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Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In "Hills Like White Elephants" how does Hemingway capitalize on the idiom "the elephant in the room"?

In addition to using the hills that look like white elephants as a symbol for the feelings the main characters have about the pregnancy, Hemingway alludes to a well-known idiom that originated in the early 1800s: the elephant in the room. This idiom was first introduced into the English language and literary culture by the Russian author Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (1769–1844), who wrote "The Inquisitive Man." The story features a man who notices many items and small details in a museum's collection, but fails to notice a large elephant in the room. Of course, Hemingway would have been familiar with this story, as well as the inclusion of the idiom by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) in his novel Demons. Through allusion to this proverbial phrase, Hemingway reveals there is a huge conflict between the girl and the American which neither of them is comfortable addressing directly. It then becomes the reader's task to figure out what exactly that conflict is by naming the elephant in the room (the pregnancy).

In "Hills Like White Elephants" for what purpose does the girl hold two strings of the bead curtain in her hand?

As with many aspects of "Hills Like White Elephants," there are multiple possible interpretations of the phase "the girl ... took hold of two of the strings of beads." Some critics suggest the strands of beads in her hand represent rosary beads which a Catholic would hold in her hands while praying. If the girl is Catholic, then this is a moral and spiritual issue she is confronting. Another possible interpretation is that the girl is looking for something solid to hold onto. When people are overcome with anxiety, one coping mechanism is to make a connection between the body and some physical element of the surroundings. She could be holding the beads to ground herself.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what evidence does Hemingway present that the American may have been in this situation before with another girl?

From the outset of their discussion about abortion, the American positions himself as an expert on the issue. Initially, the reader might believe that he does so because he wants to sound convincing when he assures the girl that the procedure is "perfectly simple." As the story progresses, however, the American says some other things that imply he has been through this before. He says "And I know it's perfectly simple" to which the girl replies "Yes, you know it's perfectly simple." This, like many of the lines of dialogue in the story can be understood two ways. First, it reads as the girl saying "of course it's easy for you to say it's simple, because you aren't the one who has to do it." It also suggests that he knows it's simple because he has been through this before with another girl. When Jig says "Yes, you know it's perfectly simple," the American confirms that he has had this experience previously, saying "It's all right for you to say that, but I do know it."

What is the significance of the repeated references to light and darkness in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

The symbols of light and darkness may not have a single fixed meaning in the narrative, but work in multiple ways throughout the story. The American is described as sitting in the shadow of the bar or inside the bar, whereas the girl is described as standing at the edge of the platform in the sun, and sitting on the sunny side of the table outside the bar. This might suggest that there is something innocent or good about the girl, and something not so innocent or good about the American. Given that the story concerns terminating a pregnancy, the darkness belongs to the American attempting to convince the girl to have an abortion. The girl has reservations about terminating this pregnancy that do not occur to the American, even though he may have been in this situation previously with another lover. The girl's position in the sunlight may also represent her belief that if she has an abortion their relationship will necessarily change afterward, while the American's position in the darkness represents his denial of that reality.

For what purpose does Hemingway employ a simile in the title of "Hills Like White Elephants"?

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two things, pointing out similarities through the use of connecting words such as like or as. By employing a simile in the title of "Hills Like White Elephants" Hemingway suggests that certain things in the narrative will not be what they seem to be. To the girl, the hills she sees in the distance are like white elephants and this reference brings to the story all the different meanings that the idiom of white elephants implies. The title establishes the expectation that this will be a story where nothing is said directly by the narrator or between the girl and the American and where meanings must be inferred by the reader.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" how do the girl and the American represent gender stereotypes?

"Hills Like White Elephants" relies on gender stereotypes to help characterize both the girl and the American. One of the most obvious stereotypes is that a female would resist having an abortion, and her male partner would pressure her to do so. A range of other possibilities exist for unmarried couples faced with unplanned pregnancies, but the inferences that Hemingway requires readers to make are dependent upon the stereotypical response. Secondly, the girl in this story is characterized as a woman who does assert herself and who takes a more elliptical approach to communication than the American, who is more direct about what he wants. Once again there could be a variety of reasons why the characters communicate in these ways that have nothing to do with their gender. Various cultures, for example, have different communication styles, Americans being known, at times, for bluntness. However, Hemingway requires readers to draw on stereotypical notions of gendered communications to fill in the blanks in this story.

In what ways does the situation between the American and the girl in "Hills Like White Elephants" reflect the modernist existential need to create meaning?

Disillusioned by the barbarity of World War I, the lost generation of writers largely turned their backs on traditional narratives constrained by concerns of religious faith and morality. They adopted the existential concern for the meaning of life. Much of the fiction of the modernist period shows characters searching for and assigning meaning to their existence. In "Hills Like White Elephants" the American and the girl are both trying to understand what this pregnancy means, and it means very different things to each character. This difference of opinion reflects a modernist notion that meaning is not fixed, but rather created by the individual. Whereas the American seems to truly believe that the abortion is nothing more than a simple operation that will restore their relationship to the way it was before, the girl constructs an entirely different meaning of the abortion. She believes that the abortion will make it impossible to be happy. She sees the operation as taking away not only the fetus, but also the relationship she has with the American.

How does Hemingway use verbal irony to build tension in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Since the objective third-person point of view prevents readers from knowing the characters' thoughts, Hemingway uses a variety of devices to imply what the girl and the American are thinking. One instance of this is when the girl says "I don't care about me." This is a clear example of verbal irony, or saying the opposite of what is meant. The girl certainly does care about herself, or she would not be engaging in this conversation where she attempts to share her perspective. This phrase also builds tension between the characters, because she is implying that the American doesn't care about her—at least not as much as he cares about everything going back to "normal."

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what does the setting at a train station imply about the decision the characters must make?

When the girl and the American arrive at the train station, they are at a metaphorical and literal crossroads and must decide on the direction they will take. The literal crossroads is represented by the two parallel railroad tracks, one leading to Madrid and the other leading away from the city. The metaphorical railroad tracks can be seen as returning the couple to the previous sterile relationship (by way of an abortion) or as leading to childbirth and a more settled relationship between the girl and the American. The characters have forty minutes before the arrival of the train to Madrid, which will pause only two minutes before departing. This compressed time frame lends a sense of urgency and tension to the story and the life-altering decision the characters must make. This is a comment on the permanence of decisions that people are often forced to make in a very short period of time.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what does the girl's claim "we could have all this" suggest about what she wants?

In the middle of "Hills Like White Elephants," the girl walks to the end of the station. As she gazes at the landscape, she says they "could have all this ... could have everything and every day we make it more impossible." In front of her lie grain fields and the lush tree-lined banks of the Ebro River. Readers know she says this out of earshot of the American, because he asks "What did you say?" She replies "We could have everything," which carries a different meaning than her earlier statement. "We could have all this," refers to the beauty of creating and sustaining life that she observes on the opposite side of the valley. This suggests she wants to continue her pregnancy—that she wants to live on the fertile side of the valley, rather than the barren lifeless side. Of course, the American is unaware of her desire because of the girl's veiled communication attempt and his physical inability to hear what she had said.

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