Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | Quotes


The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.


This line establishes the setting. The Ebro is the longest river in Spain. It has been used for transportation for centuries and is historically important.

This opening line also introduces the image of the hills. At this point, the description seems merely literal, as if Hemingway is describing what the characters can see from the railway station. However, the hills will soon become very symbolic.


There was no shade. ... The station was between two long rails in the sun.


This line continues to provide a literal description, filling in the story's setting one detail at a time. However, this line is also deeply symbolic. There is no shade, and so there is no shelter or protection from the heat. The train station is fully exposed to the sun. This means the people here, who will soon be introduced, are equally exposed. They are literally exposed to the light, but they are also symbolically exposed: the true nature of the characters' relationship will be explored here.

They will have to choose between two courses of action, and the station is positioned between two train tracks, symbolizing these two possible paths.


'They look like white elephants,' she said.

The Girl ("Jig")

This is the first place the girl mentions the image of white elephants, and the first place where any language or imagery moves beyond the literal, minimal style in which Hemingway opened the story. The girl here is commenting on how the hills look through the trees, consciously trying to be "bright" and entertaining and strike a pleasant mood. It is only later in the story that the image of the white elephant becomes more meaningful, as a symbolic portent of events related to pregnancy.


That's all we do, isn't it—look at things and try new drinks?

The Girl ("Jig")

This line follows a recitation by the girl about the ways she's been trying to have a good time. This ends the recitation, and is quite a bitter summation. It makes their relationship sound exceptionally shallow, as though they are merely tourists sharing the same bus. Like the cloud that will soon pass overhead, this puts their relationship in shadow, and makes it clear she, at least, doubts they are really in love.


'It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,' the man said. 'It's not really an operation at all.'

The American

This is the first place where the American suggests the girl should have an abortion. This brief speech works hard to frame his topic: he twice notes what the operation "really" is, attempting to define reality for both of them. He fundamentally minimizes this operation, saying it is very simple and not really an operation at all.

These statements are false, and are shown to be deceptive by the abruptness with which the American introduces the topic: the last thing they'd been talking about is the beer being good. He also wouldn't have to work as hard to minimize the operation if it were truly minor, and the girl would not be so emotionally upset by it. This line shows how the theme of gender intertwines with that of communication: they each see the world differently and talk about it differently.


We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.

The American

The American says this as part of the first sequence in which he tries to convince the girl to have an abortion, and directly after he's tried to convince her everything will be "perfectly natural" after the abortion. It may be, but for him to reassure her that they'll be fine and the relationship will be the same as it was before seems highly dubious. In the best of all possible worlds, they will have passed through a period of self-examination and doubt. Since abortions are illegal in Spain, they will also have committed a crime for the sake of their relationship. In the other outcomes implied through their discussion, their relationship has been permanently damaged by the pregnancy. Even if they continue as a couple, they will definitely not be the same as they were before.


No it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back.

The Girl ("Jig")

This sad line comes near the end of an odd and extended argument over whether the couple could have everything. The girl argues they can't have everything, and having it all becomes less likely every day. The American counters that they can "have everything." Reality seems on girl's side—who gets to have everything? However, here again, they seem to be arguing over something other than the topic on the surface. In this case, the "it" seems to be the fetus. Before this line, the girl had been talking as if they had lost the world, like it was their responsibility or fault; here she shifts to talking about some unnamed "they" taking "it" away. That won't happen with the world, but it would definitely happen with an aborted fetus. Once they make this decision, they can never have their potential baby back.


Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?

The Girl ("Jig")

Hemingway is known for his minimalist style. He cuts away all excess from the narrative, even omitting some things many readers might call necessary, like the names of the characters. That makes this eruption by the girl all the more striking. She's so upset that she uses "please" seven times in her plea for him to stop talking. This isn't a request. This is a desperate entreaty. It contrasts so heavily with how the rest of the story is written that it calls attention to itself, underscoring the depth of the girl's feelings.


'But I don't want you to,' he said, 'I don't care anything about it.'

The American

This is the American's response to the girl's request that he stops talking. Rather than remain silent, he does the opposite of what she asks. On the other hand, the fact that he understands what she's talking about so fully is striking. Even when she's nearly screaming at him, he returns the conversation to its topic, and tries to reassure her about his position. This response indicates how difficult and complicated communication is for them. They understand each other perfectly, but even when he tries to agree with her, it is a power struggle.


That the train is coming in five minutes.

The American

This line has several functions. First, on the literal level, it indicates the train is coming. That means change is coming and this static tableau of the couple drinking and talking will be broken. Second, it provides a kind of ticking clock or countdown. The couple has been trying to reach a decision about the abortion here at the station, and the interval there is nearly over. That adds pressure to their dilemma. Third, the line nudges readers to reach their own determination regarding what the American and the girl will do now that they have reached the last step at their train station crossroad.


He ... looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train.


Like much of the narration in this story, this completes multiple functions. First, it quietly signals time passing. The train will arrive in less than five minutes, and the American has left the girl briefly in order to move their suitcases. Despite the very short time until the train arrives, and the even shorter time it will be at the station, the man takes the time to contemplate and form an opinion of the other travelers. This indicates a second function for this narration, its emotional implications: he is willing to leave her sitting alone, counting down the time until the train arrives. While he relaxes at the bar, she has to be experiencing rising tension, a fear that they'll miss the train, if nothing else. This sums up a lot of their relationship: the American does things for the girl, but in ways that keep him in control and her in emotional turmoil.


'I feel fine,' she said. 'There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.'

The Girl ("Jig")

The girl says this after the man has been away for a few minutes, taking their suitcases to the other side of the station. When he returns, she smiles at him, and he asks if she feels better. This is her response. This is another multi-faceted line that leaves the story ending with some ambiguity. She may well feel fine: at no point in the story did she feel sick. She felt upset, and was trying to make a difficult decision. There's a major difference. There was never anything wrong with her: she's just pregnant.

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