Hills Like White Elephants

An essay on “Hills Like White Elephants” by Genia Stevens

Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” ends with a blanket statement:

“Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”

If the reader places an emphasis on the word “I” in that statement, he or she will conclude that Jig believes the American has a problem of some sort. If the reader places an emphasis on the word “fine” in the same statement, he or she will conclude that Jig is concerned about her own physical well-being. I believe that Jig’s repeated use of blanket or sarcastic remarks shows that she cannot clearly state what she thinks to the American.

Part of the conversation between Jig and the American is about licorice and its familiar taste–at least that is what the reader initially believes. Upon closer examination, the reader has to ask, is this really about licorice?:

“That’s the way with everything.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”

HemingwayWhen the girl echos the word “everything,” the reader is suddenly aware that licorice is not the topic of discussion and neither is absinthe. Again, Jig does not say exactly what is on her mind. Instead, she hints about her frustration by mocking the American and using his word in her response.

Another section of the conversation illustrates Jig’s frustration toward the American. Here, the two people discuss trying a new drink:

“That was bright.”
“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do,isn’t it — look at things and try new drinks?”

The word “all” catches the reader’s attention. Jig uses the word “all” in her response in a desperate attempt to show that she is bored of a life that consists of nothing but alcohol, hotels and looking at things. She uses this word in the same way we use the word “all” to play down the significance of an issue: Is that all you wanted?

The two people briefly discuss their future. By now, the American’s attitude about the unborn child obviously annoys Jig. She shows her annoyance when she says, “And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy?” The reader can almost hear the sarcasm and see Jig rolling her eyes toward the sky. The American is completely oblivious to the meaning of that question, tosses the subject of their future aside and continues to discuss the operation.

Jig is aware that her words are not making much of an impression on the American’s views so she resorts to a bit of emotional blackmail and sarcasm to attempt to get her point across:

“What do you mean?”
“I don’t care about me.”
“Well, I care about you.”
“Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.”

This passage shows Jig knows how to play the game with the best of them. She is tugging at the American’s sympathy strings and playing him like a fiddle. This is the first time the American comes close to realizing what Jig is going through. But the American is still clueless. We know this because a little while later in the conversation he attempts to make her understand that the operation is “perfectly simple.” Jig’s brief moment of triumph is quickly dissolved.

By the end of the story, I am certain that Jig will go through with the abortion. Her inability to communicate her feelings to the American leaves her frustrated and beaten. This is evident when she says to him, “I’ll scream.” Jig realizes that the American is too preoccupied with his own feelings to care at all about hers.

Hills Like White Elephants

This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.

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There are 35 comments on this post

  1. i think you have a point in your essay…..jig cannot really make up her mind about anything, but i think the fact that she is so young, and he is older than her that it intimidates her. if you look closely you will see that there is a lot of religious symbolism….the beads mainly, but there is more. i think that jig is a religious person and will not go against her religious beliefes and will end up keeping the baby

  2. Okay, I am trying to write an essay on this exact topic and I am looking for different ideas on what hidden meanings the lines of the story conceal. I don’t agree with you that Jig will abort her baby. I think in the end the American realizes what Jig is going through. american says “I’d do anything for you”. He doesnt’ want to keep the baby but he’ll allow her too if thats what she wants. “The girl smiled brightly at the woman to thank her” “I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station,” …”She smiled at him”. THe last few line of Hemingway’s story seem to suggest that the American has taken the bags to the fertile side of the station, meaning that Jig is going to experience life. the American carried the bags to the other side of the tracks. and jig smiled at him to thank him. By this simple action, Jig is shown that she can keep the baby.

