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Trying to decide on a course of action when faced with an unexpected pregnancy, an American and a girl sit outside a train stop in the dusty part of Spain and drink on it. Indirectly approaching the sensitive subject of abortion, each member of the couplehood sets out to test the other in a verbal battle of the wills, engaging in a staccato like dialogue that offers some insight into the two main character’s personas. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” churns out a hefty sum of symbolism in a very short story ultimately leaving the imagination free reign to interpret. While they wait for a train to take them to Madrid, the dangers of persuing happiness unfolds (choices – how bad do you want something – how restrictions help you to understand yourself…if you put yourself out of your element – thats when you learn the most about yourself) . The timeline of the story is significant. Post WW1, opulence has landed in Amercia and 20’s reign Roaring 20‘s, post WW1 Although setting is not talked about at length, what is written says many things about the underlying psyche of the two main characters, the American and a girl he calls Jig. Immediately, Hemmingway establishes an obvious conflict between the couple’s interests with the line “[o]n this side…”.
This is further emphasized with “two lines of rails”, symbolizing their inability to connect with each other. A beaded curtain is then introduced, “to keep out the flies”, in reality, it is a grounder representing the girl’s shifting state of mind; while everything seems to change and turn and dance about around her, the curtain – not solid, but as fluid as her decision making skills – appears whenever she makes an important decision. Here, the curtain is a means of concealing their current dilemma. The pair are also described as being “outside the building”, where they are supposedly waiting for the train – a justification for their underlying purpose of waiting on a decision to be made. The Mediterranean sun finds them somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid, two major cities in Spain, where there is “no shade and no trees” on their side of the valley. This represents the crossroad they’ve reached in their relationship: they are stuck in limbo, coming from beauty and going into it, but must first make their decision of whether they go together or not.
Lastly, throughout the story the girl looks out at the valley and the hills in the distance, which are “white in the sun”, while she and the American are stuck in a “brown and dry” country, hardly conducive to life at all. The fertile valley and the hills represent the unborn baby – the potential for life. She mentions these hills and looks over to them many times, whereas the man refuses to acknowledge them, ignoring her when she initially brings them up. This is highlighted later when the American refers to ‘the operation’, or the potential abortion, as being “perfectly natural”. The presence of the beaded curtain shows that she does not agree with him. This fundamental disagreement of the concept of something as basic as nature foreshadows the couple’s impending separation. Furthermore, while she is perfectly aware she speaks of the white hills metaphorically, he takes her literally; they do not operate under the same mode of thought.
Throughout the story, the American behaves according to the traditional idea of masculinity: rugged, knowledgeable, and always in control of himself and the given situation. Even when vexed or confused, he maintains a relaxed exterior and feigns indifference; such as when he tells the girl “if you don’t want to you don’t have to”. He avoids directly voicing his opinions, but when pressured collapses, oversimplifying the operation and relentlessly pushing her to have it. Thinking himself to be the more reasonable of the two, even identifying more with the other passengers “waiting reasonably” at the station, he inherently fails to provide the sympathy and understanding she needs during the crisis. Compared to the American, Jig is portrayed as being naïve, helpless, and indecisive.
Her nickname, Jig, subtly indicates that the two characters merely dance around each other and the issue at hand without ever saying anything meaningful. In fact, the girl, unable to speak Spanish, can’t even order drinks from the bartender on her own – suggesting a strong dependence on him. Although her mind is constantly changing as it receives new information, she still is being pressured to make a decision while under the influence of his persistent attempts to control her. Jig is very much like the following comment made by Hemmingway on the 1920s, when the story was published: The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.
And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded. (Audre Hanneman, Ernest Hemingway: A Comprehensive Bibliography: Princeton University Press, 1967) By the end of the story, Jig seems to understand that her relationship with the American has effectively ended, despite her earlier professed desire to make him happy. She knows that even if she has the operation, their relationship won’t return to how it used to be. In many ways, the girl’s realization of this fact gives her power over the American, who never really understands why they still can’t have “the whole world” like they once did. Imagery and symbolism are common themes throughout this story. When Jig first tries the Anis Del Toro, she comments “[i]t tastes like liquorice… everything tastes of liquorice”. Liquorice is a popular sweet, but in medicine it used to induce vomit.
