Table of contents
2 Modern dialogue - the structure of the short story
3 Hills and junction - the strong prominence of place and positioning
4 Repetition, manipulation and sarcasm - the language of the characters
The female character in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” represents the inferior part in the relationship and finally agrees to the male’s wish of an abortion, does not she?
Can the reader of “Hills like White Elephants” experience the success of the male character, known as “the American”, or the triumph of Jig, the female character, at the end of the story?
The argument of the American couple waiting at a junction between Barcelona and Madrid represents the centre of Ernest Hemingway’s short story. Hemingway published this short story as part of the story collection “Men without Women” in 1927 (ANONYMOUS, 1996). Therefore, it can be assumed that the setting of the story is also conceived for the 1920ies.
It is never directly mentioned that both discuss the abortion of their unborn child, although it becomes clear through implications within the text. Whereas the man tries to convince her in a manipulating manner to undergo surgery, she dreams of a future with the child (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 249ff). LAMB even states that: “Much of the conversation is so obscure that on the literal level it can be comprehended only in light of the entire story” (LAMB, 1996: 469). Several metaphors, images and other literary devices, such as the simile being present in the title and in its several repetitions in the story, add to the reader’s perception of the shown conflict.
Apparently, the male character represents the dominant part in the relationship and the successful one in the conversation. As the girl states “But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine” (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 251) after being talked at by her boyfriend, it seems that she gives up and sacrifices her wishes. However, scholars discuss whether the American or the girl can force their individual points in the end. The aim of this research paper is to examine this question. An analysis of the structure of the short story, the importance of place and positioning as well as the language of both characters will support the clarification of the hypothesis mentioned above regarding the tri- umph of the man. Nevertheless, there could be another reading, too. Probably his female counterpart is more influential than it seems to be at first sight.
2 Modern dialogue - the structure of the short story
“Hills like White Elephants” consists mainly of the dialogue between the male and the female character. There are only a few narrated segments in the story, “rather like stage directions in their length and frequency of occurrence” (HOLLANDER, 1985: 213), such as the introductory part. Although this descriptive element introduces the reader to the setting of the short story, it cannot be regarded as a drama-like exposition. It does not inform the reader about the characters, their motives or about previous actions. Its task is rather to set the mood and to establish the landscape as a platform for the conflict of the characters.
The American and the girl as well as the underlying conflict become characterised by the content and the manner of the conversation. LAMB calls Heming-way’s mode of writing, in which the dialogue receives an essential role in the story’s composition, “modern dialogue” (LAMB, 1996: 454).
In the context of the modern short story, which demands radical compression, a high degree of suggestiveness and implication, the modern dialogue implicates subtly the relationship between characters. For example the first interaction between the American and the girl about the choice of drink, in which the female character asks the man (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 249), implies that she lacks any autonomy. Moreover, his indirect request to drink beer by saying “It’s pretty hot” (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 249) shows his manipulating character (LAMB, 1996: 454f, 469, 474).
Hemingway creates a real-life conversation in this short story, in which the couple talks to each other as if they know each other well (LAMB, 1996: 455). The central conflict of abortion is never mentioned by name because both characters already know which problem they have to discuss like it is the case in real-life talks. Consequently, the reader cannot grasp the story’s wider meaning without developing this conflict out of the situational and linguistic context.
In order to create this effect the modern dialogue has to imitate realistic qualities (LAMB, 1996: 454). The integration of real life into fiction and the crossing of boundaries between genres represent one of the characteristics of Heming-way’s style. His work as a journalist plays an important role for his fiction writing. Whereas he included fictional techniques into some of his newspaper articles, such as “strong narrative threads, dialogue, characterization, and description that set both a scene and a mood” (DEWBERRY, 1996: 30), he also used non-fictional elements in his fiction. When he worked as a journalist he learned to use short sentences, vigorous English and to avoid adjectives and other unnecessary words, which shaped his prose (DEWBERRY, 1996: 16ff).
