In the early 1920s, an American man and a girl, probably nineteen or twenty years old, are waiting at a Spanish railway station for the express train that will take them to Madrid. They drink beer as well as two licorice-tasting anis drinks, and finally more beer, sitting in the hot shade and discussing what the American man says will be "a simple operation" for the girl.
The tension between the two is almost as sizzling as the heat of the Spanish sun. The man, while urging the girl to have the operation, says again and again that he really doesn't want her to do it if she really doesn't want to. However, he clearly is insisting that she do so. The girl is trying to be brave and nonchalant but is clearly frightened of committing herself to having the operation. She tosses out a conversational, fanciful figure of speech — noting that the hills beyond the train station "look like white elephants" — hoping that the figure of speech will please the man, but he resents her ploy. He insists on talking even more about the operation and the fact that, according to what he's heard, it's "natural" and "not really an operation at all."
Finally, the express train arrives and the two prepare to board. The girl tells the man that she's "fine." She's lying, acquiescing to what he wants, hoping to quiet him. Nothing has been solved. The tension remains, coiled and tight, as they prepare to leave for Madrid. The girl is hurt by the man's fraudulent, patronizing empathy, and she is also deeply apprehensive about the operation that she will undergo in Madrid.
This story was rejected by early editors and was ignored by anthologists until recently. The early editors returned it because they thought that it was a "sketch" or an "anecdote," not a short story. At the time, editors tried to second-guess what the reading public wanted, and, first, they felt as though they had to buy stories that told stories, that had plots. "Hills Like White Elephants" does not tell a story in a traditional manner, and it has no plot.
In part, some of the early rejection of this story lies in the fact that none of the editors who read it had any idea what was going on in the story. Even today, most readers are still puzzled by the story. In other words, it will take an exceptionally perceptive reader to realize immediately that the couple is arguing about the girl's having an abortion at a time when abortions were absolutely illegal, considered immoral, and usually dangerous.
Early objections to this story also cited the fact that there are no traditional characterizations. The female is referred to simply as "the girl," and the male is simply called "the man." There are no physical descriptions of either person or even of their clothing. Unlike traditional stories, wherein the author usually gives us some clues about what the main characters look like, sound like, or dress like, here we know nothing about "the man" or "the girl." We know nothing about their backgrounds. Can we, however, assume something about them — for example, is "the man" somewhat older and "the girl" perhaps younger, maybe eighteen or nineteen? One reason for assuming this bare-bones guesswork lies in tone of "the girl." Her questions are not those of a mature, worldly-wise woman, but, instead, they are those of a young person who is eager and anxious to please the man she is with.
It is a wonder that this story was published at all. When it was written, authors were expected to guide readers through a story. In "Hills Like White Elephants," though, Hemingway completely removes himself from the story. Readers are never aware of an author's voice behind the story. Compare this narrative technique to the traditional nineteenth-century method of telling a story. Then, such authors as Dickens or Trollope would often address their readers directly.
In contrast, we have no idea how to react to Hemingway's characters. Had Hemingway said that the girl, for example, spoke "sarcastically," or "bitterly," or "angrily," or that she was "puzzled" or "indifferent," or if we were told that the man spoke with "an air of superiority," we could more easily come to terms with these characters. Instead, Hemingway so removes himself from them and their actions that it seems as though he himself knows little about them. Only by sheer accident, it seems, is the girl nicknamed "Jig."
That said, during the latter part of the 1990s, this story became one of the most anthologized of Hemingway's short stories. In part, this new appreciation for the story lies in Hemingway's use of dialogue to convey the "meaning" of the story — that is, there is no description, no narration, no identification of character or intent. We have no clear ideas about the nature of the discussion (abortion), and yet the dialogue does convey everything that we conclude about the characters.
In addition, the popularity of this story can be found in the change in readers' expectations. Readers in the 1990s had become accustomed to reading between the lines of fictional narrative and didn't like to be told, in minute detail, everything about the characters. They liked the fact that Hemingway doesn't even say whether or not the two characters are married. He presents only the conversation between them and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions. Thus readers probably assume that these two people are not married; however, if we are interested enough to speculate about them, we must ask ourselves how marriage would affect their lives. And to answer this question, we must make note of one of the few details in the story: their luggage. Their luggage has "labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights." Were these two people, the man and the girl, to have this child, their incessant wanderings might have to cease and they would probably have to begin a new lifestyle for themselves; additionally, they might have to make a decision whether or not they should marry and legitimize the child. Given their seemingly free style of living and their relish for freedom, a baby and a marriage would impose great changes in their lives.