  3. I’m the author of this paper. If you need to reach me, please use my new address. Thank you!

  4. Just a few points on numeric symbolism in the story, which is obviously an open text, two sides to the valley- two choices for the decision, to have the abortion or not, one side of the valley has “fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro” in stark contrast to the white hills where there is little life. again, two railway tracks at the station, to Madrid or Barcelona, again, to have or not have abortion. Not concerned with whether to go forward or back, but which location to go to, as “once they take it away, you never get it back.” To go to Barcelona is to forever continue a voyeuristic life, without creation or responsibility. The girl is Spanish, Madrid as alternative choice could symbolise motherhood, the second track the choice to be a duo of mother and child, not romantic couple. In relation to your point about what Jig was really saying about absinthe: The forty minutes wait for the train to arrive- the decision time is also measured in the consumption of alcohol (three glasses for Jig, and four for the American) this is what they always do, apparently, “That’s all we do, isn’t it- look at things and try new drinks?” The rate of alcoholic consumption over the thirty-five minute duration of the story could be considered excessive. Either the characters are trying to throw themselves into familiar habits, do what they always do, and escape the unwanted decision that they, or at least Jig, has make. Either that or the drinking is part of the realisation. “… all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” Anis del Toro tastes like aniseed, like liquorice, like absinthe, there is nothing new in the experience for Jig, nothing new in what they always do, if the drinking is reaction to the dillema that must be faced or realisation of the dillema itself, either way that rate of alcoholic consumption is drinking to get drunk, not casual social drinking, it’s escapism and as such essentially falsifies Jig’s closing statement that she feels fine. Interpreting the matter of taste and similarity outside of a consideration of dialogue one reading is that Jig is bored by the taste of the life that is offered to her by association with the American, and that spending time with him is something that “once they take it away, you never get it back.” That the decision is over time and life. Perhaps her fear for the abortion is that she will not be able to create life with the American again. The abortion to Jig is taking life away, and that is what can’t be given back. If she chooses not to have the abortion she kills the life she lives with the American before the story. “Two big ones”, two glasses of beer, two felt pads ‘two Anis del Toro’- anis, the aniceed/liquorice taste, a reminder of absinthe, the emptiness of a life lived in bars- toro, in English directly translated to mean a bull particular to bullfighting. Conflict and avoidance. The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.- depending on your interpretation of whether or not Jig will go through with the abortion or keep the child the beads are either the Jig and the American, or Jig and child. The beads are on separate strings, but from the same source, and beads could be considered a child’s plaything, then the two beads could be Jig moving toward a life with her, as a young woman/child herself, and with child. This note is just to say that in any consideration of Jig and her avoidance (perhaps symbolised by ‘Toro’ and bullfighting) should also recognise that she most likely finds her current life stale and boring, exhausted of the possibilities that she sought in the past. I confess that my interpretation is that Jig doesn’t take the train to Barcelona, but recognises at the end of the story that leaving the American is the lesser of two options. Anyway, enjoyed reading what you had to say.

  5. this **** better be right — ntgallant@upei.ca

  6. When Jig says absinthe she refers to the fact that he can’t follow her meaning– that he refuses to look beneath the surfaces– so it’s licorice, then its absinthe– the bitter irony of fungible liquours and he can’t tell one from anothewr, really– orders up whatever she wants perfunctorily, cool with whatever happens as long as it’s not deep — her sarcasm reminds me of Humpty Dumpty saying that’s glory for you in Alice in Wonderland– words mean what Humpty says they mean because he lives only in his own world– a homogenous meaningless world– EH uses lots of puns and double entendres, which are symbols of narcisissim– a sort of linguistic hall of mirrors amounting to the gross anatomical pun “anis de toro”– suggestive of b.s. Whether she has the child or the abortion, the hope of a fertile relationship with the American is certainly futile. So she decides to act the white elephant– the object of little or no value — and never leaves the barren side of the station. I wish I saw more hope in this tale’s bitter little dance of living death, but Hemingway’s operative mode was often that life’s a bitch and then you don’t get to die, as here, or its converse — the minute it starts to get good or real. you die.

  7. To Jon, the girl isn’t Spanish. Twice the American has to translate for her (ie meaning of “Anis” and when the bar woman comes to tell them that the train will be arriving in 5 minutes). I’m don’t know if this would make any difference to your analysis.

  8. Well president, I was visiting this site because I am writing a paper on “Hills Like White Elephants” and found your remark very clever. Appreciate you adding your intellectual comment. I don’t know what I would have done without it. To everyone else, thank you for your help.

  9. I want to thank everyone for their help. I honestly did not understand this story when I first read it. Now that I read everyones comments I feel kind of dumb not understanding it the first time. Thanks again!!!

  10. Hello: I’m providing an updated email address if anyone needs to reach me for comments. Wow. I can’t believe this essay is STILL floating around after all this time. You can start contacting me at genia@alumn.beloit.edu . That address should be working within a few days.

    Genia V. Stevens Beloit College ’00

  11. I have to agree the girl is not spanish. the number two is a huge symbolysm for the two decisions. Anis del toro is the seed/flower from the bull, pretty much the seed that the bull planted turns into a flower = baby the girl and the American will keep the baby, thats why he brings the bags to the other side of the train , he returns, this time and for the first time goes into the bar: he chooses another anis del toro, not absynthe, therefore he is pro baby

  12. I believe the power and beauty of this story comes from two aspects: Hemingway’s “pronoun play” and his use of “reasonable” at the story’s end. First, the girl’s seemingly sarcastic statements about having “everything” leads the American to retort that they could “have the whole world.” She says it is not theirs, and “once they take IT away, you never get it back.” The double meaning of “it” (also referring to the baby), used here and near the story’s end, is usually missed in the initial read. But the fact that all the people in the bar are “reasonable” at the story’s end indicates that the American and/or the girl are not. They are separated from the others. What will be their decision? I can ernestly argue either way.

