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.

Hills Like White Elephants (2)

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 53 comments on this post

  1. This was an excellent article. Thank you. It really answered some questions I had concerning the symbolism.

  2. Very nice essay. Very helpful in finding symbols.

  3. This helped my sudent very much! Thank You!

  4. You’ve done very well. It helped me much to understand the story. Thank you very much indeed.

  5. very helpul to me. There are What i didn’t understand in this article.

  6. a truly outstanding analysis

  7. excelent work thank you very much

  8. This helped me with symbolism, thanks

  9. I thought i have found all the meanings that been implied. But you helped me to find brandnew once. Appreciate.

  10. the story is somewhat takes a good lesson to the people..i presiate the writer of this peom..

  11. Thanks Very Much

  12. very outstanding essay, i wouldn’t have understand the short story if it wasnt for this essay thanks!!!

  13. avatar
    madelene belle t. galupar

    well as a student in the philippines it helps me to analize better the story, thank you very much and whoever the writer is, from the bottom of my heart thank you…

  14. avatar
    madelene belle t. galupar

    it help to analize the symbol in the story excellent essay and easy to analize

  15. Nice, although I am sometimes unsure as to whether or not articles like these are putting symbolism down the author’s throat. Mabey he wanted to have a setting with a river, did it necessarily have to mean that the river symbolises life, etc.

  16. That’s good!

  17. very chicken feeding thanks for the essay! but can i read some of your ending of the story?

  18. Thanks For Posting This Essay. We Are Reading The Story In My 9th Grade English Class, And I Was A Little Stuck But After This Essay I Understood The Story SO Much Better.

  19. You really told the story well. Your paper helped me out a lot. Thanks a lot!!!!

  20. excellent work! absolutely helpful!

  21. Não achei um significado para a frase: please, please, please, please, please, please, stop to talking. O que quer dizer?

  22. i need to know what is the WHITE Elephants means?

  23. thanks so much it was truely helpful in understanding what was taking place in the story.i didn’t understand the symbolizm unil your essay.

  24. yay! thank you so much! this helped me so much. you’re awesome and you rock my world!

  25. as a student in english literature,your essay helps me a lot to understand the story was awesome and i thank you very much.

  26. you did a great job for helping my understanding.thanks a lot

  27. If I am right, the white elephant means something unwanted. There is a story to it. The white elephant was an important animal(somewhere), and a man was ordered to look after this elephant. He would get into serious trouble if anything happens to the elephant. So, the man spent all his fortune on the elephant. The elephant was a symbol of good luck and fortune, but it was what the man whants to fet rid of. I am sorry if you cant understand me^^” I am not native english speaker.

  28. Great comments about the associations with the name “Jig” here. But I doubt that “white elephants” is a symbol at all. Generations of poor students have been told to find the Symbolism, alas! The title is not White Elephants, but rather “The Hills Are Like White Elephants”. This whole sentence, which is a simile or metaphor, is the same sentence that Jig says twice — she says this in order to impress the man. She wants to impress him because she needs his attention, she craves his approval. The title then is Jig’s creative attempt to gain approval from a rather distant older man. In the story she is younger and less experienced, so this pregnancy is a real test for their relationship. They are at a station, at a “crossroads” in their lives together. She seems to agree to the abortion, if he can convince her that he’ll still love her, but the more he talks the less she’s convinced — which is precisely why she says, “Please, please…shut up.”

  29. great essay. the way you get into detail is amazing. i learned many new things from your essay. the wording is superb and i would love to read some of your other writings. thank you

  30. Excellent essay! It really got me thinking about the srtory in ways I had not.

  31. His words seemed meaningless until I read your essay. Thank you!

  32. Your essay was great. There was something that wasn’t discussed, however, that I was interested in hearing your perspective on: the “please please please please please please please stop talking” part. Ideas?

  33. at the first time i read the short story i did not even get a “flash” but after reading your article i can get a little bit flash.thank you!

  34. thx u so much ~
    i have a better understanding to the story
    after reading your articel `
    it’s kool

  35. thank you so much . when i was reading the story i was like what the heck are the talking about? but now is perfetly clear and i understand the symbolism

  36. Why does Hemingway mention “felt pads”. Twice in fact?! Are they protection, prophylactic? What does the grabbing of two strands of the beaded curtain represent?