Everything in the story indicates that the man definitely wants the girl to have an abortion. Even when the man maintains that he wants the girl to have an abortion only if she wants to have one, we question his sincerity and his honesty. When he says, "If you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to," he is not convincing. From his earlier statements, it is obvious that he does not want the responsibility that a child would entail; seemingly, he strongly wants her to have this abortion and definitely seems to be very unresponsive to the girl's feelings.
On the other hand, we feel that the girl is not at all sure that she wants an abortion. She's ambivalent about the choice. We sense that she is tired of traveling, of letting the man make all the decisions, of allowing the man to talk incessantly until he convinces her that his way is the right way. He has become her guide and her guardian. He translates for her, even now: Abortion involves only a doctor allowing "a little air in." Afterward, they will be off on new travels. However, for the girl, this life of being ever in flux, living in hotels, traveling, and never settling down has become wearying. Their life of transience, of instability, is described by the girl as living on the surface: "[We] look at things and try new drinks."
When the man promises to be with the girl during the "simple" operation, we again realize his insincerity because what is "simple" to him may very well be emotionally and physically damaging to her.
The man is using his logic in order to be as persuasive as possible. Without a baby anchoring them down, they can continue to travel; they can "have everything." However, the girl contradicts him and, at that moment, seems suddenly strong and more in control of the situation. With or without the abortion, things will never be the same. She also realizes that she is not loved, at least not unconditionally.
Thus we come to the title of the story. The girl has looked at the mountains and has said that they look "like white elephants." Immediately, a tension between the two mounts until the man says, "Oh, cut it out." She maintains that he started the argument, then she slips into apology, stating that, of course, the mountains don't really look like white elephants — only "their skin through the trees."
From the man's point of view, the hills don't look like white elephants, and the hills certainly don't have skins. The girl, however, has moved away from the rational world of the man and into her own world of intuition, in which she seemingly knows that the things that she desires will never be fulfilled. This insight is best illustrated when she looks across the river and sees fields of fertile grain and the river — the fertility of the land, contrasted to the barren sterility of the hills like white elephants. She, of course, desires the beauty, loveliness, and fertility of the fields of grain, but she knows that she has to be content with the barren sterility of an imminent abortion and the continued presence of a man who is inadequate. What she will ultimately do is beyond the scope of the story.
During the very short exchanges between the man and the girl, she changes from someone who is almost completely dependent upon the man to someone who is more sure of herself and more aware of what to expect from him. At the end of their conversation, she takes control of herself and of the situation: She no longer acts in her former childlike way. She tells the man to please shut up — and note that the word "please" is repeated seven times, indicating that she is overwhelmingly tired of his hypocrisy and his continual harping on the same subject.
the Ebro a river in northeastern Spain; the second longest river in Spain.
the express a direct, non-stop train.
white elephant something of little or no value.
"Hills Like White Elephants" is set in Spain. An American man and a girl are sitting at an outdoor café in a Spanish train station, waiting for a fast, non-stop train coming from Barcelona that will take them to Madrid, where the girl will have an abortion.
In the story, Hemingway refers to the Ebro River and to the bare, sterile-looking mountains on one side of the train station and to the fertile plains on the other side of the train station. The hills of Spain, to the girl, are like white elephants in their bareness and round, protruding shape. Also notable is that "white elephant" is a term used to refer to something that requires much care and yielding little profit; an object no longer of any value to its owner but of value to others; and something of little or no value. Throughout this dialogue, the girl's crumbling realization that she is not truly loved is a strong undercurrent that creates tension and suppressed fear.
"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" takes place in Spain as well. It centers around two waiters and an elderly man who patronizes the café late at night before closing time. He is a drunk who has just tried to kill himself. One of the waiters is older and understands the elderly man's loneliness and how important the café is to the old man's mental health.
Hemingway explores older men's loneliness by using the older waiter as a sounding board for the elderly man's defense. Although the elderly man is without a companion or anyone waiting at home for him, he indulges his lapses from reality in a dignified and refined manner, expressed in his choosing of a clean, well-lighted place in the late hours of the night. The importance of the clean, well-lighted place where one can sit is integral to maintaining dignity and formality amidst loneliness, despair and desperation.