  13. no s**t!!!!!!!!!!

  14. Okay, I’m a h.s. student and we are studying this short story in class and I am completely oblivious to how you can possibly come up with all these metaphors and such. I need help, and bad. If someone could help by maybe explaining it a little I would be very thankful.

  15. Hi all, Just a quick note to let you know about a new film version of Hills Like White Elephants. It’s a great movie by director Steven Brabson and you can learn about it and view clips at his website: http://www.whiteelephants.org. Learn background on the story and even request a copy to view on DVD.

  16. hey- jon! I don’t think that The girl is Spanish. Because, in the text, guy can understand what the bartender said and he translate it to his lover. Ofcourse, bartender(I guess the waitress)is Spanish.

  17. i know for sure that hemmingway made the ending of this short story be unknown and give us our own way to conclude it. hemmingway made it perfect that every line and dialogues gives us a hard time to have our own perceptions.

  18. i think hemingway wants us to think about every little details in the story. thats why he uses symbols and s**t

  19. it would be cool if we started to think about the contrast between the short story and the movie…any clues??

  20. hi to all.yhis is my homework.i dont know what is the meaning or significance of beads curtains in the story.tha’s all.thanks.i’m waiting for the reply……….

  21. i mean this.i put the wrong word.sorry!!!!!!!!!!

  22. Just a few comments/corrections:

    1) Jig is NOT Spanish, as someone corrected earlier. Several translation moments occur where the American is helping Jig understand. He may be a little older or more travelled.

    2) Right on about the two landscapes — fertile green side vs. barren desert side, i.e. life vs. abortion

    3) The train they initially wait for is going TOWARDS Madrid and AWAY from Barcelona. The text states they are coming FROM the Barcelona train/side. The abortion would presumably happen in Madrid, the heart and capital of Spain. An abortion, as well as absinthe, at the time would have been illegal in the U.S.

    4) Jig may not have gotten the abortion because:
    a. Her lover not only seems to put the luggage on the OTHER side, the fertile side, but he also does not see the train. This is significant because everyone else can see the Madrid train that is five minutes away — but Jig’s lover looks up for the train and sees nothing — meaning he is looking towards the other side, towards the side that awaits the train going back to Barcelona (no-abortion-train).
    b. Jig smiles after her lover moves their bags. Although her smile is ambiguous since she also smiles at the barrista, she has just previously been very upset with her boyfriend — shutting him up in fact (“Please, please please. . . stop talking . . . I’ll scream”). She thus had no reason to smile now at him unless something in him had changed. He even asks after he moves the bags, something to the effect of “Are you happy?”
    c. With Hemingway’s double-play on the word “it” and “everything” as the lovers are speaking, Jig makes it clear that to her, this baby is “the world.” Her sarcasm creates a double meaning in the following statement about people who have gotten abortions [paraphrased, going by memory, don’t have the text with me], “And afterwards they were all so happy.” Read sarcastically, as Jig’s tone has been thus far, this statement means exactly the opposite of what it is saying. Read with an emphasis on “so” as in “so-o-o-o-o” or in a sing-song/sarcastic mode, the statement shows Jig does not believe abortion really makes everyone happy.

    5) Although “the world” for the male lover involves travelling and no babies, he has admitted he loves her and doesn’t want Jig to go ahead with the abortion if she feels upset about it. This can be interpreted as manipulation, if he senses she’ll give in, or it can be interpreted as genuine, especially if you go with the theory that he changes tracks, literally and figuratively, about the abortion.

    6) The drinking issue: it’s Spain, there’s warm Meditarraneon weather. It’s hot. It’s the 1920’s. Our ideas of what it means to be “drunk” in our time are a little different from Hemingway’s in portraying characters in a European setting. (One of Hemingway’s favorite drinks btw,was absinthe, currently legal only in the Florida Keys). Nevertheless, good points brought up about a certain monotony/tension in the relationship — a monotony Jig indirectly links to their drinking patterns.

    Lit Prof.