  37. annonymous forvever

    you r a genius! thanks for this detailed article

  38. avatar
    annonymous interpretation

    MY interpertation is that the couple is wait for the train. The train is a path in their life which is decided at the beginning of the story. Then the abortion discussion starts because of the girls doubts on there previous plan of having the abortion. but at the end the man moves the bags to the train they had been waiting for. The girl smiles; which seems to me they definitly get on the train. And the train sybolizes the abortion. Just my interpertation to the the couples final decision…

  39. This is a very insightful analysis. I find the explanation of Jig’s name particulary interesting. I believe that the beads that Jig looks at, then touches symbolizes rosary beads. Since the couple is discussing the possibility of having an abortion, Jig is weighing out the ethical and religious reasons why she may or may not go through with the procedure.

    Before Jig says “we can have everything . . .” the narrator states that “the shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.” At this moment, she begins to see the truth about the american. Jig then says that “we can have everything . . .” and the american immediately agrees. She then says, “No, we can’t.” It seems to me that she baited him into agreeing with her just to see how far he will go to persuade her that the abortion is the best thing for their relationship.

    Call me crazy, but I believe she decides against having an abortion.

  40. Does she have the abortion????

  41. avatar
    Amy-Wassana Chaiyaphan

    This is the best essay that i have ever read. It’s excellent. Thanks from Thailand

  42. An OK article. Missed a few things. Regarding “please please please please stop talking” no interpretation is required. Hemingway wrote realistic dialogue and people talk like this. However, you can see Hemingway’s influence on Raymond Carver through Carver’s story (and book title) Will You Please be Quiet Please.

    I do think the author makes too much of “symbolism.” Clearly the hills like “White Elephants” is symbolic of Jig’s pregnancy. But as for the train being “symbolic” of the passage of time or the train of life, that’s stretching too far. Time passes, and the story is not about time, it is about a failing relationship, especially Jig’s character who doesn’t care about herself and is clearly anxious about the moral implications of an abortion (“And once they take it away you never get it back”).

    Also, the expression jig-jig in many parts of the world refers to sexual intercourse. I have not seen anyone make the connection between the American’s calling the woman “jig” and the obvious sexual overtones of the story.

  43. This is correct and helped me understand my English homework. Thank you.

  44. Comment #43 (aka melvin), i like your style.

    I think this essay was poorly written; it’s almost sophomoric. Class, this is just ONE interpretation. Nothing is concrete. What do YOU think about the rest of the 7/8 of the iceberg? Decipher at your own will.

  45. What about gender issues?? Don’t you see the guy is literally FORCING his girlfriend to have the abortion… why… because they are a couple that like to try new things.. do you really think he’ll like to give his lifestyle up for a baby… Travelling here and there… freely, nothing to stop them…. he doesn’t really want that baby, at least not now. The men in this story is defined as “THE AMERICAN” and Jig.. as “THE GIRL”… for two simple reasons… He’s the one pursuing HER to get rid of that baby…. literally saying this.. “OK YOU CAN GET RID OF IT… BUT I WANT YOU TO FEEL THAT IS RIGHT”… “I’M FINE I’LL STILL LOVE YOU, BUT GET RID OF IT… AND DON’T FEEL DISAPPOINTED OR UPSET AFTERWARDS”…

    I don’t know any men who wouldn’t act this way.. when it comes to this type of situation.. this is an essay on gender role about one particular stage of this couple’s life.

  46. This essay does clear things up, but it is not all that well written, nor is it very interesting. However, you do seem to understand th story well. A thesis would have been a good idea to improve the essay.

  47. excellent-helped me in lot of thing and by doing my homework 🙂

  48. ..,,,wow..,,now i fully understand the story…,,,tnx for the info..,,’_-

  49. really the best analyis
    i really appriciate you;u can be a good writter

  50. very nicely summed up !

  51. Your essay really helped me a lot..tnx..=)

  52. what do you think the bead curtain may symbolise?

  53. How are you sure “the girl” is pregnant and if she is why is she drinking alcohol–beer & Anis del Toro???

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