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Hills Like White Elephants
By Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Setting
Characters
Plot Summary
Narration and Style
Themes
Climax
Symbols
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Author Information
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
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Type of Work

......."Hills Like White Elephants" is a short story that observes the classical unities--that is, the action follows a single storyline (without subplots) that takes place in one place on a single day. 

Publication

......."Hills Like White Elephants" was first published in Paris in transition magazine (spelled with a lower-case t) in August 1927. In October of the same year, Scribner's published it in New York as part of a Hemingway short-story collection, Men Without Women.

Setting

.......The action takes place in the mid-1920s at a train station in Zaragoza, a major city in northeastern Spain on the Ebro River. Zaragoza is approximately 170 miles northeast of Madrid. The region around Zaragoza receives scant rainfall. The greenery observed by Jig may have flourished through irrigation.

Characters

Jig: Woman traveling in Europe with a male companion. The author does not disclose whether they are single, engaged, or married; however, it appears likely that they are girlfriend and boyfriend. 
The American: Man traveling with Jig. 
The Woman: Waitress at the train station.
People in the Barroom

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
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.......On a hot day at a train station in Zaragoza, Spain, a man and woman sit at a table on the shady side of the building while they prepare to order drinks. Because only the man speaks Spanish, he orders for them—first beer, and then Anís del Toro (absinthe, a powerful liqueur). A set of tracks runs on each side of the station. The train for Madrid will arrive from Barcelona in forty minutes on the sunny side of the building. 
.......In front of them, the land is dry. There are no trees. Distant hills appear white in the sun, and the woman says they look like white elephants.
.......While they sip their drinks, their conversation reveals that the woman, Jig, and the man, identified only as an American, are at odds over her pregnancy. She wants the child and hints that she would like to settle down. He wants her to abort the child, saying the procedure “is awfully simple” and “not really anything.” Afterward, he says, life for them can continue as before. 
.......Jig observes that the liqueur tastes like licorice. In fact, she says, everything tastes like licorice. Her remark, apparently made out of boredom, irks the man.
.......“Oh, cut it out,” he says.
.......They go back and forth on the question of the child. Jig finally says, perhaps with a taint of sarcasm, that she will have the procedure “because I don’t care about me.” The man says he does not want her to have it “if you feel that way.”
.......Jig gets up and walks to the end of the building. There, she looks around to the land on the other side. She sees trees, grain fields, and the Ebro River, then says, “And we could have all this.” When the man tells her that they can have whatever they want—“We can have the whole world”—Jig says, “It isn’t ours any more . . . And once they take it away, you never get it back.”
.......A woman brings them two more beers and alerts them that their train will arrive in five minutes. The man then carries their two suitcases, each displaying labels from all the hotels at which they lodged, to the other side of the station. When he returns, he asks how she feels. She replies, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”.

Narration, Style, Unanswered Questions

.......Hemingway wrote “Hills Like White Elephants” in third-person point of view that limits the narration to what the characters say and do; it does not reveal their thoughts. Hemingway's style—developed in part when he worked as a newspaper reporter and correspondent early in his career—is simple and compact, with short sentences and paragraphs devoid of verbosity. Adjectives and adverbs are few. However, this straightforward style, which he used in all his major novels and short stories, often conveys complex themes and suggests—but does not explicitly state—motives, mind-sets, attitudes, and so on. In this respect, Hemingway is imitating life, for seldom do two interacting human beings—for example, you and your teacher, you and your spouse, or you and your boss—know each other’s intimate thoughts. You usually must guess at what he or she is thinking; you must interpret. Among the questions the narration does not answer are the following:

  •  How do Jig and the American support themselves? Is he one of the members of the so-called lost generation, a group of writers who knocked about Europe in the 1920s after being alienated by American values? Does one of them come from a wealthy family? 
  • What is Jig's nationality? The author refers to the man as an American, possibly implying that she is from England, Canada, Australia, or another nation where English is spoken.
  • Are Jig and the American single, engaged, or married? It seems likely that they are single, but the narrator never explicitly says so.
  • What happens to Jig and the American after they leave the train station? 
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Themes