  23. Another interesting thing to mention is that Absinthe (distilled from the Vermouth plant) is known to cause miscarriage. It is highly recommended not to be consumed in pregnancy. The Vermouth plant has been used for abortion purposes throughout the 19th century in Europe. Read the line: ” Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” It gets a deeper meaning than it appears on first sight. His reply “Oh, cut it out.” signalizes that she touched a sore spot. He gets upset and she replies: “You started it.” With that sentence she obviously goes back to an earlier topic of their conversation (the abortion) which must have happened before the reader joins them.


  24. I’m a Sophomore in an Advanced English class and my teacher is all for Hemingyway and his syblomism. We were assigned to read a part this and write a paper on it. It was a one night assignment and no one, including myself, had any idea what was going on. I still don’t really get what some of the other things mean, but I appreciate the help here. I still don’t get how someone could come up with all of this, though.

  25. hi..i ne3ed the theme for this story..

  26. hey Lit-Prof _____ thanks a lot
    I was writting a paper on this story and suddenly I got curious
    about the abortion.. So,, Jig will be not getting an abortion, right??
    But, why does she drink Anis del Toro? Isn’t it harmful for the baby? Well, I’m very confused right now
    Can someone tell me exactly whether Jig will get an abortion or not?
    -Thank you all~
    Isabelle from Korea

  27. Isabelle,

    Textual evidence suggests that Jig and her boyfriend decided not to get an abortion. However, one could make the case for the opposite — that’s the beauty of Hemingway. In fact, the traditional view is that Jig decides to have one. Stanley Renner, another critic, proposes the opposite, that she did not get an abortion. It all depends on how you read the details, and whether or not you attribute sarcasm to some of Jig’s lines. For instance — why does Jig smile in the end — is it because her boyfriend has changed his mind, or is she being sarcastic again?

    I tend to believe there is more evidence suggesting the couple decided not to get a an abortion (see my note above in a previous entry for textual evidence).

    Regarding the drinking — it’s the 1920s, Europe, and the dangers of drinking while pregnant are not yet known. However, the dangers of absinthe and pregnancy would be known at the time.

    Interesting side note: Hemingway dedicated this story to a woman that became his next wife (Pauline Pfeiffer). She was Catholic. The text, completed during their honeymoon in 1927, epitomized Hemingway’s talent in crafting rich “bare essentials” stories and was likely meant as a wedding gift. After the travails Hemingway had experienced in getting Pauline to marry him in the first place, the ending with an abortion at the end would be strange if the story was meant as a gift to Pauline. Autobiographical details however, should not be used to base your interpretation. There’s plenty more fascinating details to the biographical Pauline-Hemingway story, but it might take you away from what’s most important — the writing itself. Stick to a close reading of the story text and you’ll be fine.

  28. Another, possible, connection to the drink choices is that anis, or anise/aniseed, is a phytoestrogen that has been used in some countries for centuries in the treatment of fertility problems. I don’t know if that has any relevant connection, but I wouldn’t put it past Hemingway to use such an obscure association.
    I do have a question, too. Is there any significance in the American having another Anis before rejoining Jig?
    Oh, and just to clarify, its the anise plant that is used for fertility, not the alcoholic beverage.

  29. Hi all,
    I just want to know the meaning of curtain. Thanks.

  30. How do you think the story is going to end?



  33. Tracey if you ask idiot there he’ll go into the renting of the temple veil, or the hijab or the veil of skin covering the virgin’s hole etc. The curtain is simply a bloody curtain. no alternate meaning you fool.

  34. Hi Jon,
    I really cannot agree with the hermeneutical or numerical interpretations of this story, I think it’s just a story into which is being read far too much which in fact doesnot exist.

  35. Anis del Toro is not absinthe, but anisette, another licorice-flavored distilled spirit. Both take their predominant flavor from the anise herb in the distillate, however absinthe adds wormwood, a homeopathic remedy long associated with menstrual complaints and abortion in Europe. Anis del Toro is literally “the Bull’s anisette” but some sources claim that it is also known as “The Black Fairy,” for its dark color. No claims are made for anisette as an abortifacient, but the similar licorice flavor (and its association with absinthe) merely provides Jig her opening to bring up the abortion again, to which the American responds “Oh, cut it out.”

    Also, where does the text support suggestions that the couple face a choice between traveling to Madrid (abortion) or Barcelona (no abortion)? The arriving train is headed to Madrid, from Barcelona. We don’t know how the couple ended up in Ebro, but Hemingway provides no evidence that they’d been in Barcelona prior to the present action. For all we know, they’ll return to Paris or someplace before this conflict is resolved. All we see is a tiny slice of an argument that didn’t start in Ebro and may very well persist for some days to come. As the song says, “Breaking up is hard to do.”

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