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Analysis, Themes and Summary of "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway

Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.

Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" is a frequently anthologized short story, and it has attracted a lot of critical interest.

It's a good example of Hemingway's "iceberg theory" of writing, where a story's meaning isn't stated directly but is implied. It's told by a third person objective narrator.


Summary of "Hills Like White Elephants"

An American man and a woman are at a train station in Spain. They sit at a table just outside the bar. They order beer, as it will be forty minutes before their train comes.

It's very hot. The woman looks into the distance at the hills. She says they look like white elephants.

She sees the name of a drink, Anis Del Toro, and the man orders two. The woman makes some playful conversation, but the man resists a bit. She says all they do is look at things and try new drinks.

The man talks about an operation that the woman, Jig, could have. He says it's simple. Afterward, they'd be happy again.

She doesn't have to do it if she doesn't want to, but he thinks it's for the best. They talk more about the procedure and how it would affect their relationship.

The woman gets up and walks to the end of the station. She looks at the scenery.

They argue about whether they can have everything. The man says they can, but the woman says that's been taken from them.

He doesn't want her to do it if she doesn't want to. She wants to stop talking. They sit back down at the table. He brings it up again. He's willing to go through with it, but it's simple and he doesn't want anybody but her.

She implores him to stop talking. He reiterates his position. The waitress brings out two more beers. The train's arriving in five minutes.

The man takes their bags to the other side of the station. He stops inside the bar on his way back and has another drink.

He goes outside and asks the woman if she feels better. She says she feels fine.

Theme: Change

The woman's pregnancy has already served as a turning point in their relationship. Her final decision regarding "the operation" will be a bigger one for both of their lives.

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Apparently, they're on the way to Madrid for this purpose. We're let in on one of their final conversations on the subject, possibly the final one.

Going through with the operation could mean the continuation of their current lifestyle of travel and relaxation. It's unlikely it would be as pleasurable with the rift that has occurred.

If the woman decides against it, that life is over. Now she'll have the responsibility of raising a child. The man will too, but the stakes for him aren't as clear. He could accept this new life, or he could leave. The woman must be taking this into consideration.

The only certainty is that a change is coming and it won't be a happy one. The best case scenario for the woman—because she wants to keep the baby—is for the man to accept it, support her and settle into his new life with limited resentment. Not an enviable life, but the alternatives are worse.

The best case for the man is for her to have the operation and then for him to get out of the relationship. He can continue his pleasure seeking with someone who doesn't have reason to resent him yet.

Whatever they do, it seems unavoidable that they'll be unhappy. They've lost their enjoyment in pleasure seeking. The woman wants to try a new kind of life, but the man doesn't. Even if he gets to continue it with her or someone else, it won't be satisfying.

1. Why are we told the train will arrive in 40 minutes?

This seemingly unimportant detail tells us a lot about the mood of the conversation. From the time they sit down until they get a five minute warning, 35 minutes has passed.

The conversation they have would take no more than 5 minutes. The woman also walks to the other side of the station, and the man joins her shortly after. Other than these things, they spend their time sitting at the table and drinking.

This tells us how hesitant they are to talk, not only about the main point of contention, but about anything. It implies they've already said everything they can on this subject without getting anywhere. It also shows that it has affected their relationship badly. Whatever the woman's final decision is, things won't be the same between them again.

2. Is there any symbolism?

There are a few things that could be symbols:

  • The train station is a place where people can go in different directions. Similarly, the woman is deciding which direction her life will take.
  • The two sides of the valley symbolically parallel the woman's decision as well. One side is hot with no shade or trees. The other side has grain, trees, a river and a cloud. One side is sterile and the other is fertile.
  • The title (see question #3)

3. What is the significance of the title?

A white elephant is venerated in some cultures, but it's also an expensive burden. Certainly, the man views the unborn child as a burden. The responsibility of caring for this child would interfere with his life of pleasure seeking.

The man doesn't respond playfully to the woman's remark about the white elephant. This is the first indication we're given that something is amiss. Their relationship has changed.

When the woman explains that the hills don't really look like white elephants, she apparently slips up: "I just meant the colouring of their skin through the trees." The hills, of course, don't have skin. She could be thinking of her unborn child.

Later, when the man argues that having the operation will make things normal again, she responds "it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?" The man doesn't like the relationship anymore due to the pregnancy, the figurative white elephant.

So, the title seems to symbolize the rift the pregnancy has caused, as well as the pregnancy itself.

4. How sincere is their conversation?

The dialogue spoken by both characters is laced with insincerity. It's a masterclass of unproductive communication.

The Man

He repeatedly says things he doesn't mean or doesn't believe.

The first thing the man says about the operation is highly suspect: "It's really an awfully simple operation." He repeats this sentiment in other words several times. The man knows this procedure isn't simple. It's illegal and potentially dangerous. It's possible for the woman to die.

He also says "We'll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before." It's unlikely he means this. Knowing the woman's feelings about the operation, things could never be the same. It's more likely he just wants to get out of this situation, and is saying whatever will convince her to let him off the hook.

Four times the man tells her he doesn't want her to do it if she doesn't want to. The first time he says it, he immediately undercuts it by adding, "But I know it's perfectly simple." Clearly, he does want her to do it.

If this was a genuine assurance, he wouldn't have to keep saying it. He knows they're on opposite sides of this issue. He comes off like he's simply covering himself for the aftermath. If the woman goes through with it and then resents him, he'll be able to say that she wanted it too.

Not only does the man want to control what the woman does, he also wants to control her feelings about it.

The Woman

The woman doesn't directly say what she means. She clearly doesn't want the operation, but she won't definitely say so.

She stays silent at one point, and she argues by asking the man questions about his view.

The woman also uses sarcasm in her argument.

When the man says that after the operation they'd be happy again, and that he's known lots of people who've done it, the woman responds, "So have I. And afterward they were all so happy." Obviously, taking this step doesn't guarantee happiness. They would both know people who regretted this operation, or who's relationships ended over it.

The woman responds to the man's pressure by making a martyr of herself, emphasizing the sacrifice she's willing to make for him: "Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me." Obviously, the man can't say, "Good. I'm glad that's settled," even though he'd like it to be. He reaffirms that he doesn't want her to do anything she doesn't want to do.

The last tactic the woman uses is to ask the man to stop talking about the subject. (See question #5 for more)

5. Has the couple reached an understanding when the story ends?

It doesn't seem like they have. It's possible the woman has made a decision, but she doesn't share it yet.

The man ends the story by having a drink of Anis at the bar. This could be significant. Earlier, the woman said the Anis they had tasted like licorice. The man responded, "That's the way with everything." The woman says, "Yes everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for . . ." This suggests they're both tiring of their way of life, of "looking at things and trying new drinks."

The fact that the man ends by ordering a licorice flavored drink could suggest that he wants his life to continue as it is. This is consistent with how he's argued for the operation. He hasn't been moved by the woman's reluctance.

The woman's final statement, "I feel fine. There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine," could be sarcastic. It's seems likely that she isn't fine. She's on her way to Madrid to have this operation that she feels forced into having.

It's also possible that she's saying the problem is with him, not her.

There's no indication that they're on the same page now. It seems they'll continue as they are right through the operation, with the woman passively resisting and trying to guilt the man into changing his mind, while he assures her it's the right thing and pretends her feelings are paramount.

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