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Analysis of Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was an American writer and journalist. He became famous due to his novels and short stories. One of those short stories is Hills like White Elephants. In this story, author did everything to make the reader concentrate on the main topic of the story – abortion. Therefore, he minimized the information about the main heroes and included many symbols in the plot of the story. This essay aims at providing literary analysis of Hills like White Elephants.

First, the writing style of this story can be called journalistic. The author provides the readers only with the dialog between the couple. He does not include the unnecessary details, long sentences, or beautiful phrases. As in an article, the author lets the readers make their conclusions, but not guides them. There are no vivid features of the characters. The reader knows that they are a man and a woman. A man is described as an American and a female is called a girl, so we can make a conclusion that she is young. The girl is called Jig, but it sounds more like a nickname rather than a name. There is no information about physical characteristics or the background of the characters. The only thing we know is that the action takes place in Spain.

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The couple is having a conversation. From the beginning, there is no clue what they are talking about. However, later it becomes clear that they are discussing an abortion. The man insists on girl making this operation only if she wants. “If you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to.” (Hemingway, 2003, p. 477). Nevertheless, that does not sound convincing as later he says that if she makes the operation they will be happy again. From their conversation, it becomes obvious that the man does not want the girl to give birth to a child. In other words, he does not want to take responsibility and change his way of life. We also can understand that a man does not care about the girl because what he describes as a “simple operation” can be damaging both emotionally and physically to the girl. Nevertheless, he insists that “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig” (Hemingway, 2003, p. 476).

However, Jig has some doubts about the abortion. It seems that she wants to keep a baby to create a real family. She is tired of all those numerous travels and hotels where they have stayed. The girl is also tired of being dependent on a man. She lets him make all the decisions, but she continues to listen to him until he convinces her that his way of thinking is the only right one. In such way, he assures Jig that he loves her, and he always will be with her. Her dependence on a man is also visible throughout the language barrier. Being in Spain, she does not know Spanish and the man translates for her. Nevertheless, during their conversation Jig seems to become stronger mentally. She changes from somebody completely dependent on a man to somebody who is more sure and stable. At the end of the couple’s conversation Jig takes over the situation. She asks the man to “please please please please please please please stop talking” (Hemingway, 2003, p. 478). In this case, the word “please” determines Jig’s irritation and tiredness of a man’s continual dominance and talking about the same topic all the time.

The title of the story The Hills like White Animals is very symbolic. Jig was looking at the mountains and said they were “like white elephants” (Hemingway, 2003). The girl uses her imagination to create such comparison, which can mean either pregnancy, fertility (Weeks, 1980, p. 75), barrenness (Fletcher, 1980, p. 17), or both these states (Hollander, 1985, p. 214). Historically, the term “white elephants” signifies something of little or no value. Therefore, Jig could use such comparison to describe her feeling that her dreams and desires will never come true. It is also can be seen from the moment when the girl looks across the river and observes the picture of the beautiful nature of river and fields. This image can symbolize the life Jig is dreaming about: a life in a family with a husband and children, in their house, without long-term travels and numerous hotels. Another understanding of the title is also possible. White elephants were wild animals and lived in wildlife. A man and a girl also live wildlife traveling from place to place, staying in different hotels, and tasting various drinks. However, white elephants are extinct; the same situation can happen to the relationship between the man and the girl. They do not seem to be a loving couple during their conversation.

Natural landscape also plays an important part in the plot of the story. Jig is shown sitting on “this side of the station” (Hemingway, 2003). She can see hills and dry landscape. It seems like there is no life there. It can symbolize the inner state of Jig. However, when she moves to another side of the station, she can see the river, trees, and fields. Then she talks to the man and tells that they could have everything but, unfortunately, they have lost everything. The beautiful green landscape points to a life that the couple could have. Clouds that move above put a shadow on the fields. Shadow can symbolize the thoughts and doubts that disturb the girl and a challenge that she faces while trying to decide whether to have an abortion or to keep a baby. The sightseeing of “the river through the trees” can mean the life of a child that the girl can save. It is also hot outside (Hemingway, 2003). The heat can symbolize the tension that the couple experiences while trying to solve their argument. It can point to the difficulty of the decision that the girl has to make. Besides, it is hard to make the right decisions when oppressed by heat.

The railway station also is a symbol in this story. It is a place for a short break or rest for a man and a girl while they are waiting for another train to continue their journey. They are sitting at a table situated in the shade of the railway station. The shade helps the couple not to stay under the sun as if the couple has a pause in the conversation that they had earlier. Moreover, the station is a building that is hard to damage or ruin. It stands on solid ground unlike the relationship of the couple. It seems that their breakdown is not far.

A bead curtain also can be a symbol. Every time a man talks about an operation, the bead curtain blows against the table as a reminder that Jig has to make a decision. At the bar, the couple drinks beer and Anis del Toro. They both drink three beers and one Anis. Thus, it is hard to find solutions or make logical decisions when you are drunk.

Furthermore, there are many labels on the bags of the man and the girl. According to these labels, it is possible to trace a map of the couple’s traveling because they are collected “from all the hotels where they had spent nights” (Hemingway, 2003, p. 478). The luggage is heavy, which can symbolize the difficulties in the couple’s relationship and their problems.

The tone of the story is tense and ironic. The conversation between the man and the girl is highly controlled. They are talking in a public place and sometimes they can lose their temper, but they do not. Even when the girl wants to scream, she quickly calms down and replies to the man’s question that she is fine. Tension is felt throughout the dialog as the couple argues because of the operation. The man insists on it while the girl rejects it. The irony lies in the manner of a conversation. The couple is talking about the abortion while they are drinking and discussing the taste of beer and Anis del Toro. It seems that these things are of equal value to them.

The diction of the story helps the reader to feel the tension between the man and the girl. The sentences are short. Each character produces few words at a time without any sophisticated phrases. The reader can make a conclusion that they have nothing to say to each other. The man often uses such words as “really” and “just,” which define the man as a western male according to Trilling (1967, p. 731) and Smiley (1988, p. 3). The language of the girl is imaginative when the man’s language is “of proofs and reasons” (O’Brien, 1992, p. 20).

To sum it up, it is worth saying that in the short story The Hills like White Elephants Ernest Hemingway applies to the serious social problem such as abortion. Every element of his story is involved to describe this topic better. The author fulfills the story with many symbols. He also gives little information about the characters, so the readers could better concentrate on the topic of their conversation but not on their physical features. 

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