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Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In "Hills Like White Elephants" in what ways does Hemingway's narrator remain objective regarding the moral implications of abortion?

When writing about a subject that is as emotionally charged as abortion, especially during a time and in a place where it was still illegal, it might be easy to slip into moralizing. Hemingway's narrator, however, manages to avoid doing so, suggesting that his intention was not to create a narrative that passes judgment on the characters. One way he achieves neutrality on the subject is through the point of view. The objective third-person narrator does not have access to the characters' thoughts, which might reveal judgments about one another; nor does the narrator offer any thoughts on the issue. The story itself doesn't offer moral assessment of either character—thus effectively allows readers to assess the situation and the characters on their own.

In what ways is "Hills Like White Elephants" a study on decision-making?

In "Hills Like White Elephants" conflict revolves around the American and the girl's differing positions on whether to have an abortion. Clearly, this is a big decision—one that, ideally, the two characters would agree on. The disagreement between the partners might be rooted in the fundamentally different ways they understand decision-making. The American says "We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before." This demonstrates that he believes this decision has the power to return the couple to a previous, presumably happier, state. The girl, however, acknowledges that "once they take it away, you never get it back." This of course refers to the baby, who once aborted will be gone forever. It also implies something else she believes about the decision: she feels that everything will not revert to the way it was. Instead, she believes that once a relationship is affected by a decision as complicated as this one, things will be different afterward. She will never be able to get back the once carefree, adventurous relationship she shared with the American. This is true of any decision, no matter what it is; the very act of deciding changes things.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what is significant about Hemingway's description of the two sides of the valley?

The opening paragraph of "Hills Like White Elephants" describes the side of the valley where the American and the girl are as having "no shade and no trees." This gives the impression of an inhospitable and sterile landscape, especially when coupled with the extreme heat. The other side of the valley, however, is later described as having "fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro." This side of the valley, which the girl looks at from the end of the station, is fertile and life-sustaining. By focusing on the two sides, Hemingway's descriptions allude to the two options facing the couple. One landscape is desolate and devoid of life, signifying the abortion, while the other is lush and alive, signifying childbirth.

In what ways does Hemingway's use of repetition raise the tension and the emotional stakes in the argument between the American and the girl throughout "Hills Like White Elephants"?

As the American presses the girl to terminate her pregnancy, he repeatedly makes light of the seriousness of the procedure. His patronizing lack of sincerity shows as he repeats four times that the "operation" is "awfully simple" or "perfectly simple." This eventually annoys the girl. When he reiterates, "And I know it's perfectly simple," she responds sarcastically, "Yes, you know it's perfectly simple." Hemingway uses repetition to play on the emotional aspects of the situation when the American asserts that the pregnancy has made them unhappy. The girl questions whether having the abortion will allow them to be happy once more and, when the American reassures her he knows "lots of people that have done it," she resorts to sarcasm again, responding, "and afterward they were all so happy."

In what ways is the girl the protagonist of "Hills Like White Elephants"?

While the two characters, the girl and the American, share roughly equal space in the narrative, several clues point to the girl as the protagonist. Unlike the American, she is referred to by name (Jig), even if it seems to be only a nickname. This signals that she is in some way more important to the story than the American. Another way that Hemingway establishes this as Jig's story is by giving her greater potential to change. She vacillates over the decision of whether or not to terminate her pregnancy and through that process become more assertive by the end of the story. The American, however, maintains his preference for an abortion throughout the narrative.

In what ways might the American be considered the antagonist of "Hills Like White Elephants"?

In "Hills Like White Elephants" the American is the antagonist who represents an obstacle to the narrative's protagonist—the girl. He wants the girl to terminate her pregnancy and, in pressuring her to do so, eventually causes her to change. While the girl indirectly suggests that she had "waited so long for" a child, the American's attitude toward the pregnancy calls her desire into question. The pressure he puts on her to have an abortion, which he describes as a simple procedure, makes the girl question whether or not she wants to have the child. It is at least in part her desire to maintain the relationship she has with the American that leads her to agonize over the decision. If he were supportive, it seems that she would have the baby without hesitation, but since he wants to maintain his freedom, he creates a conflict that ultimately leads the girl to change. While much is left open for interpretation, it is likely that she changes in terms of the way she views pregnancy and motherhood; she changes in terms of the way she views the American; and she changes in terms of the way she views herself.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what behaviors indicate the girl is becoming more independent and assertive over the course of the story?

In the beginning of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" the girl demonstrates in various ways that she is dependent on the American. First, she asks "What should we drink?" even though she then asserts "Let's drink beer." Instead of just saying "Let's drink beer" she seeks his input and possibly approval before stating what she wants. She also relies on the American to order, which he does in Spanish, perhaps because she does not know the language. Initially she seems to value the American's position and happiness over her own. She says "And If I do it you'll be happy?" She even goes so far as to say she doesn't care about herself. Yet, soon thereafter, she takes a firm stance for the first time. After gazing at the fertile side of the valley, she determines that if they go ahead with the pregnancy they could have a more stable life, but that having an abortion will erase that possible future. When the American—who does not know what she's been thinking—avows they will still be able to "have everything," she refutes this idea several times. This signals that she is not asserting what is true for her alone: she is claiming it as true for the American, too. This is a far cry from their earlier interactions where she says she'll do anything the American wants her to. Additionally, there is a point where the girl says "Can't we maybe stop talking?" This question lets the American know she wants to call a halt to the discussion, but asks his permission to do so. However, by the end of the story, she is no longer asking for permission and her request is much more assertive when she says "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?" These subtle shifts in the girl's behavior illustrate ways in which she is taking bolder actions to assert herself in the relationship. This evolution might suggest that she will not comply with the American's wishes, but that is left up for interpretation.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what does the American appear to value in life?

There are many context clues that signal what the American values. Most obviously, he seems to value his freedom from responsibility, as he definitely does not want to become a father. He is clearly attempting to convince the girl to have an abortion so he does not have to take on that role. This is connected to some of his other values. The way he focuses on the bags that have "labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights" demonstrates his appreciation for traveling. He also seems to value simplicity. This is revealed through the way he refers to the abortion as an "awfully simple operation." Although he is in part using this language to convince her the abortion is a matter of no consequence, he also is the sort of man who wants an uncomplicated life where he is not bogged down by responsibilities.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what is the significance of the girl's gazing at the hills and looking down at the ground when the American describes the "simple operation"?

Hemingway offers very little description of characters' actions. This underscores the importance of those instances when he does describe a movement or the direction of a gaze. For example, the girl is described as looking at the hills more than once, whereas Hemingway does not describe the man gazing at the hills. From this, the reader can infer that it is the girl who remains undecided about the abortion, and that the American is not interested in seeing things as she does. Another example of the girl's gaze signaling her internal state is when the American first speaks of the "awfully simple operation" that is "not really an operation at all." The girl looks at the ground, not the man speaking to her. It seems she cannot look the American in the eye. From this detail, the reader can infer that the girl is uncomfortable with what the American is saying.

What historical knowledge about the culture of drinking is important to understanding "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Students reading "Hills Like White Elephants" may conclude that the girl does not want to keep the baby. If she did, they rationalize, she would not be drinking so heavily, if at all. If the story's setting was in the last decades of the 20th century or later, then this inference would be a valid one. However, it is important to understand the cultural norms of the narrative's time period. In the 1920s, when Hemingway wrote this story, it was not a well-known medical fact that consuming alcohol during pregnancy could be harmful to the fetus. The reader must know this historical context in order to properly read the story and avoid inferring something that is not there.

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