Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway, 1927

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by Ernest Hemingway, 1927

Since its publication in 1927 "Hills Like White Elephants" has come to be regarded as the quintessential Ernest Hemingway story for its restraint and subtlety. In only a few pages Hemingway develops a tense conflict between a man and a woman who are deeply divided about a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. In accord with Hemingway's "iceberg theory" that an essential element of a story could be implied but never stated, the woman's pregnancy and the man's insistence on an abortion are never directly articulated, even though the issue becomes increasingly evident as the conversation progresses. Even the titular reference to "white elephants," metaphorically an item of considerable value that is too troublesome and expensive to keep, would seem to underscore the heart of the drama.

Hemingway was no stranger to Spain, having become intrigued with bullfighting and Spanish culture. The earliest drafts of the story have a biographical basis. When Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, became pregnant in 1923, he complained that he was not ready for the responsibilities of parenthood and the imposition of his time that a child would represent. In an early sketch Hemingway explored the central situation, writing in first person and calling the woman "Hadley." The tone of this draft was positive, however, expressing the relief the two of them felt to be traveling away from the arguments that had ruined the Pamplona fiesta of 1925.

By the time Hemingway returned to this subject in May 1927, he had divorced Hadley and was about to marry Pauline Pfeiffer. He transformed the plot into a third-person narrative with a tense and unstated conflict at the heart of the action. Hemingway retained the setting and the elephant simile of the earlier draft, but he changed the central figures into an anonymous American man and a woman called "Jig."

The central plot of the published story is deceptively simple. A man and a woman are at a station in the valley of the Ebro waiting 40 minutes for the train to Madrid. They have conversation over drinks; he carries their luggage to the other side of the station, has a drink alone at the bar, and returns to his companion. What gives this simple action interest is the tension of their dialogue, the implications of their comments, and the subtle suggestions of their personalities and the irreconcilable conflict between them.

The story opens with the pair seated at a table ordering beer on a hot day. Jig looks at the Spanish hills and comments that they look like white elephants, the first occurrence of the phrase in the story. When the man remarks that he has never seen one, she counters, "No, you wouldn't have," in a tone of bitterness and resentment. It is clear from the ensuing conversation that their intimacy has resulted in a pregnancy and that he wants her to submit to an abortion. She is reluctant, fearing the consequences for their relationship, "Then what will we do afterward?" His suggestion that they will be just the way they were before does not reassure her, and she is skeptical that other couples who have gone through the procedure were happy afterward. He professes love for her, and she seems to acquiesce: "Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me." The conversation that follows makes it clear that the tension has not been relieved, that he is aware of her resentment and continues to argue his case.

When the waitress informs them that the train is coming in five minutes, he takes the bags to the other side of the station and stops in the bar for a drink on his way back to her. He seems to enjoy this moment apart from her, noting how reasonable the people in the bar all seem. Then he returns to her, and she says, "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." Less than an hour has elapsed, the conflict remains unresolved, and the story ends.

Part of the genius of Hemingway's fiction is his ability to do so much with so little, to create a tense scene without direct physical or verbal conflict. The female character's repeated comments about white elephants suggest a deep awareness of their situation that her partner does not recognize, and scholars have seen this allusiveness as an indication of her superior imagination and knowledge. She seems more mature, to want commitment, a child, a life together. His comments reflect a desire for a carefree existence, adventure, a relationship free of obligations. Structurally, his comforting drink alone at the bar portends eventual separation for the couple, the fulfillment of her apprehensions.

The subtlety of the story has generated a good deal of critical attention. Gary Elliott has suggested that the bamboo bead curtain at the entrance to the bar is a reference to rosary beads, indicating that Jig must be a Catholic and thus understandably resistant to an abortion. Joseph DeFalco reads the story as focusing on the man's refusal to accept the "natural processes of life." The woman's capitulation in an attempt to save the relationship is, according to DeFalco, a tragic ending in that she is clearly the more sensitive and insightful of the pair. Sheldon Grebstein argues that the conflict is dynamically unresolved at the end, still a smoldering issue that threatens to tear them apart. However the conclusion is read, it is evident that Hemingway has presented a dramatic conflict built on subtle implication and inference, making this brief narrative a masterpiece of short fiction.

—James Nagel

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Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway, 1927

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