Hemingway’s Incredibly Short Classic: “Hills Like White Elephants”

To help start off my new blog page, I wanted to take a quick moment to discuss one of my favorite works of short fiction, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” It is a very short story, but like many of Hemingway’s works, it says an awful lot with very few words.

On the surface, the story seems to be just a discussion between two people at a train station over a few beers; however, “Hills Like White Elephants” is so much more. It deals heavily with human relations and says a lot about the relationship between men and women. The man in the story, simply referred to as “the American,” is having a very important discussion with his girlfriend, simply referred to as “the girl.” At first glance, their discussion seems innocent enough. They go back and forth about beer and liquor, and talk about how the mountains look like elephants. Yet, the subtle undertones in their conversation and the context of the surroundings add a completely different level to the story.

The American and the girl are waiting at a train station for their connecting train that will take them to Madrid. The couple sit down to have a few drinks and it becomes apparent that they are at a crossroads in their relationship as well. They are on completely different wavelengths through the whole conversation. The girl mentions that the mountains look like white elephants, clearly talking about more than the scenery, but the man just replies, “I’ve never seen one” (211). He then makes it absolutely clear that there is a strange tension between them by immediately objecting to the very next thing the girl says. They go on to talk about how the only thing they can actually talk about is alcohol. Like so many others before them, it is used as a filler for their relationship. They are unable to talk about anything meaningful, so they instead use alcohol to pass the time. The girl makes this clear when she says, “That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?” (212). The conversation they are dancing around is of course an operation, which the American is pressing the girl to have done.

Clearly, the operation they are discussing is most likely an abortion. The American tells the girl that things will go back to normal after it is completed; however, it is apparent from the current status of their relationship, that things will probably not get better any time soon. The term “white elephant” is something that is a burden and is hard to get rid of or to maintain (which is where the name comes from for the gift exchange game where you can never seem to hold onto the awesome gift you get in the beginning… I digress). The girl clearly is talking about their unborn child when she is discussing the mountains looking like white elephants. We are also treated to a description of the area surrounding the train station. On one side of the station is a dry valley and on the other side is a river with fields of grain and trees (213). These two opposing sides clearly show the crossroads of their relationship and the girl’s decision. The trip to Madrid does not represent the beautifully fertile future of rivers and trees, that’s Barcelona. As she tackles the choice she has to make, it is the barren valley that awaits her on the path to Madrid. In fact, the greener pastures may be forever behind her, as their relationship has been irrevocably damaged and the girl doesn’t really seem to have much of a choice in the end as to which set of tracks will lead her away from this moment.

The couple end the story drinking alone. The man moves their bags and walks to the bar for his next drink, after the girl asks him to, “please please please please please please please stop talking” (214). That’s seven pleases, making this a very uncomfortable subject for casual conversation at a public rest stop. That really makes this issue the elephant in the room as it is so obvious, but no one in a crowded train station will dare to mention it by name.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” 1925. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Finca Vigia ed. New York: Scribner, 2003. 211-214. Print.

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