Barthelme and Raymond Carver.

Abortion in the Early 20th Century

While deciding whether to have an abortion is an emotionally charged decision for women in any time period, it would have been more complicated during the period of "Hills Like White Elephants." In the time and place Hemingway grew up, abortion in early 20th century America was legal only for limited medical reasons. Abortion was illegal in Spain, where the couple is having this discussion. Having lived in Europe, Hemingway would have known abortion was illegal but available to those with the right connections and money. Given the way the American talks about the "operation," this couple is among that group, and he may well know a lot of women who had this operation. (A number of people Hemingway knew had abortions or knew others who had had the procedure.) However, even if the American can arrange an abortion for the girl, this will not change the legal status of the act or its emotional or ethical complications. For all that the American is minimizing the operation, calling it "not really anything," he's asking the girl to break the law and commit an act she may find ethically dubious as well as dangerous to her life.


This story is set at the bar of a Spanish train station. Hemingway mentions the train tracks, the other passengers, and moving the couple's bags, but the American and the girl devote far more attention to their drinking. In the 40 minutes they spend at the bar they each have two beers and an anis—an anise—or licorice-flavored, alcoholic beverage. That's a lot of alcohol in a brief time, and this level of drinking may be analyzed several ways. First, it reflects Hemingway and the context in which he lived. He drank widely, and at times, heavily. Writer Philip Greene examines Hemingway's literary and real-life drinking in the book To Have and To Have Another, published in 2012. Greene notes an account of Hemingway's drinking 17 double daiquiris in one sitting. Late in life, Hemingway's drinking became more problematic: there are reports of his drinking a quart of whiskey daily. He considered drinking a kind of defense against, or at least temporary escape from, the pain of modern life. Beyond this personal affection for drinking, Hemingway illustrates in "Hills Like White Elephants" how alcohol can sometimes be used as a means for tempering challenging conversations.

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