Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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.
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.
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
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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.
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.
observes that the liqueur tastes like licorice. In fact, she says, everything
tastes like licorice. Her remark, apparently made out of boredom, irks
cut it out," he says.
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
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."
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.".
Style, Unanswered Questions
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?
Confronting the Future
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.
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?"
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
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?"
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
Too Much of a Good Thing
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
American seems unable to accept responsibility, for whatever reason. Rather
than facing the challenges of normal life, he continually puts them off.
climax occurs when Jig ends the conversation, saying, "Would you please
please please please please please please stop talking?"
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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 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
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.
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.
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.