This sort of duality runs throughout the text. Here, Jig speaks about how everything possesses two natures: a positive and a negative. One not able to exist without the other. The curtain appears at the beginning of this scene, when the American orders the drinks. This might mean that she is becoming aware of a truth the man isn’t picking up on. At the end of the forty minutes, it is implied the train has come to pick them up. This too has a hidden meaning: once a train comes, it goes. Symbolically, the train represents Jig’s choice. Like the coming of the train, if she decides to abort the baby, there is no turning back. The train will keep on going just as her life will keep going; but will she ever be the same? The American tries his best to make his opinion known that he and Jig’s life will be easier and go back the way it was if she just goes through with this “simple operation.” It is also interesting to see how the man reacts to the indecision of his girl when “he picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.
Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking… He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.” As the man takes both of their bags over to the tracks, he is hoping that Jig will go through with the surgery. He is still uncertain as to whether she will in fact go through with the abortion, but lets his opinion be known by taking their luggage and setting it by the tracks to be loaded on the upcoming train. He looks up the tracks, waiting for the train that is supposed to come, but does not see it. Similarly, he anticipates that Jig will listen to his suggestion but is still uncertain whether she will go through with it. When the American comes back into the barroom, he hopes that Jig has made a decision, preferably in favour of the abortion, but when he reaches her she has still not made up her mind. The drinks that the couple share are another instance of symbolism regarding Jig’s decision about the abortion. Even though it may not have been known that alcohol consumption negatively affects the fetus in the womb, Jig’s consistent drinking gives way to the thinking that she may have thrown in the towel on the possibility of having the child.
For instance, the Anis del Toro is a drink that is illegal in many countries because those who gorge themselves on the drink can, and probably will, die of alcohol poisoning. Knowing this, Jig’s drinking the Anis del Toro symbolizes her thinking of the child as a separate entity, perhaps already dead. Jig’s drinking several alcoholic beverages points toward her decision to abort the baby as her American boyfriend wants. There is also the recurring theme of the number “two.” For instance, the train stopped for “two” minutes, the couple drinks “dos” cervezas, they receive “two” glasses of beer, “two” felt pads and the American carries their “two” heavy bags to the other side of the train tracks. This overemphasis of the number two could inspire two different readings. The first could be that the relationship between the couple is the largest the relationship can span; they can’t include a third person into their twosome because three’s a crowd. The other way to read this is that perhaps “two” refers to Jig and her baby. Jig is still weighing the possibility of becoming a mother because she has not yet made a decision as to whether she will abort the baby or not.
The overuse of two is definitely symbolic within the story. Even Hemingway’s title is symbolic which alludes to a deeper meaning in the term “white elephants” than just scratches the surface. A white elephant is a saying meaning “a gift not recognized by the receiver, whose value is outweighed by its cost”. The girl’s comment in the beginning of the story that the surrounding hills look like white elephants initially seems to be a casual, offhand remark, which in reality represents her desire to speak about the issue at hand. Later, her comment “the hills don’t really look like white elephants” is a subtle hint at her defiance: perhaps she won’t have the operation at all. The term “white elephants” originally was used in Indian cultures where a white elephant is “a possession unwanted by the owner but difficult to dispose of”.
The term originally came about in an apocryphal tale about the King of Siam who would “award a disagreeable courtier a white elephant, the upkeep of which would ruin the courtier” (Dictionary). Even though these elephants were beautifully ornate and were given as great gifts, the upkeep is atrocious. Basically the cost and care for the white elephant would supersede the actual joy of receiving it. In sum, a white elephant is an unwanted gift; much like Jig’s pregnancy seems, especially to the American: like an unwanted thing. Both the American and the girl drink alcohol throughout their conversation. They start by drinking large beers the moment they arrive at the station.
Then, as soon as they begin talking about the hills that look like white elephants, the girl asks to order more drinks. Although they drink primarily to avoid thinking about the issue at hand, readers sense that deeper problems exist in their relationship, of which the operation is merely one. The girl implies this herself when she remarks that she and the American man never do anything together except try new drinks, as if constantly looking for new ways to avoid each other. By the end of their conversation, both drink alone- the girl at the table and the man at the bar- suggesting that the two are winding down their relationship and will soon go their separate ways.