Confronting the Future

.......Jig and the American have been traveling in Europe from hotel to hotel in pursuit of pleasure. However, at Zaragoza, Jig expresses dissatisfaction with their nomadic existence, especially now that she is pregnant. For her, Zaragoza represents a moment of truth, a crossroads at which they must confront their future. She apparently wants to have the baby and settle down to a normal life, symbolized from her perspective by the greenery and thriving grain fields on one side of the station. He wants her to abort their baby so that they can continue their adventures. Carpe diem!—seize the day!—that is his rule for living. 
.......In an attempt to persuade him that they are going in the wrong direction, Jig says their life has become boring and repetitive: “That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?” But the man sloughs off her question and renews his attempt to break down her resistance to the abortion. One problem for her is that she has difficulty asserting herself. She even asks his permission when she wants a drink. For example, when he mentions Anís del Toro, she says, “Could we try it?” Later, she says, “Should we have another drink?” Near the end of the story, she asks, “Could we have another beer?” 
.......When he continues to press the issue of an abortion, she becomes frustrated and says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” Just before the train arrives, he asks her how she feels. “There’s nothing wrong with me," she says. "I feel fine.” Whether these last two sentences of the story mean that she has decided to choose the baby over the abortion, or vice versa—or simply decided to put off a decision for another day—is a matter for the reader to interpret. 

Inability to Communicate Effectively

.......Jig and the American have difficulty articulating their feelings. Rather than bluntly stating their views, they imply, hint, euphemize. In the end, their conversation frustrates Jig, who tells the American, "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” 

Selfishness

.......The man appears to be manipulating Jig in order to perpetuate a lifestyle in which she is a convenient outlet for his libido. He is even willing to sacrifice a human life, Jill’s unborn child, so that he can continue their joyride.

Too Much of a Good Thing

.......The ancient Greeks had a saying: "All things in moderation; nothing in excess." But Jig and the American have apparently been living a life of excess. Consequently, life is no longer fun for Jig. When she samples a strong and dangerous liqueur to try to revive her interest in their great adventure, she says disappointedly that “everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited for so long, like absinthe.” Clearly, she is ready to abandon their dissipated way of life to settle down. 

Evasion of Responsibility

.......The American seems unable to accept responsibility, for whatever reason. Rather than facing the challenges of normal life, he continually puts them off. 

Climax

.......The climax occurs when Jig ends the conversation, saying, "Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” 

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Symbols

White Elephants: From the perspective of the American, one of the hills resembling white elephants is the enlargement of the uterus that is becoming, or will soon become, evident as Jig's baby grows. A white elephant is a largely useless object that may be expensive to own and maintain, according to one of its definitions in standard dictionaries. From the perspective of Jig, one of the hills may represent the lifestyle of her and the American. 
Railroad Tracks: Railroad tracks run side by side but never meet. Thus, they could symbolize the relationship of Jig and the American. 
Zaragoza: The last letter of the alphabet occurs twice in the name of this city. Jig and the American may be two z’s that have reached the end of the road. 
Green Side of the Station: Obviously, this represents life, the baby, a new beginning.
Arid Side of the Station: This represents dissipation and death. 
Ebro River: This waterway, which originates in the Cantabrian Mountains and flows 565 miles to the Mediterranean, represents vitality, life. It can also represent the passage of time. 
Anís del Toro: This represents the excitement the American offers Jig. But it fails to stir her.
Baggage: This represents the past, which is the same as the future to the American. When he picks up the suitcases and carries them to the other side of the station, he is indicating that he wants to continue as before.

Author Information

.......Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American writer of novels and short stories. Before turning to fiction, he worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and served as a First World War ambulance driver before enlisting with the Italian infantry and suffering a wound. After the war, he worked for the Toronto Star and lived for a time in Paris and Key West, Fla. During the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, he served as a newspaper correspondent, then lived in Cuba until 1958 and Idaho until 1961, the year of his death by suicide. His narratives frequently contain masculine motifs, such as bull-fighting (Death in the Afternoon), hunting (The Green Hills of Africa), war (A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls), and fishing (The Old Man and the Sea). All of these motifs derive from Hemingway’s own experiences as a traveler and an adventurer. Arguably, he was a better short-story writer than a novelist, although it was his longer works that built his reputation.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Does Jig love the American? Does he love her?
2. Write an essay that takes a stand on what Jig has decided to do.
3. The following statement containing a quotation that appears in the plot summary above: When the American tells her that they can have whatever they want—“We can have the whole world”—Jig says, “It isn’t ours any more . . . And once they take it away, you never get it back.” Comment on what Jig means when she says that "once they take it away, you never get it back.”
4. Write a short psychological profile of Jig or the American. 
5. Write another ending for the story that tells what Jig plans to do.
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