Book Review: Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

Book Review: Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

“Hills Like White Elephants” is a short story written by Ernest Hemingway in 1927. The story takes the form of a dialogue between a young couple at an unnamed Spanish train station while awaiting a Madrid-bound train. The time period is, however, not stated. Hemingway uses the couple as his main characters in the story. The male character is identified by Hemingway only as “The American” or “a man” and the female character as “Jig”. Both are locked up in an argument over the trenchant and often emotive subject of abortion. Hemingway’s central thesis in the story, therefore, highlights the emotional void and fragility surrounding a relationship at the brink of collapse due to an unwanted pregnancy and dilemma concerning abortion.

What is the main subject of the story?

The main subject of the story is not that straightforward. Hemingway does not expressly introduce the reader to the main topic. In fact, he does not mention the word “abortion” anywhere in the story. The readers are hence left to infer this based on the setting of the story and the use of symbolism. It is clear that the two are unmarried at the time of dialogue. They have however continued a relationship that climaxes when Jig gets pregnant. It is the pregnancy that appears to plunge the couple in somewhat a critical situation in their lives. Jig and her boyfriend are confronted with the dilemma of either procuring an abortion or keeping the pregnancy. This is the “operation” that the two discuss in uncertain terms at the station. After a few drinks, the American suggests Jig that she carries out an operation. Nonetheless, he does that with a certain degree of diplomacy. It is not clear if Jig actually aborted the child. However, she reluctantly agrees on the condition that he continues loving her and that they will enjoy a happier life together thereafter. Nevertherless, even after that, she is still doubtful and the reader is left with lots of unanswered questions as to whether the planned abortion indeed took place.

The American is less admirable. Hemingway shows him as the sole logical antagonist in his literary work. Analysis of his character traits is quite unflattering as compared to Jig. He is portrayed as being insensitive to the emotions of his girlfriend. This is despite him using kind words towards Jig. Based on his mode of interaction with Jig, the readers are more likely to perceive him as one who puts his personal interests first. He appeals to Jig to procure the abortion, albeit diplomatically. He seems not to give a damn about the welfare of either the mother or the unborn child. Unlike the American, Jig is portrayed as a compassionate person. She cares about the well-being of the unborn baby. That is why she is hesitant to go ahead with the operation. She could also be perceived as acting within the usual dictates of human nature. This is when she appears to somehow shelve her desire to keep pregnancy in order to please the boyfriend.

What is the triple meaning of the title?

The meaning or significance of the title “Hills Like White Elephants” could be three-fold.

First, a gift of a white elephant is one that nobody would desire. In this sense, analysis of the story may regard the title as a symbol of unwanted pregnancy that is currently straining the relationship between the couple. It explains why he wants to do away with it through abortion. At the story begins, Jig says that the surrounding hills resemble white elephants. However, as the conversation continues, she changes her mind and notes that the hills no longer have a semblance of white elephants and that they lie in solitude. This is akin to her shifting position regarding the pregnancy.

Secondly, Hemingway’s couple does not directly come out and reveal the topic in their rather very tense and awkward argument. It could be likened to the phrase “the elephant in the room”- something awkward that none is willing to discuss forthrightly.

Finally, the white elephants could symbolize the idea that pregnancy is beautiful and sacred. The justification lies in Hemingway’s allusion to the dream of Buddha’s mother about a beautiful white elephant, her future son Buddha. In Buddhism, white elephants symbolize sanctity and purity.

What literary devices are used in the short story?

The author makes an effective use of symbolism [imagery], potent dialogue, and sparse narrative style in the story. Hemingway believes that what is left unsaid is more powerful than what is actually said. Examples of imagery used include reference to the white and long hills across Ebro Valley which were meant to open up the setting of the story. White elephants could symbolize the unwanted pregnancy or even its sanctity and purity. Hemingway remarkably uses dialogue as a literary device. The dialogue is implicit and employs simple and ordinary speech that makes it easy for the reader to decode the subject of the conversation. Finally, he makes a good use of a modernist narrative style in which he comes out as an impersonal narrator. He escalates modern narrative style to a point where he deploys an anonymous couple, white hills that are ghostly, an unnamed railway station, and faceless waitress at the station. The idea is to engage the reader more into the dialogue. Application of these devices impacts the theme choices in the story.

Perhaps one of the most critical elements in the story is the irony that characterizes the entire dialogue. Hemingway effectively employs irony to draw a clear line between reality and appearance. In the entire somewhat petty argument over things such as the hills, abortion and drinks in the actual sense represent an unarticulated yet resolute struggle about the future lives of the characters. The characters seem to disagree over how they ought to live their lives moving into the future. On his part, the American man appears to prefer their current decadent, self-indulgent, and sterile life. Jig objects; she opposes the man’s suggestion for abortion and instead lobbies him into embracing a rather conventional but peaceful, fruitful, and rewarding life. It points to the conflict and struggles they are experiencing in their lives that are brought about by pregnancy. Ironically, the American believes that aborting the baby will [magically] resolve all their problems.

Hemingway deploys various aspects of narrative tone in the story such as unintrusiveness, objectivity, and proximity. First, uses an unintrusive tone refraining from commentaries in his work. An illustration of this is found when he talks about the warm wind blowing the bead curtain and Jig saying nothing about it. Hemingway additionally employs a proximate tone in relation to his characters and general activity in the story. He maintains a near-proximate relationship with his characters while remaining as unintrusive as possible. A good example is where he notices the direction of movement of Jig’s eyes. Finally, he adopts an objective narrative tone. Here, he refrains from bias, prejudice, and criticism of his characters. He simply narrates the events as they develop.

Hemingway effectively tells the story from an objective point of view. Basically, an objective viewpoint represents narration from the perspective of a third person. Hemingway succeeds in telling the story from this viewpoint and manages to draw the reader even closer to the dialogue between the two characters. In order to make sense and derive the importance of the conversation, the readers must endeavor to engage in the text all by themselves. Besides, the story is a good example of modernist fiction literature. It concerns his conception of the story which considered a modern artistic strategy. That is, he simply suggests things like abortion through a dialogue. It is up to the readers to engage and decipher what he means. In other words, the author creatively employs the “iceberg principle” technique. That is, for every small bit exposed, there is much more that lies underneath. It is further exacerbated by his omission of dialogue tags, a classical tool in modernism.

In conclusion, “Hills Like White Elephants” is quite a memorable story. It brings to light the often critical issue of abortion. Essentially, it reignites the moral dilemma that is often associated with the practice. A moral lesson that readers could bag home is that resolving the moral dilemma is not an easy task. The debate for or against the termination of life of the unborn baby seems unresolved in the story. The readers are left in suspense as to whether or not Jig went ahead with the operation.


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