Hemingway’s iceberg theory indicated that “you could omit anything if (...) the omitted part would strengthen the story and make the people feel something more than they understood” (DEWBERRY, 1996: 23). One can state that “Hills like White Elephants” represents the prototype of this theory.
3 Hills and junction - the strong prominence of place and positioning
The valley of the river Ebro between Barcelona and Madrid works as a framework for the setting of the short story. The Spanish country is on the one hand the place where the American couple had travelled and had spent its hedonistic lifestyle so far and forms on the other hand a strict catholic context. This religious background is not only present through the location but also becomes clear through an object: the bead curtain which can be associated with a chaplet.
The simile “hills like white elephants” represents certainly the most striking element of place. It mainly works as a hint for the reader to understand the central conflict of the conversation, although there are several different interpretations of it.
On the one hand, a white elephant stands for an unwanted possession. It can be either related to the so called “white elephant sales”, which are similar to second hand sales of unwanted goods and which fundraise money for charity projects (WEEKS, 1980: 76), or to a story of a Siamese king who gave a white elephant as a present to courtiers who he wanted to ruin (HOLLANDER, 1985: 214).
The scene opens on a railway station in Spain where the Barcelona-to-Madrid express is expected in 40 minutes. A man referred to as “the American” and his girl, Jig, sit at a table outside the station’s bar drinking beer. The landscape surrounding the station is described as the valley of the Ebro River, with long white hills on each side and brown dusty ground in between. Jig remarks that the hills look like white elephants, and the remark is not well received by the American.
The two decide to try a new drink, the anis del toro, with water. Jig remarks that it tastes like licorice, and the two begin bickering again. As they start on another round of beers, the man introduces a new motif into the conversation, saying that a particular operation is very simple and that Jig would not mind it. If she gets the operation, he says, their relationship will be fine again, as it was before. Jig is quiet and obviously skeptical.
The American says he does not want Jig to have it if she does not want to, but he says it would be best if she did. He maintains, however, that he loves her and that he is snippy only because he is worried. Jig says in return that she will get the operation because she does not care about herself, which guilt-trips her boyfriend into saying that he does not want her to get it if she feels that way.
Jig pauses to contemplate the scenery and says they could have everything. When the American agrees, she contradicts him, saying it has all been taken away from them and that they can never get it back. Then she asks him to stop talking.
They are silent for a while, but the American brings the operation up again, and Jig tells him in return that they could get along if she did not have it. He counters that he does not want anyone else in his life but her and that the operation is perfectly simple. She asks him to stop talking again.
The barmaid brings another round of beer and the announcement that the train is due in five minutes. The American brings the bags to the other side of the tracks, drinks an Anis at the bar and returns to the table. Jig greets him with a smile and in answer to his question says she is fine.
“Hills Like White Elephants” centers on a couple’s verbal duel over, as strongly implied by the text and as widely believed by many scholars, whether the girl will have an abortion of her partner’s child. Jig, clearly reluctant to have the operation, suspects her pregnancy has irrevocably changed the relationship but still wonders whether having the abortion will make things between the couple as they were before. The American is anxious that Jig have the abortion and gives lip service to the fact that he still loves Jig and will love her whether she has the procedure done or not. As the story progresses, the power shifts back and forth in the verbal tug-of-war, and at the end, though it is a topic of fierce debate among Hemingway scholars, it seems that Jig has both gained the upper hand and made her decision.
Hemingway’s feat in this story is to accomplish full, fleshed-out characterizations of the couple and a clear and complete exposition of their dilemma using almost nothing but dialogue. This dialogue even omits the main causes of disagreement: the words “abortion” and “baby.” He also gives the reader a clear sense of how the power shifts in the couple’s relationship.
