Note: This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.
An essay on “Hills Like White Elephants” by Marga Mansilla Olmos
The most striking feature of this short story is the way in which it is told. It is not a story in the classical sense with an introduction, a development of the story and an end, but we just get some time in the life of two people, as if it were just a piece of a film where we have a lot to deduce, This story doesn’t give everything done for the reader, we only see the surface of what is going on. It leaves an open end, readers can have their own ending and therefore take part in the story when reading.
The story told here is that of a woman and a man in their trip to a place where she can have an abortion. Everything in the tale is related to the idea of fertility and barrenness. This main topic can be seen from the title Hills Like White Elephants, where Hills refer to the shape of the belly of a pregnant woman, and White Elephants is an idiom that refers to useless or unwanted things. In this case the unwanted thing is the foetus they are going to get rid of.
In the beginning we find a narrator that describes with a simple language the area where it is going to take place. We can see that the story happens in Spain, in the Valley of the Ebro, and we also see that the train the characters are going to take is an express train that comes from Barcelona and goes to Madrid, but we don’t know exactly where they are or the time ordate in which it takes place, we don’t even know if they really take the train. The train here symbolizes change, movement but in some way they are scared of it as movement is not always forward but it can also be backwards in this case in their relationship. It is the “train of life”.
Another thing we must take into account is the fact that the train is stopping only for two minutes, a very short time. This limited time symbolizes the time she has to have the abortion, she cannot think it over for a long time first because the later she has the abortion the more risky for her health it gets and second, because abortion has not been legal in Spain till very recently and in a dictatorship time it was a very punished practice, it had to be done before noticeable.
In a first reading and after checking Hemingway’s biography we could think that the story was set in the Spanish civil war, but we must discard this possibility because it was written in 1927, some years before the Spanish civil war and in the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera.
The first impression we get when we start reading the text is that we are in the middle of a dry, barren place under the sun, with no shade or trees, it reinforces the idea of lack of life but in contrast, they are in the warm shadow of the building where life is. This emphasizes the contrast between the pregnancy of the woman, as being fertile and everything around them, including him in this idea of fertility as he is also apart from the barrenness and sharing the shadow. They are also separated from the rest of the people that are inside the bar from a bamboo bead curtain, it gives the idea of privacy reinforced by the idea of the warm shadow of the building that protects them from the world that exists inside the bar, they are outside, with nature.
In the first paragraph we have a short and concise introduction to the characters, the narrator refers to them as the american and the girl, the narrator doesn’t give name to them, they may be symbols of lots of couples in the same situation as they are, but we can deduce the difference in age as she is considered as “the girl” and he is “the american” . Later on we will know that her name is Jig, but we aren’t going to know his name. The name of the girl which by the way, is not a normal name, is also very symbolic, as it is the name of a lively dance or it can also refer to “a particular sort of behaviour or activity which varies according to the situation that someone is in” (Collins Cobuild dictionary). What this name implies is that she can change her mind about the abortion and as we will see later on in the conversation, he is afraid of her changing her mind about this, he is all the time trying to reassure her in the decision.
After the first introductory paragraph we find a dialogue between them. This dialogue is presented as being very natural, but it was carefully written for sure because through it we are going to deduce the kind of relationship they have. The language here is a very simple one, even colloquial, this colloquial language usually expresses feelings. The real theme of the conversation is not clearly stated but it is underlying, they are talking about love, feelings and her pregnancy. There is tension in the air at some moments but they cannot express it openly, maybe they don’t want to be heard in case somebody can understand them or maybe it is just a problem of communication and of sharing feelings, or maybe both. There are also references to sexuality in the form of phallic symbols, the first one is related to the title, the trunk of the elephant, then we find another one in “Anís del Toro” , the bull as a symbol of virility. Also references to life in the form of the rivers and the trees.
It’s her who starts the dialogue, this here implies that the decision for the abortion in the end will be really hers, she is the one who starts theconversation and she is the one who is taking the decision, she is very straight forward. She also takes her hat off and puts it on the table, she is getting rid of what covers her, she wants to speak out about the situation clearly and put the feelings, as she does with the hat, on the table to be talked about openly. In his turn to answer instead of answering to the question he changes the subject and answers “it’s pretty hot” this implies that he wants to change the subject and talk about simpler things such as the weather. Men have problems to show their feelings. She answers with a decision and says “Let’s drink beer” She is the one who takes decisions, she decides what to drink.
In this story we can also see something typical of Hemingway, that is the use of spanish words and sentences. He orders “dos cervezas” to the barlady. We assume that she cannot speak English and that he can speak Spanish but, later on he orders and she answers in English. We have to think that the conversation must have taken place in Spanish but that in order not to translate the whole conversation into English only the first exchange of words was kept in Spanish because the story is so carefully written and developed that such a mistake would be unconceivable. When the bar lady gives them the drinks the girl is looking at the line of hills in the distance, as if considering the possibility of having the child but when she asks him about having ever seen an elephant he answers that he has never seen one alluding to not having been father before. Atthis stage she is having doubts about the abortion.
The characters are really mysterious to us, we know nothing about their lives but they seem to have nothing to do in life apart from sex and drinking. They spend the time drinking, alcohol is considered asaphrodisiac. They order “anís” because she wants to try new things, maybe she is considering the possibility of having a new relationship or a new experience in life, but when she tastes it she says “it tastes like licorice” which is a very common and not exotic taste, and she adds that “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for…” implying that when you wait for something for a long time, for instance a relationship, once you get it, it loses exotism and appeal. Later on there is a reference to the routine they seem to be in when she says that all they do is looking at things and trying new drinks.
As the conversation goes on, the man openly refers to the operation as if taking importance off it, he says it is not important but very easy, like opening a window ” It’s just to let the air in”, he wants her to have the abortion but she is sure about the fact that their relationship is going to change after that. He wants to convince her that the decision has been hersby means of saying thing like “if you don’t want to you don’t have to … But I know it’s perfectly simple” but it is him the only one who has no doubts about it. She is having the normal doubts a woman can have in a situation like that. He feels that the pregnancy is a nuisance in their lives. The baby would mean the necessity of settling down and starting a family and this would be a change in their lives as they move a lot around, that is why their suitcases are full of “labels from all the hotels they had spent nights”. There is another allusion when almost at the end of the story he says “we can have the world” and she replies “No, we can’t. It isn’t ours anymore … And once they have taken it away, you never get it back” here we can see that she wants the baby and she knows that once she has the operation she won’t be able to get the child back. And at the very end in the last sentence he asks her if she feels better, but what he is really asking is if she has taken a decision and he wants to know what she has decided and then she replies : “I feel fine … There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine”, if there is something wrong it is with the baby, that is the problem she has to solve.
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