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Hills like white elephants by Ernest Hemingway

Hills like white elephants by Ernest Hemingway

Hills like white elephants is a short story written by the American novelist Ernest Miller Hemingway and first published in the 1927 collection ďMen without WomenĒ.

The short story has a rather simple plot: the story takes place at a train station in the Ebro River valley of Spain. The time is not given, but is almost certainly contemporary to the composition (1920s). This particular day is oppressively hot and dry, and the scenary in the valley is barren for the most part. The two main characters are a man referred to only as the American and his female companion, whom he calls Jig.

The American and the girl drink beer and a liquor (Anis del Toro) while waiting for the train to Madrid. Their conversation is mundane at the beginning, but soon drifts to the subject of an operation which the man is attempting to convince his lover to undergo. Though it is never made explicit in the text, the fact that Jig is pregnant and that the procedure in question is an abortion is suggested clear through phrases and dialogue such as Itís just to let the air in, I donít want you to do anything that you donít want to do among many other clues.

After posing arguments to which the American is unresponsive, Jig eventually assents to the operation, giving a kind of justification: I donít care about me. She attempts to drop the subject, but the American persists unsure of Jigís intentions. As the train approaches, he carries their bags to the platform and has a drink alone before rejoining Jig. She smiles at him and assures him that she is fine. And this is the end of the story.

Thematically speaking, Hills like white elephants is rich, given its short length and sparse narrative. On the surface, it deals with concepts such as the conflict between personal responsibility and hedonism; rhetorical and psychological manipulation; coming of age; the dynamics of the romantic relationship and its metamorphosis into the family. At a more abstract level, it can be interpreted as a statement about the lifestyle and attitudes of the post-World War I Lost Generation of American expatriates in Europe.

The title of the story is symbolically important. Jig draws a simple simile by describing the hills across the desolate valley as looking like white elephants. The white elephant represents a double meaning symbol in the text: it is the symbol of the purity associated to the imaginative girl, but, by the other side, it could be the symbol of the coupleís unborn child as an approaching obstacle and it could be associated to the maleís logical mind. Furthermore, this symbolism combined with Jigís question Thatís all we do, isnít it Ė look at things and try new drinks and her statement that even exciting new things she has long time waited to try, like absinthe (sometimes valued as an aphrodisiac), merely end up tasting like liquorice, implies that the coupleís perpetually ambling, hedonistic lifestyle has become something of a metaphorical white elephant to her. It appears that she seeks more stability and permanence in life. It isnít ours anymore, she complains of the carefree lifestyle she and the American have been persuing from one hotel to the next.

The symbolism of the hills and the big white elephant could also be thought of as the image of the swollen breasts and abdomen of a pregnant woman.

Apart from the eponymous hills, other parts of the setting provide symbolism which expresses the tension and the conflict surrounding the couple. The train tracks form a dividing line between the barren expanse of land stretching toward the hills on one side and the green fertile farmland on the other, symbolizing the choise faced by each of the main characters and their differing interpretations of the dilemma of pregnancy.

The fact that the narrator does not give names to the main characters is not at random. Their names are not important; they may be symbols for lots of couples.

Jigís (nick)name is symbolically significant, as it is the fact that her real name is never given, that Jig is only her loverís pet name for her. The word jig could have several interpretations: it is a dated slang term for sexual intercourse; it could mean also a sprightly Celtic dance or any of several different kinds of tools (fishing lure, woodworking tool, etc.); this implies that the American views Jig as more of a loving object or tool Ė a fine time Ė than a person with feelings and values to be respected.

The description of the place symbolizes the womanís soul and body after the intervention: she feels awful that her lover mentioned abortion. In contrast with the roughness of the place, the woman recognizes the hills in the distance, comparing them to the white elephants, animals that could exist only in a dream. The white colour symbolizes the innocence, hence the life in her body that has not been born yet, and it isnít so doubtful whether it will be born. Even though white elephants are hard to be found in reality, we can conclude that Jig can make anything possible with the little one growing inside of her and make her dreams come true.

Although the man keeps telling her that the abortion is a very simple intervention, she realizes that it is not so easy. Jig states, I donít feel any way, I just know things. It is the woman who would have to face the complications of the operation. Not only would her body bear the traces of abortion, but also her psyche and it could happen that she would never be able to have another baby. Whether to keep her baby or not is the womanís decision, and only hers. She knows that if she keeps the baby, her relationship with the man would change entirely in a negative sense. On the other hand, she is also aware of the fact that getting rid of the baby would influence her feelings, because it is very difficult to work up an abortion and it would also make their relationship go bad.

At this point we can see that probably she would like to give up their present lifestyle, but the man does not want to do so. Keeping the baby would mean settling down and starting a family life and the girl knows that this man is not suitable for taking up responsibilities.

However, the third-person narrator reveals very few facts about the characters; he never explicitly states what it is that the couple is arguing. The reader must interpret their dialogue and body language to infer their backgrounds and their attitudes with respect to the situation at hand, and their attitudes toward one another. From the outset of the story, the contentious nature of the coupleís conversation indicates resentment and unease. The dialogue suggests the contrasts between stereotypical male and female relationship roles: for instance, Jig draws the comparison with white elephants, but the hyper-rational male immediately denies, dissolving her moment of poetry into objective realism with Iíve never seen one. She also asks him permission to order a drink. Throughout the story Jig is distant; the American is rational. While he attempts to frame the unborn child as the source of the coupleís discontent with life and one another, the tone and the pattern of dialogue indicate that there may be deeper problems with the relationship than the purely circumstantial.

As usual, Hemingway prefers to leave details of character to the sensibilities of the reader, allowing the characters to speak for themselves free of an onmiscient narratorís subjective observations. This ambiguity leaves a good deal of room for interpretations; Jigís final smile together with her words I feel fine. Thereís nothing wrong with me. I feel fine could mean two opposed things: both rejection and acceptance of the idea of an abortion. Eventually, it is the readerís chice.

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