Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" was first published in the magazine transition in 1927. Later that year it appeared in the collection Men without Women. The story is set on a train platform in Spain where an American man and his girlfriend, Jig, are waiting for a train. It gradually becomes clear that Jig is pregnant, and though the specifics are never addressed directly, the two discuss whether she should get an abortion.

The story is a strong example of Hemingway's "Iceberg Theory" of writing. As he described it, "There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg." Using very little text besides dialogue, Hemingway probes the themes of human communication and life-altering choices in a story whose indeterminate ending has fascinated critics and readers for decades.

1. Hemingway claimed "Hills Like White Elephants" was inspired by a woman he met in Paris.

In an interview, Hemingway explained that he believed much of a writer's work is observing, and that what the writer observes may or may not be useful. Describing the genesis of "Hills Like White Elephants," he said, "I met a girl in Prunier where I'd gone to eat oysters before lunch. I knew she'd had an abortion." Hemingway explained that he talked about other things with the woman, but "on the way home I thought of the story, skipped lunch, and spent that afternoon writing it."

2. Critics believe "Hills Like White Elephants" shows how gender and language are linked.

Critic Pamela Smiley claimed that "Hills Like White Elephants" is an example of two people who are unable to communicate because of "gender-linked language patterns." She believed that the characters express traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine language and are trapped by their inability to understand or reach each other emotionally. The American's language both gives him power and limits him, making him unable to see that the woman, Jig, could be "all this" for him.

3. There are at least four interpretations of the ending of "Hills Like White Elephants."

Hemingway never says exactly what happens to the characters of Jig and the American at the end of "Hills Like White Elephants," but critics have come to their own conclusions. One interpretation holds that Jig will have an abortion and stay with the American; a second states that she will have the procedure and leave him; a third posits that she will not terminate the pregnancy and will stay with the American. A fourth suggests that Jig will have the abortion, but afterward the American will leave her. Each of these possible endings has its supporters who find evidence in the text to uphold it, but readers must draw their own conclusions.

4. One critic claims "Hills Like White Elephants" is partially autobiographical.

The earliest version of "Hills Like White Elephants" is written in the first person and appears to be about a trip Hemingway took with his first wife, Hadley, by train. They were traveling through Spain and caught the express to Madrid, as the characters do in the story. Not long before, Hemingway had learned that Hadley was pregnant and was very unhappy at the news, fearing that having a child would make it harder for him to work and travel freely. He did not, however, urge his wife to have an abortion.

5. "Hills Like White Elephants" has been compared to T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land."

Published five years before "Hills Like White Elephants," the poem "The Waste Land" by renowned poet, essayist, and playwright T.S. Eliot explores a bleak postwar world in which a barren landscape reflects the inability of men and women to connect with each other. The poem's sense of emptiness and failed lives and the fragmentation of its text are mirrored in the experiences of the characters in "Hills Like White Elephants." Jig and the American, looking out over a "brown and dry" countryside, grapple with the emotional and spiritual bleakness of modern life.

6. "Hills Like White Elephants" has been used to teach the importance of communication between doctors and patients.

The dialogue between Jig and the American in "Hills Like White Elephants" reveals how two people can agree not to communicate fully, leaving difficult subjects unstated. A doctor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Clayton Baker, wrote an essay suggesting that doctors utilize the story as a teaching tool. He compared Jig and the American's conversation to those between doctors and patients, who often also revert to "the collusion of noncommunication" and so lose the opportunity to explore serious medical issues.

Dr. Baker pointed out that in "Hills Likes White Elephants," because the characters won't talk about their problem "openly and constructively," they can't resolve it and build up hard feelings. He used the story to teach student doctors that they must speak forthrightly and clearly. He stated: "Hemingway's characters cannot bear to say the word 'abortion.' How can they reasonably hope to best decide whether or not to undergo one?" Similarly, he said, a doctor needs to repeat the key words of a patient's diagnosis so that "the patient leaves knowing their diagnosis."

7. Benedict Cumberbatch acted in a short film version of "Hills Like White Elephants."

In 2002 a 38-minute film of "Hills Like White Elephants" starring Benedict Cumberbatch as "the Man" was released. It was one of Cumberbatch's first film roles. A 30-minute film version was also shown on HBO in 1990; this adaptation was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and starred James Woods and Melanie Griffith.

8. A member of the Monty Python troupe produced a series of television travel documentaries about Ernest Hemingway.

In 1999 Michael Palin of Monty Python fame created a 4-part travel series for PBS in which he traveled to all the places Hemingway had made famous—from Chicago, near Hemingway's Illinois birthplace, to Italy, where he was wounded in World War I, to Paris, to Spain. He then went on to Cuba, Key West, Uganda—where Hemingway went on safari—and finally to Idaho, where Hemingway died. Along the way, Palin went to bullfighting school, drank in bars, shot ducks, and drove a tank.

9. Artist Vernon Fisher created an art installation interpreting "Hills Like White Elephants."

Contemporary artist Vernon Fisher was inspired by "Hills Like White Elephants" to create an art installation for the Center for Contemporary Art in Sacramento, California, in 1999. The exhibit included 13 works by Fisher and three alter egos he had created. Only one work was directly related to the text; it was painted on the wall and included the narration in the story, leaving out the dialogue. By rewriting the text in this way, critics believe the artist created a "second-order text" to be interpreted by the viewer.

10. Hemingway didn't have a real schedule when he wrote.

In a 1940 interview Hemingway was asked about his writing schedule. He explained that he normally worked from 7:30 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m. His process involved reading back through what he'd already written. After that, he said, "I put the words in—like laying bricks. I write in longhand and don't try to make much time." The interviewer then asked him how many words he wrote each day, a question that befuddled the author. He answered, "I start with blank paper and put all that I know at the time on the paper ... Why in hell do you want to know, Gustavo?"

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