The American is anxious for Jig to have the abortion because he “doesn’t want anybody but [her]”. He is interested in his life with Jig continuing as it has, globetrotting, and having sex in different hotels, as Hemingway’s description of the couple’s bags confirms: “He…looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” To make the operation seem less frightening, he asserts that it is perfectly simple. Interestingly, he never mentions that the operation is “safe,” a notable omission.
Ultimately, the American’s ammunition in this verbal duel with Jig is the ability to make the relationship emotionally hostile for her, as evidenced by his reactions to her comments about the appearance of the hills and the fact that everything she waits for tastes like licorice. Hemingway implies Jig is more emotionally invested in the relationship, which for the American is clearly mostly about sex.
Jig, for her part, is very reluctant to have the operation, cares to some degree about the baby (“Doesn’t it mean anything to you?”), believes the couple’s relationship has been irrevocably altered simply by the pregnancy (“It isn’t ours anymore”), and does not believe an abortion will solve their problems anyway. Jig’s ammunition is that the American will probably have to support her and the child in some way if she forgoes the abortion; the fact that he has not already left her signals that she has some kind of hold over him, though she may not be married to him. Perhaps he does actually love her, as he claims.
The American, as scholars have noted, clearly wants Jig to say she wants the operation in order to absolve himself of blame, and Jig clearly refuses to give her partner that satisfaction. If she has the operation, she maintains wordlessly, it will be because he has forced her to. That, at least, is her attitude throughout the story. Whether an inner struggle will produce a different attitude later on remains unclear. However, at the end of the story, Jig seems to have gotten the upper hand. Jig all of a sudden begins smiling at the barmaid and at the American; she seems to have a new confidence and serenity about her, and the American gives up the argument to take the bags to the other side of the tracks. It seems that he realizes he has lost the argument and he takes a few minutes away from her to drink another liqueur in the bar before returning to their table. Once there, he asks if she feels better and she smiles serenely at him, telling him she is fine and betraying no anxiety of any kind.
One of the most notable aspects of this story is that Hemingway breaks with his typical “bitch goddess” characterization of women. Jig is a sympathetic character, ultimately more sympathetic, scholars have argued, than the American. She sees the issue of the abortion as a multilayered question, and considers the impact it will have upon her relationship with the American, upon the child itself, and upon the couple’s economic means (“We could get along.”) The American, on the other hand, considers only that he wants life to continue in a carefree fashion and that he wants to evade the responsibilities of fatherhood. Accordingly, he tries to bully Jig into the procedure, and this very bullying, and Jig’s resistance to it, make her the protagonist of the story.
Another important feature of the story that backs up the idea that Jig is the protagonist is that Jig appreciates the beauty of the train station’s natural surroundings. Hemingway was a great believer in the power of nature to edify and uplift people, and the fact that Jig understands and values “fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro,” along with their attendant mountains and shadows of clouds, indicates that she is the character with her priorities straight. Later in the story, Hemingway states, “the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.” Once again, Jig is looking to nature as a guide in her time of crisis while the American ignores the scenery.
The title of the story has led many to speculate on what the “white elephant” symbolizes for the couple. A white elephant is generally thought of as unusual and cumbersome, in short, a problem. Various theories exist. The white elephant could be the pregnancy, the baby itself, the abortion, Jig’s reluctance to get the abortion, the American’s insistence that Jig abort, Jig herself and the American himself. The most popular choices among scholars are that the white elephant is the baby/pregnancy (the obvious choice) and the American himself, given his bullying of Jig.
“Hills Like White Elephants” is full of similes and metaphors as the language is throughout devoid of the words “abortion” and “baby” while that is all the characters are talking of. For example, at the beginning, Jig comments that the anis del toro tastes like licorice, and the man says that’s the way with everything, to which the girl replies “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” The man then replies, “Cut it out,” rather a strong reaction to a seemingly innocuous comment. It is possible that “absinthe” stands for something to the couple that the reader is not aware of, but it is also possible that Jig is referring to how she has waited her whole life to get pregnant and have a baby but now it is being spoiled for her by the American.