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Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In "Hills Like White Elephants" how does the story of Buddha's mother's dreaming of a beautiful white elephant establish the symbol of white elephants?

According to Buddhist folklore, Queen Maha Maya, the mother of Buddha, dreamed of a white elephant holding a lotus flower when she became pregnant with the Buddha. King Suddhodana, Maya's husband, consulted priests to learn the meaning of this dream. According to their interpretation, Queen Maha Maya would give birth to a child who would become a great ruler or a Buddha. By alluding to this story, Hemingway introduces the idea that the pregnancy—or white elephant—can be seen as sacred and beautiful. This analysis might reflect the girl's understanding of white elephants more than it does that of the American—who is more likely to view the white elephant in the more mundane interpretation of a burden to be rid of, such as the pregnancy, the entire relationship, or the girl herself.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" how does the idiomatic phrase white elephant establish the symbol of the white elephants?

The idiomatic phrase white elephant represents a gift that the receiver neither wants nor knows how to get rid of. This meaning evolved from the phrase's origin as an omen of the birth of Buddha. Asian kings began gifting white elephants to people who annoyed them—the gift of a white elephant required the recipient to spend much time and money caring for the animal, and sometimes bankrupted the individual. This evolution of meaning stands in stark contrast to the meaning of a white elephant according to the Buddhist tradition. By selecting a symbol that has such disparate meanings, Hemingway complicates the story in a way that underscores the complexity of the situation. Although the American meaning most likely represents the American's interpretation of the situation, and by extension the girl's comment that the hills look like white elephants, the dual meanings also suggest that one or both of the characters can understand the pregnancy as having both meanings. Perhaps the girl views the pregnancy as a sacred gift, but one that she did not want.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what behaviors indicate that the American and the girl are living in a paternalistic society?

Through their behavior American and the girl each show that they are enacting gender-specific roles. The American shows little respect for the girl, treating her as juvenile, even though she is probably not much younger than he is—and is carrying his baby. He acts as though dominance, assertiveness, and bullying are appropriate ways to achieve results. He ignores the girl's reluctance as he pushes her to have a "simple operation" that he insists is "really not anything." Although she gradually changes during the narrative, the girl starts out very much in a subservient role. She asks the American's permission to try Anis del Toro, assures him she is trying to "have a fine time," and placates him by altering her comment about the white hills and agreeing with his comments on the beer.

What is significant about Hemingway's style in the way he characterizes the American and the girl—the two main characters of "Hills Like White Elephants"?

In "Hills Like White Elephants" Hemingway introduces the characters mainly through indirect characterization. He gives no physical descriptors and uses rather vague character names. This allows a greater number of readers to identify with the characters, since without identifying descriptors and more specific names, each of them could be anyone. To learn about the American and the girl, readers must observe their behavior, the speech they use to communicate with each other, and the way they respond to their situation and to each other whether verbally, physically, or emotionally. Analyzing the vague names in the narrative, readers may discern some characteristics of the two main characters. The American: Hemingway may mean for this man's behavior to represent the behavior of American travelers in general—which, in this case, is egotistic and bullying. Use of this label also distinguishes him from his traveling companion. Although English-speaking, she is probably not an American. In the story's narration, Hemingway uses the girl to refer to the female main character, while the American sometimes calls her Jig. Both references are demeaning. Use of the girl reveals that the American sees his partner as juvenile, despite the fact she's obviously not a child. Jig, his nickname for her, may be seen as having various meanings—a frivolous dance and a crude euphemism for sexual intercourse.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what effect does Hemingway create through his use of the third-person objective point of view?

Hemingway, as a major figure in the modernist movement, believed that there is as much meaning in what is left out of a story as what is included in the narrative. This also applies to conversations. Through his use of the third-person objective point of view, Hemingway illustrates this in "Hills Like White Elephants," since the thoughts of neither character are included. Although the American and the girl are discussing a topic that seems crucial to their relationship, neither participant uses straightforward language. Instead they refer to the landscape (hills) or cultural icons (white elephant) to imply their messages rather than stating them outright. Without access to the protagonists' thoughts, the readers' experience approximates that of the characters. The American, the girl, and readers must analyze the characters' choice of vocabulary, verbal emphasis, and body language to interpret each individual's intentions and desires.

In what ways does "Hills Like White Elephants" exemplify Hemingway's iceberg technique?

Hemingway's iceberg technique is a theory of omission. He believed that a story would be strengthened by omitting details. This technique is seen very clearly in the dialogue between the girl and the American. For every word the characters say, additional information goes unsaid or is implied. For example, the fact that the operation is an abortion is never disclosed, yet the reader can use context clues to come to this conclusion. In this instance, the omission strengthens the story in a couple of ways. First, given that the procedure was illegal in the setting and time of the story, the characters would not mention it openly in a public space; second, the omission suggests a level of discomfort with the word and the reality it represents. It is through their very omission that Hemingway draws the reader's attention to these details.

In what way does Hemingway's style of dialogue create tension between the American and the girl in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Hemingway provides as little detail as possible in the dialogue between the characters. Because the American and the girl don't ever quite say what they mean, they leave a lot of room for interpretation. In a scenario as serious as this one, the work of trying to decipher what the other character actually means by what he or she says—or does—creates a very tense situation. For example, the American has to wonder whether or not the girl actually means "I'll do it and then everything will be fine." The reader, too, must infer what the girl means and whether or not she really is willing to go through with the proposed act. Her actions—walking to the end of the station and staring at the green and fertile side of the valley—serve to briefly interrupt the conversation and further develop tension regarding her desires and state of mind.

In what ways does the American's declaration that he "wouldn't have [the girl] do it if [she] didn't want to" invoke verbal irony in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Although the American assures the girl five times during their conversation that he doesn't want her to have "the operation" if she doesn't want to, this is a lie. Having the abortion is exactly what he wants her to do and he urges her to go ahead with the procedure, ignoring her misgivings and declaring that she "[doesn't] have to be afraid" because he knows "lots of people who have done it." Conversely, at that time and place, the girl is right to be afraid. Abortions were illegal in Spain, difficult to obtain, and came with a high risk of infection and death.

For what purpose might Hemingway have decided to begin "Hills Like White Elephants" in medias res (in the middle of things)?

In medias res is a common technique used by fiction and drama writers. To start a story in medias res means to begin in the middle of the plot, with no time spent on exposition to set up the situation. The point of exposition is to offer details and information that cannot be inferred from the action. In "Hills Like White Elephants" Hemingway may have decided to begin the story this way because it suits his iceberg technique which requires the elimination of exposition. With no background detail, readers are dropped right into the narrative's action and encouraged to infer what is happening between the American and the girl.

What elements of drama are exemplified in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Some elements of "Hills Like White Elephants" read like a drama, and perhaps even lend the narrative to adaptation into a script. The first is dialogue. The dialogue in "Hills Like White Elephants" carries the largest portion of the story's meaning, just as it does in the script of a play, because—just as in a play—there is very little exposition. The short story also achieves what the poet Aristotle called the three unities of drama. In his Poetics, Aristotle claimed that all good drama has unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. Though not written as a drama, "Hills Like White Elephants" has all of these. The story takes place over a very discrete period of time—40 minutes—and in a single place—the train station. It also has a single plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end, which meets Aristotle's criteria for unity of action.

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