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Hills Like White Elephants

Hills Like White Elephants


by Ernest Hemingway


Character Analysis

Jig is one of the most unusual characters in literature. The lack of physical and biographical details about her makes her seem like a blank slate onto which we can project whatever we want.

What We Know about Jig

She’s often seen as a victim of the man – a woman forced into having an abortion against her will. Since the ending is wide open, and we don’t know what either of the characters does in the long run, such interpretations miss the point of the story. This is very much a story about the way people and stories communicate. To get at Jig’s character, we can ask this question: what is being communicated to us about Jig? We’ve made you a list of things we think are being communicated about Jig. She:

  • speaks English
  • doesn’t (or pretends not to) speak any Spanish
  • relies on the man to translate for her several times
  • has seen white elephants
  • drinks beer
  • has had absinthe
  • is willing to try new things
  • wants to settle down
  • tells the man what to do
  • communicates directly, and through simile and hinting
  • is aware of nature and her natural surroundings
  • is the only character in the story who has a name (or maybe a nickname)
  • is pregnant
  • doesn’t want an abortion
  • is young enough to be called "a girl"
  • has been traveling with the "American" man and staying in hotels with him
  • doesn’t say she loves the man
  • doesn’t call the man by his name
  • wants the man to think she’s smart
  • feels that she can only have an abortion if she no longer cares about herself
  • knows women who have had abortions, and implies that things didn’t turn out well for them
  • threatens to scream in public
  • shuts down completely when the conversation with man seems to be going in circles
We can squeeze out lots of information on Jig, but none of it gets us closer to knowing what she finally decides to do, or really knowing her the way we might know some other fictional characters. You could probably make an even longer list of things we don’t know about Jig.

Things Left Unsaid

With Hemingway, what isn’t said is often as important as what is said. This comes into play with our theme "Choices." Jig and the man only talk about two choices – in their conversation it’s either abortion or marriage, the two most drastic options.

Obviously, unless one of these two has a change of heart, neither of these two options is going to serve Jig well. She’s made it clear that abortion is not for her. At the same time, marriage and children with a man who doesn’t want marriage and children is a recipe for disaster. But, they don’t talk about the possibility of Jig having the baby on her own, adoption, or some other solution. It’s possible, though, that they could come up with something. The story is open enough to allow for both optimistic and pessimistic predictions of their future.

Also left unsaid are the words "birth control." If Jig has an abortion and continues having unprotected sex with the man, she’ll more than likely get pregnant again, and then we’ll have "Hills Like White Elephants, Part Deux." This silence about birth control reflects the legal silence about birth control in the United States. While abortion was legal with a doctor’s referral, birth control was not, and to make matters worse, discussion of birth control (and anything we would now think of as sex education), was considered pornography and was a federal crime.

We’ll leave you with some questions: why is Jig’s nationality not given, while the man’s is given? Does she sound American to you? Why or why not? Where might she be from? Where might she have seen white elephants?

Jig Timeline