“Hills Like White Elephants” does not 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. A masterpiece of external narration, there seems to be no focal point in the characters. One must only here what is said, not what is thought by the two main characters, the American and Jig. Hemmingway’s third person narrator takes an objective position outside of the characters, thus providing a look from an third person point of view.
The story told is that of a woman and a man during 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, where “Hills” refer to the shape of the pregnant belly, and “White Elephants” is an idiom that refers to useless or unwanted things. In this case the unwanted thing is the unborn baby the couple is awaiting to abort. One can see that the story setting is in Spain, but one does not know the final destination of the train which they are awaiting. It is not known exactly where they are or the time or date in which the story takes place. We do not even know if they really take the train.
The train is symbolic of change or movement. Most people are afraid of change, as this couple, since movement is not always forward, but can also mean moving backward, as in their relationship. It could in contrast mean “the train of life”. The limited time in which the train will be stopping, two minutes, symbolizes the time that Jig has to make her decision since she cannot risk her health in waiting for a long period of time. The first impression one will get when reading the text is that one is in the middle of a dry, barren place under the sun, with no shade or trees. This 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. As regards to this a valuable opinion is shared by Lanier in the following words, “Every thing in the story contributes in some way to its meaning” (Lanier, p. 281).
The characters in this tale are very mysterious being that the reader knows nothing about their lives. Sex and drinking seems to be their whole existence. Since Jig orders “Anis”, wanting to try something different, she may be contemplating a new relationship or a new experience in life. But, when she tastes the Anis, she complains that is tastes like licorice, a very common, non-exotic flavor. She adds that everything tastes like licorice, especially the things that one wants for so long. This implies that when one waits for something for a long time, for instance a relationship, once it is obtained, it looses the original appeal.
The American wants Jig to have the abortion by emphasizing how easy the procedure is. He compares the operation to opening a window, an easy task “just to let the air in.” In reality he is the one with the doubts. He knows that having a baby would mean changing their lives, settling down. Being that their suitcases are full of labels form all of the hotels they had spent nights, it is obvious that they enjoy living a somatic existence. Jig is having the normal doubts any woman can have in her situation. She knows that her decision may change their relationship forever. At the end of the story, the American tells Jig that they can have the world. She replies no, they cannot. Once something is taken away, you never get it back. Here we can see that she wants to keep the baby, and she knows that once she has the abortion, she will never be able to get the child back.
Lewis E. Weeks, Jr. elaborated in his essay: “Our immediate understanding of the white elephant reference when we learn that the story’s conflict revolves around an unwanted pregnancy is probably that associated with the ubiquitous white elephant sale.” (Lewis, 76) Although subject matter, point of view, compression, irony, substance, setting, dialog, and characterization all make ‘‘Hills Like White Elephants’’ one of Hemingway’s most outspoken short stories, the symbolism and allegorical implications of figurative language implicit in the title and later on developed in the story add to more than any other particular quality to the prevailing force. Highlighting by repetition and position evidently suggests the significance Hemingway blended to the comparison (Lewis, p. 76).
“Hills Like White Elephants” is an interesting view at one couples strife in dealing with an issue that are faced by many couples, abortion. It seems odd to apply the term omniscient to a narrator who knows or is willing to tell us so little about the characters. The plot, setting, and symbols in this story help the reader to finish out the tale using their own imagination. Hemmingway has employed this story of generic players to the readers own outcome.
Scott Consigny observes and affirms in “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants'” that the curtain segregates “the artificial, comfortable world of the bar, with which the man is familiar, from the often uncomfortable and unpredictable real world of nature, love, and birth that Jig desires” (Consigny, 54). In this scenario, the bar is parallel to Plato’s cave and the ad for anis is “a copy of a copy of a copy.” “Anis is an imitation of the forbidden absinthe,” hence it is a “metonym for all of the counterfeit replacements for the real things for which she has long been waiting” (Consigny, p. 55). “Reales” stands like a pun on trading realism for phoniness. The characters discover a table and consequently sit in the “unpredictable real world” externally, divided by a beaded bamboo curtain and separated from the “artificial comfortable world” that lies inside the station (Consigny, p. 55)
A reoccurring theme and repetition of “two” suggesting unity is present early in the story. For example, “Dos Cervezas,” “two felt pads,” “two anis del Toro,” or the girl taking hold of “two” strings of beads are images of a pair suggesting unification. This symbolism and setting on and around the table helps to brief us on a past (up to the telling of the story) close, romantic relationship the two once shared. Later we notice it as an ironic contrast to the actual division of the couple sitting at the table since we are eventually made aware of their different responses (and reactions) to life, conflicting desires and the damage that it has inflicted upon the relationship. The girl desires to sustain the pregnancy and the relationship. However, the man is selfish in his ways, attempting to convince the girl of an abortion to satisfy his own immediate needs, desiring only short-lived pleasure.
Dennis Organ points out in one of his articles published in Explicator that “strings of beads are familiar infant’s playthings; thus, to the woman the curtain may symbolize the unborn child” (Organ, p. 11). This is a realistic instance of symbolism, although another elucidation might be that the girl’s dealings are symbolic of her own childish mannerisms. Instead of uttering herself in what might be the most vital decision of her life, she deflects her consideration by preoccupying herself. Organ further extends that the symbolism of the curtain to incorporate the man’s judgment: “Because the curtain has painted on it the name of a drink… the curtain also may be said to represent the man’s desire to maintain the status quo in their relationship” (Organ, p. 11). Undeniably, drinking is an element of the man’s current everyday life. Upon entering the bar the man places order for a pair of alcoholic drinks for the couple and subsequently for another.
Consigny, Scott. “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants'” (Explicator, 48:1 : 54-55).
Organ, Dennis, “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants'” Explicator Summer 1979: 11
Lanier, Doris. “The Bittersweet Taste of Absinthe in” Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants?” Studies in Short Fiction 26.3 (1989): 279-288.
Weeks, Lewis E. Jr., “Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ “
In Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1980 pp. 75-77.