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Hills Like White Elephants, a Theme Analysis Essay

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Ernest Hemmingway uses time, place, and symbolism in "Hills like White Elephants" to intensify the central dilemma in a story about a man and a woman deciding on whether to go through with an abortion. Although a literal reading of the title may not seem to have any relation to the story, the title is rich in implications. Critics suggest that "Hills" refers to the shape of a woman's stomach when pregnant, and Webster's 21st Century Dictionary defines white elephant as: "[An] awkward, useless possession." The term is also defined in Webster's as an item that is worthless to some but priceless to others. According to Victor Lindsey, the child in the story is a white elephant in the view of the man, who is trying to convince the girl to…show more content…

The train depot is surrounded on both sides by fields: one side with trees and fields of grain, and the other contains nothing but dust (Hemingway 324). The two sides of the train tracks represent the choice Jig will have to face between pregnancy and abortion.

Every time the man or the woman try to change the subject and avoid talking about the abortion, they end up saying something that refers to or alludes to the baby or the abortion. The woman suggests that the hills look like white elephants (324), which the man fails to acknowledge. The lack of clear communication between the two causes tension and arguments at every turn. When the woman agrees sarcastically that the man has never seen white elephants, he says, "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything" (324). The woman is clearly annoyed at the insensitivity of the man's negative feelings toward her pregnancy. For her, the baby is a priceless treasure, but for him it is a worthless fetus.

Time and place are very significant in the story. The author describes where the train is boarded and where it is headed to, but he never tells the reader where the man and woman are at the moment. Hemingway notes that the train "stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid" (324). Baker argues that "this limited time symbolizes the time she has to have the abortion" (Baker, 145). Baker further

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Welcome to "Hills Like White Elephants." This little story is notorious for packing an outsized punch: it's read in countless classrooms in countless universities and high schools, contained in countless "Best Short Stories Ever"-type anthologies, and prompts countless readers to doubt the following truths universally acknowledged:

  • tons o' description = great writing, and
  • day-drinking while traveling through Spain is always a super-romantic way to pass the time.

To be fair, of course, it's a story by Hemingway—a guy famous for his sparse language and for making Euro-trips sound like living nightmares.

In fact, we'd go so far as to call this the Hemingway story. "Hills Like White Elephants" is like a teaser-trailer for the Hemingway canon. It has all the highlights of a Hemingway joint. Beautiful, symbolism-laden European landscapes? Check. Depressed, alcoholic expats? Oh yeah. Simmering existential angst and a general sense of alienation? Mmm-hmm.

And lest we forget—beautiful writing, informed by a singular, brilliant voice? A thousand times yes.

You probably know of Hemingway even if you haven't read his work yet. Hemingway is considered to be one of the great innovators and fictional stylists in 20th Century fiction. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He penned such unforgettable novels as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. He's also known for having a beard that rivals Karl Marx's, a menagerie of six-toed pet cats, and a penchant for fly fishing. In short, he's a guy you should know about if you care anything—even one little bit—about American literature.

If you're new to Hemingway, you should start with "Hills Like White Elephants." Come for the Spanish scenery, stay for the jaw-dropping, spare-yet-haunting prose.

And if you're already a diehard Papa fan who's run with the bulls in Pamplona and a tattoo that reads, "A man can be destroyed but not defeated?" Well, you have two options: read "Hills Like White Elephants" again, sit back, and sigh, "Dang, he's good" orread "Hills Like White Elephants" for the first time, sit back, and sigh, "Dang he's good."

Basically, dear reader, you're in the opposite situation as the characters in "Hills Like White Elephants." They pretty much have no way to win...and you have pretty much no way to lose. (At least when it comes to reading this story.)

Did you ever notice that when someone asks, "Know what I'm saying?", we tend to agree with them—even if we have zero idea what they're talking about?

That's odd…know what we're saying?

Well, even if you aren't nodding along on the other side of this screen, we're guessing you've had an experience or two where a) what's said out loud, b) what's left unsaid, and c) what's actually meant are three entirely different things.

An example? Sure, we have a couple:

  • a) Your soon-to-be-ex says, "It's not you, it's me."
  • b) Your soon-to-be-ex leaves "I don't love you anymore" unsaid.
  • c) Your soon-to-be-ex means, "It's not me, it's you."
  • a) Your mom says, "Uncle Frank is such a character."
  • b) Your mom leaves "There's not a snowball's chance in the Sahara that Uncle Frank is coming to another Thanksgiving" unsaid.
  • c) Your mom means, "Uncle Frank is a racist horrorshow."

Our main man Hemingway was infatuated with the fact that human animals, despite having mastered the power of language, don't really know how to communicate with each other. So he sketched out this little scene titled "Hills Like White Elephants." Here we see a couple dance around what they want to say to each other like Fred Astaire at a Riverdance revival.

So: what do they really want to say to each other?

Sadly, we'll never know for sure. This story—deceptively simply—is anything but straightforward. But that seems fair to us—after all, life isn't all that straightforward. More specifically, interpersonal communication isn't straightforward, and even more specifically, relationships aren't straightforward.

"Hills Like White Elephants" is a great portrait of how we talk at, to, and past each other; how we can go on and on and never quite get at what it is we really want to say. This story is a chance to reflect on the way we talk to our loved ones (and we're not talking about our accents), and what we might, or might not, reveal when we do open our traps and start yammering.

Know what we're saying?


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