“Hills Like White Elephants” is a short story written by Ernest Hemingway and published in 1927. This piece of literature is remarkable for referring to the problem of abortion without naming it directly. Before reflecting on the story, it is necessary to mention certain peculiarities of the writing style of the author. E. Hemingway was famous for establishing the iceberg principle, so the writer used to strip many details from the text remaining only dialogues and a little narration. Hence, the aim of this work is to provide personal reflections and impressions of the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” relying on the background knowledge and personal emotional experience.
At once, I have caught the general idea: the action of the story happens in Spain, in the valley of the river Ebro. Time of the action is not mentioned, but it is possible to suppose that it is equal to the period of publishing the story (the 1920-s). The day described in the story is very hot, and the valley mostly does not please the eyes. The story has two characters, namely: a man referred to as American and the girl Jig. The narration begins when American and Jig drink beer and liqueur Anis del Toro waiting for a train to Madrid. The characters have a conversation. At first sight, the conversation resembles a small talk, but then they switch to the discussion of an operation, most likely, abortion, and American persuades Jig to do it. However, the girl objects to her companion, and he proposes more and more arguments. She tries to change the topic of their conversation, but the man continues to insist on it, because he is not sure about Jig’s determination and her emotional state. A few minutes before a train arrives, American carries the bags away on a platform and then, before joining Jig and finishing their beer, he buys and drinks one more alcoholic beverage. The girl smiles and says that she feels fine, and the story ends.
It is understood from the context, that the characters were discussing abortion. Jig seems to be sad about this decision, but she does not show enough confidence to insist on what she really wants. The attitude of the man towards the girl is clearly understood from the following passage, “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to”. He wants to create an impression that he cares, though his further remarks indicate, that he is self-centered and is not going to leave his zone of comfort. In my opinion, it is awful and irresponsible of the man to treat his girl this way.
Despite the main problem was clear for me, I felt curious about several details introduced in the story. Being already familiar with the literary heritage of Hemingway and with his style, I must say that the story can be seen as an iceberg. Thus, the first impression is only the little part floating on the surface. Therefore, I must delve into the reflection to recover the hidden meaning throughout the subtext.
I cannot but notice that the short story contains several images, and if I recognize them, I will understand more about the story. The first object I encountered is the train station. It implies an idea that the characters are on the way to a certain final destination (possibly an end of relationships), but now they are at a stopping point so that they have a possibility to decide in which direction they will proceed to that destination. There is the following description in the text, “… the station was between two lines of rails in the sun”. Besides, I noticed that on the opposite side of the station there is a contrastive landscape. On the first side, “…there was no shade and no trees…”. The opposite side of the station is described as follows, “Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains”. Such depiction of the landscape suggests that there is a separation line between the characters, namely between their past and future. Apart from this, a beautiful side makes me think about the motive of the lost paradise. The girl says, “And we could have all this… And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible”. Then she adds, “And once they take it away, you never get it back”. For this reason, I have an impression that as the relationships of the characters become worse and worse, they move away from the beauty scene, happy life, and the paradise. That is why, when they reach the final destination, which is probably the operation, their paradise will be unreachable again.
The following two images are the central ones not only because they are placed in the title but also owing to that fact that when they appear in the story, I start to understand more about the situation being described. Image of the hills, which the girl contemplates over, is situated on the opposite side, where the landscape is beautiful, and this closely resembles a figure of a pregnant woman. These hills imply that for her it is not possible to reach them as well as the idea to have a child. In the story, the hills are compared to white elephants. As far as I know, a white elephant means something enormously expensive. In old times, the Siamese king used to present a white elephant to a person he disliked. White elephants were considered as sacred animals, and they could not be used for lifting and carrying purposes. The cost of keeping this animal was devastating for its holder. Thus, in my mind, these two images are compared to show that having a child is perceived as something the characters cannot afford.
Advancing in the reflection on the story, I cannot omit the name (or nickname) of the girl – Jig. This word means “a lively dance.” Only now it occurs to me that maybe such a person is not supposed to manage any serious things, and the only appropriate activity for her is to travel from place to place and try drinks. Labels on the bags also drew my attention, although these images appear at the end of the story. In my opinion, they symbolize the past of these relationships. It is interesting that the bags are heavy. That is why, perhaps, in the past, the characters had an interesting life together and they used to feel happy, but they carry too much of it at present, so there is no place for the future.
In addition, it is necessary to pay attention to the topic of drinks in the story. The girl wants to try Anis del Toro, but when she tries it, the drink is not pleasant for her. It tastes like liquorice, “Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe”. Reading these lines makes me think that the girl is not happy with her way of life anymore, and the only thing that could make her happy will never come true. The fact that the girl in her peculiar condition drinks alcohol several times suggests that she is not determined enough to defend her dream to have a child.
The theme of drinks in the story can have a connection with the idea of the lost paradise, which was analyzed above. The starting lines of the story can prove my opinion, “Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar”. It seems that the bar constitutes a kind of a shelter from the deserted reality. The characters drink several times, so maybe American and Jig do it to become more cheerful and to reduce the tension of the circumstances. Drinking gives a sense of relief and a possibility to return to the lost paradise for a short time. Nonetheless, this feeling does not last long, and disillusion comes soon. Reflecting on the above-mentioned idea, another one comes to my mind: the story refers to the topic of the lost generation. What is more, I can provide a justification for the established point. Since the period depicted in the story covers the 1920-s, this opinion can exist. Characters of the lost generation like the ones in this story undergo complicated personal experience; they make mistakes or behave improperly. While reading the story, I had the impression that the author avoids any moralization. The people in Hemingway’s stories do what the circumstances drive them in, and there is no sense to judge them. At this point, E.M. Remarque with his opinion that people were not supposed to be created perfect, since for the perfect, there is a place in the museum.
Descriptions in the story are short, and the text mostly consists of the dialogue between the characters. Despite this, I paid attention to remarks which indicate facial expressions. For example, I understood the swift smile appearing on Jig’s face as a way to relieve the pressure during the conversation. In a similar vein, her smile to the woman who informed about arriving train at the end of the story is remarkable, “The girl smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her”. The girl probably pretends to be happy, not worrying about the situation and thus closing the uncomfortable talk. The same function, to my way of thinking, reveals averting of eyes as I noticed that Jig almost never looks directly at her companion, “The girl was looking off at the line of hills...”, “The girl looked at the bead curtain…”, “The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on…”. These remarks can imply that Jig wants to concentrate her thoughts on something different rather than their unpleasant talk.
Concerning the American man, his look is mentioned twice in the text. The look of the man is not concentrated as can be seen in the example, “The man looked at her and the table”. The second mentioning of his look occurs at the end of the story, after Jig asked him to stop talking. This time the man looks at their bags. On the one hand, the character probably does not want to change his attitude, but on the other hand, he does not feel confidence in what he insists.
In conclusion, the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” by E. Hemingway contains the subtext which provides the short prosaic form with a deep meaning. If I just retell the plot, there would appear more questions than the answers concerning the action described. The story is like an iceberg, and if I go deeper into the reflection, I will manage to discover more and more layers hidden underneath the lines constituting the surface.