Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills like White Elephants” is mainly told through the dialogue of two protagonists at a railway station in rural Spain. The labels on the luggage they carry are an indication of their nomadic life, and their conversations reveal their struggling romantic relationship. The girl, Jig, laments that their mundane lifestyle consists of nothing but “look at things and try new drinks” The lack of mentioning of the girl’s relationship to the American suggests that their relationship is not particularly serious or meaningful.
The calm, and simple setting as well as the lack of colorful imagery on their side of Ebro hills reflects their life, but contrasts the escalation of tension in their conversation. As they drink beer, Jig comments that the distant white hills against the “brown and dry” country “look like white elephants.” The American’s careless response to her observation and her disappointed reaction establishes the story’s pivotal issue.
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As tension between the couple continues to multiply through various attempts at small talk and the ordering of more drinks, the problem in the relationship emerges as an operation the American wants Jig to have. When he encourages Jig to have the “awfully simple” operation, and tells her that “They just let the air in and then it’s perfectly natural,” it becomes apparent that the operation is an abortion. The title of the short story insinuates pregnancy since the dictionary definitions of “a white elephant” defines it as a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit; an object no longer of value to its owner but of value to others, and something of little or no value. The child inside Jig will require unconditional care, love, and various expenses once it is born. Even though the pregnancy is invaluable to Jig, it means nothing but problems to her lover. The imagery of the hills and the curves of the Ebro characterize the shape of a pregnant woman, and symbolize that the pregnancy is a large hill in their relationship. The American likes traveling to places with Jig and enjoys their lifestyle since their relationship is only based on what they have now and not what they can have. He is unwilling to take the chance to give up or change anything in order to make their present life better because he is afraid to lose his possessions once he assumes his role as a father. He promises Jig his support for her after the operation, and assures her that life will go on as before as if nothing has happened.
Unfortunately, he fails to understand that the pregnancy has occurred and everything will be different no matter what Jig decides.
Jig is aware that the real concern is one of going past the point when care and respect can endure difficulties in a relationship. This seems to be the first critical issue they’ve had to face, to measure the depth of their relationship. Their weak relationship will eventually fall apart because the relationship lacks substance and understanding. If they cannot decide and agree on simple matters such as whether or not to have water in the drink, they cannot possibly agree on the important issues in their relationship such as having a baby.
The climax of the story appears when Jig is agitated by their irritating conversation and their romantic relationship. She begins to question about their uncertain future and his true feelings for her. She seems persuaded by the American when she comments on her willingness to do the operation despite her wants and needs because “she doesn’t care” about herself. At the same time, Jig begins to realize that life may not turn out the way she had planned. She remarks that the Anis del Toro “tastes like licorice,“ and that “everything tastes of licorice“, “especially all the things you’ve waited so long for.” She likes to try new things, like the drink, but is often disappointed in the end. She indicates that it is too late for him to make things better. The American believes that Jig is being reasonable for not wanting to having the “simple” operation done so they can “be all right and be happy“ again. He informs her that he has “known lots of people that have done it” in order to convince her to have the “awfully simple” operation. He says that the pregnancy is “the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.” He sees the whole issue as “simple” because he does not understand the real problem that is causing the misery. When he finally leaves Jig to get their bags for the train, he observes that the other people are “waiting reasonably for their train” because in his mind, Jig is the one to blame their troubles because she is “unreasonably waiting” for a future that he cannot imagine having with her. Ironically, he is unreasonable one because he is the one causing the problems by wanting the abortion. Jig realizes that their withering relationship is not the result of her pregnancy but the result of their failure to understand each other. She realizes that they are incompatible as a couple to have a family together. Even if she does have the abortion, she can no longer stay with him because he can never give her what she longs for. The story ends with an assurance from Jig that she is “fine,” as if she has made up her mind on the abortion issue.
Hemingway leaves the reader wondering about their final destination. He chooses the setting in the valley of the Ebro to symbolize the couple’s situation and options in life. They are on the sunless and barren side of the mountain where they can only see hills that looks like white elephants. At the end of the story, the American remarks “I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station,” the side where there is growth and life. The train is representative of two different directions if life, however is unclear whether this signifies that the man has changed his mind about the abortion, or that Jig has decided to go through with the operation and leave him so they have to live separate lives. Jig has desires to change and to live a different life because she is aware of it. She is ready and willing to experience a different life while her lover is not. Hemingway strategically calls the man just “American,” and gives the girl a simple name to show the commonality of their problem reflected in society. He conveys that elements such as understanding, communication, honesty, and maturity, are essential to every healthy relationship. The lack of those elements leads to inevitable disintegration of a relationship.
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