Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

This story takes place in the mid-1920s at a train station in northern Spain, along the Ebro River between Barcelona and Madrid.

An American man and his girlfriend are there, waiting for the express train to Madrid that is due in 40 minutes. They have drinks while they are waiting. The man orders two beers. After the waitress brings their drinks, the couple starts to talk.

The girl looks at the countryside and says the nearby hills look like white elephants. When the man says he's never seen one, she agrees he wouldn't have. She plays with a curtain made of bamboo beads and notices something is painted on it. The man tells her it's an ad for Anis del Toro, an alcoholic beverage. She suggests they try it, and the man orders some for both of them.

They sip the anis and discuss how it tastes, which leads to a brief squabble. The man asks the girl to stop acting the way she is; the girl claims she is trying to be amusing and have a good time. She characterizes their relationship as drinking and looking at new things.

After the wind blows the curtain, causing it to brush against the table, the man begins to talk about an operation he wants her to consider. He talks around the topic, saying it's "not really an operation at all." He suggests it's so minor that she won't mind it, and that afterward they'll go back to being the same as they were before. She asks for reassurance, and he promises lots of people have had the operation and been happy afterward. She says she'll do as he asks because she doesn't care about herself, but he says he doesn't want her to have the operation if that's how she's thinking about it.

The girl stands up and walks away, looking out at the landscape. She sees the shadow of a cloud move through. She says they can have everything, but they are making it impossible. This leads to a back-and-forth argument over whether the couple can have everything. He argues they can have everything, while she argues they can't, especially once they've taken "it away." The argument ends with his saying she shouldn't feel that way, and her asking if they can stop talking.

After a pause, he says she shouldn't go through with it if she doesn't want to, and that he'd go through it with her. She asks if it means anything to him, and he says it does. She asks if he would do something for her. When the man says he'll do anything for her, she begs him to stop talking.

This produces another break in the conversation. The man looks away, turning his gaze to their suitcases. Their bags have stickers on them from all the places they've spent the night. The waitress brings them two more beers, and tells them the train will arrive in five minutes. The man moves the bags to the other side of the station, then looks at the other people waiting for the train.

The American returns to their table. The girl smiles at him. When he asks if she feels better, she tells him she feels fine.

Analysis

Pregnancy and Abortion

Hemingway very carefully never uses the term abortion in the narrative. He doesn't mention it as narrator, and neither character mentions it. Instead, they refer to the issue between them as "it," and talk about an "operation." Readers have to deduce what they are talking about, why it seems to matter so much, and why they are fighting.

The first clue the story is about abortion is the title, image, and eventually symbol of the hills being like white elephants. The train station is located in a valley near a river; there are other aspects to the landscape that Hemingway—and the girl—could focus on. However, the hills catch her eye. Hills are rounded, like the belly of a pregnant woman. Elephants also have rounded bodies. More importantly, the girl does not see the hills as being like elephants, but as being white elephants, which are very rare and considered special, even sacred in Indian culture. One night after 20 years of childless marriage, Buddha's mother dreamed of a white elephant, symbolizing she was going to have a son of great importance.

It's the American who introduces the topic of the operation, and he does so seemingly out of the blue: they had been talking about how good the beer is. Since he tries to persuade the girl to get the operation, arguing it is "awfully simple," this tells readers several things. The American and the girl both know what medical procedure they're talking about. She looks away as soon as he mentions it, telling readers the topic makes her uncomfortable. If the operation were medically required, like setting a broken bone, the American would not have to persuade the girl in the same way and would be free to discuss it more directly. Likewise, a medically necessary procedure would not leave the girl worrying what they'll be like after she has it, and he would not have to minimize its seriousness by saying the operation isn't "really an operation." It isn't necessary to minimize truly minor medical actions—like filling a tooth—and major surgery—like a coronary bypass—can't be minimized. This means "the operation" falls into a different category, one that will fundamentally change who they are as a couple: an abortion.

What Happens?

Just as Hemingway never uses the word abortion, he doesn't tell readers what actually happens with the couple. Instead, he sketches several possibilities:

  • The girl has the abortion in hopes of pleasing the American and saving the relationship.
  • The girl has the abortion, but is right about not being able to go back, and the couple breaks up.
  • The girl does not have the abortion and the couple breaks up, leaving the girl alone in her pregnancy.
  • The girl does not have the abortion and the American marries her, either feeling forced to or out of choice.

