A New Beginning in “Hills Like White Elephants”

The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry. ‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.

Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” takes place midway between Barcelona and Madrid in a bar at a train station. The station overlooks the Ebro, the longest river in the country that flows through central Spain.

The opaque nature of the story affords the reader a certain degree of interpretive freedom. It is about two anonymous characters traveling in Spain (they are not native to Spain). They are waiting for the train which arrives in forty minutes en route to Madrid. They have a brief but tense 35-minute conversation about a procedure, presumably an abortion. He calls it a simple procedure, not unlike ‘letting the air in.’ As they gaze out over the hills behind the valley of the Ebro, she compares the hills to “white elephants” -something the man has never seen before. The couple sits at a table outside in the shade while the heat makes the hills over the valley appear long and white. They drink several beers (the girl is eager to drink ‘big cervezas’), and the alcohol brings out honesty in the man, but inspiration in the girl. They drink beer, and not absinthe, even though everything tastes like licorice.

The girl (referred to as “Jig”) is the pregnant visionary, the life-giving poet, who sees possibility in the future. To her, the hills are a simile, they appear like white elephants, while the man is cold, rational, and un-inspiring. The story forces us to ask if a relationship between a man and a woman can survive without vision, hope, children, or poetry. Pregnancy and abortion forces a new dynamic in a romantic relationship. Symbolically the couple are midway between two important places (Barcelona and Madrid) and by the end of the story they are ready to cross-over into a new place. Regardless of whether she chooses to have the operation, the couple’s relationship will never be the same.

“Hills Like White Elephants” was first published in August 1927 in a Parisian avant-garde literary magazine called transition. The magazine operated from 1927-1938. “Hills Like White Elephants” was then featured in Hemingway’s Men Without Women short story collection in 1927.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories. New York, Scribner, 1955.

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