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Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the significance of the train the American and the girl are waiting for in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

A train station is a crossroad where people are constantly moving from one place to another. The train is the vehicle that carries people to their chosen destination. The American and the girl are at a crossroad in their relationship and the destination they must choose could be an abortion—with or without a breakup—or a continued pregnancy—and possibly marriage. The train in this scenario represents the decision they have to make. Either both the girl and the American will get on board, meaning they will agree on a decision, and move toward an uncertain future, or one will board the train, and the other will not, signaling they did not come to a mutual decision.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" how does Hemingway use foreshadowing when the girl gazes out at the fertile landscape of grain fields and the tree-lined banks of the Ebro River?

In the course of her conversation with the American the girl becomes frustrated; she can't seem to make him realize she has serious misgivings about undergoing the "simple operation" he is urging her to have. Taking a break from their discussion, she is enchanted by the view of the fruitful side of the valley. This view seems to give her hope, as she muses, "And we could have all this." Her mood is then dampened by "the shadow of a cloud [moving] across the field of grain." This image of the cloud shadow is an example of foreshadowing. As it darkens the view of the fertile field below, it predicts the death of the girl's fetus if she gives in to the American's wishes.

In "Hills Like White Elephants," if the American and the girl are not truly in love, what forces keep them invested in the relationship?

Although the American professes to love the girl only when she asks if he will love her after the abortion, there is very little evidence that the two are actually in a loving relationship. He seems to have no real respect for the girl, her feelings, or her wishes, though he does pretend to in the interest of getting her to do what he wants. His investment in the relationship seems to be connected to the fact that the girl is a travel companion he can drink and have fun with—as suggested by his glance at the suitcases with tags from all the places they've been. The girl's connection to the American might also be owed in part to that sense of adventure and fun, but she also shows a need for approval. She says she doesn't care about herself, only him. She asks if he will still love her, suggesting that his opinion of her is extremely important. These needs for companionship and approval are not love, but they might be enough for the two characters to want to salvage the relationship.

If Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" alludes to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," what does the light of the sun symbolize?

In Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" there are characters who live inside a cave, chained to rocks. Behind these characters is the sun, illuminating their shadows on the wall. Since the characters know nothing besides the cave, and don't even know that there is a sun behind them, they believe the shadows are reality. The cave dwellers do not know philosophical truth, which is represented by the sun. They know only the shadowy illusions which they perceive with their eyes. The fact that the girl in "Hills Like White Elephants" is described as standing or sitting in the sunlight suggests that she is the one who sees the truth of the situation: that nothing will be the same whether or not they decide to have the abortion. Meanwhile, the American, who insists everything will go back to normal, sits in the shade and even retreats into the darkened bar at one point. This suggests that he remains in the shadow of illusion.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what does Hemingway introduce as the inciting incident—the event that causes a major conflict between the American and the girl?

As in many of Hemingway's stories, the inciting incident of "Hills Like White Elephants" is not made explicit in the text. While another writer might have included a scene of the girl discovering her pregnancy and informing the American, Hemingway leaves this detail out of the narrative. Even though this is the inciting incident that leads to the conflict, climax, and resolution, his theory of omission predicts that omitting this detail will increase the tension and drama of the story. This omission leaves readers in suspense wondering how she presented the information, how he reacted, and which kinds of conversations about the situation may have taken place prior to their afternoon at the train station.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" what is the significance of the narration, "They were all waiting reasonably for the train" that describes the travelers the American observes in the barroom?

The travelers are waiting, in a sense, for their futures, as the train will carry them to anticipated destinations and events and they are awaiting these futures "reasonably" or calmly. In contrast, neither the American nor the girl "waits reasonably" for the train. Both are emotional regarding events that wait at their destination. Depending on which resolution readers believe the American and the girl have reached, the couple will soon be en route to terminate her pregnancy or to keep the child, and possibly raise it together. In either case, the individuals may be anxious, sad, excited, or glad, but it's less likely they would be described as "reasonable."

What does the girl's description of the hills reveal about her character in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

It is significant that the girl, rather than the narrator, draws the comparison between the hills and white elephants. This reveals the girl is familiar with various cultural elements to which the white elephants refer. It also reveals she is thoughtful, observant, and prone to thinking in poetic terms. Her decision to use this observation to strike up conversation also shows that she has an indirect communication style, and that she is hesitant to address the subject of her pregnancy with the American. Having the girl deliver this simile allows Hemingway to provide nuanced information about the character without characterizing her directly.

In what ways does the American's ability to converse with the waitress in "Hills Like White Elephants" serve as a foil to his communication with the girl?

The American's brief conversations with the waitress use clear, concrete language and are free of idioms or attempts at coercion. Spanish is his second language and he and the waitress are strangers to each other, but they manage to communicate freely and without misunderstanding. Their fluid, easy communication is in stark contrast to the tense and somewhat muddled conversation with the girl—his romantic partner whom he has known for quite some time. Talking in public about a highly personal—and illegal—topic may be hindering their ability to speak directly. However, never mentioning the words "abortion" or "baby" makes their conversation stilted and confusing. At times it's unclear whether the pronoun "it" is meant to refer to the "simple operation" or to the fetus itself. The emotional charge, vague language, and miscommunication between the American and the girl are all the more striking when viewed alongside the clinical, straightforward exchanges with the waitress.

For what purpose does Hemingway open "Hills Like White Elephants" with a description of the setting?

Opening the story with a paragraph-long description of the setting grounds the reader and establishes dualisms relevant to understanding the characters. There are two railroad tracks, two sides to the valley, and a building that is separated from the outside by a curtain. This sets the reader up for the notion that there are two ways to see the world and to understand significant moments in life. The story delivers on this promise by showing a stark contrast between the views and attitudes held by the American and the girl, and exploring the conflict that arises out of that contrast.

In "Hills Like White Elephants" in what ways does Hemingway establish tone in the story?

A writer's tone represents the author's attitude toward the characters and events of a story and the tone influences how readers, in turn, understand and respond to the narrative. Many writers use adverbs to help convey attitude. In "Hills Like White Elephants" Hemingway adopts an objective and observant, but nonintrusive tone, using simple vocabulary. Remaining faithful to his iceberg technique, he does not employ adverbs to influence tone. Instead, his setting and characters convey his attitude. The station's surroundings are both sterile and fruitful, presenting both sides of the abortion dilemma—whether to have the abortion and continue their self-involved sterile lifestyle or to continue the pregnancy and create a family and a more fruitful life. Conversation between the American and the girl is conducted in short sentences that seem to go in circles, rarely stating what each partner really means. However, his dialogue—although using simple vocabulary—often employs repetition to create an emotional tone, as when the girl is so frustrated with the American's hypocrisy that she begs, "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?"

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