Hemingway leaves readers to decide for themselves based on the evidence Hemingway provides in the narrative. The idea that the girl does not have the abortion may be supported by her cynicism as the American's repeated pushing of the simplicity of the procedure and his assurance that they can return to being as carefree as they once were. If she realizes that the American is manipulating her for selfish and rather shallow reasons, then her smile at the end of the story may be construed as a satisfied realization that she can, and will, go her own way without the American.

On the other hand, the idea that the girl has the abortion is supported by her emotional upset at the end of the story, as shown in her repeated use of "please" and her threat to "scream" if he keeps talking. Readers may decide details like these show that even having the abortion won't be enough to keep them together.

Literary critic and professor Stanley Renner from Illinois State University argues the position that the girl doesn't have the abortion and the man joins her in her desire to stay in the relationship. Renner reaches this conclusion based on how the man joins the girl where she is sitting at the station. For her part, Renner argues, the girl has not been able to express her feelings directly throughout the story and so has to communicate them through silences and gestures, like looking away. Following this line of reasoning, the fact that she greets him with a smile when he rejoins her at the table is evidence that they are emotionally aligned and will remain so.

Labels and Names

Hemingway doesn't give readers the names of the characters in this story. The man does call the girl "Jig," but that is likely a nickname. At no point does either character call one another by their full names. On one hand, this is simple realism: when people know each other really well, as lovers ideally do, they rarely use one another's full names and frequently use nicknames. On the other hand, this leaves readers without easy access to the characters. An absence of names means there are no ethnic or class tags to trigger stereotypes and assumptions.

Withholding names also serves a second function: it universalizes the story. A conversation between a man and a woman becomes a conversation between any man and any woman. Since this is a story about a relationship, and specifically about a fight over whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, this choice on Hemingway's part makes sense. A man and woman fighting about religion or money might end up with either character taking either position. However, the different positions in this argument can only be filled by a man specifically or a woman specifically: the woman can't accidentally impregnate someone, and the man can't get pregnant.

The labels for the characters have a third function for contemporary readers: they signal a shift in attitudes about gender. Calling the male character "the man" and the female "the girl" seems sexist to contemporary readers, as if the male were inherently older or more mature. A discussion of how sexist to consider Hemingway has raged for decades, and verbal tags like this are one of the ongoing reasons.

Hemingway, Parenthood, and Abortion

For a range of reasons Hemingway had complicated attitudes about parenthood, pregnancy, and abortion. He felt that Hadley, his first wife, had gotten pregnant too soon, and he felt trapped as a result. Some critics, believing that Hemingway cast himself in the role of "the American," draw a direct parallel between this story and the author's wish that he could have avoided becoming a father. Other critics agree with this interpretation, noting Hemingway first started writing this story in the first person, using "we" as if he were part of the narrative's couple, and citing specific phrases, like the repeated and emphasized word "fine," that appear in Hemingway's letters from this period.

Similar attitudes appear in other Hemingway works. A male character in A Farewell to Arms says to the expecting mother of his child, "You always feel trapped biologically" by marriage, and Nick, the lead character (who is often read as a stand-in for Hemingway) in Hemingway's short story "Cross-Country Snow" (1924) feels trapped by the idea of fatherhood. When Hemingway learned his first wife was pregnant, he decided she had gotten pregnant intentionally, and he started keeping track of her menstrual cycles to prevent a second pregnancy. When he thought she was pregnant a second time (it turned out to be a false alarm), he started complaining to friends, who suggested he have Hadley get an abortion.

To further complicate the attitudes expressed in this story, Hemingway dedicated it to Pauline Pfeiffer. The Hemingways met Pfeiffer in Paris in 1925. She and Hadley soon became friends and later that year Hemingway and Pfeiffer began an affair. This tore the Hemingways apart during the following year and they divorced in January 1927. Pfeiffer was Catholic, and Hemingway converted to Catholicism before marrying her in May 1927. Dedicating a story about abortion to one's Catholic mistress—and bride—seems, at best, to be in dubious taste.

Hills Like White Elephants Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 A young couple plans to board a train for Madrid.

Rising Action

2 The couple gets drinks and begins a conversation.

3 The couple argues over whether to terminate a pregnancy.

4 As they argue, they each switch positions on the abortion.

Climax

5 The girl begs the man to stop talking.

Falling Action

6 The man moves the location of their bags.

Resolution

7 The man returns, and the girl assures him she's fine.

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