Study Guide

Hills Like White Elephants

Hills Like White Elephants Introduction

Welcome to "Hills Like White Elephants." This little story is notorious for packing an outsized punch: it's read in countless classrooms in countless universities and high schools, contained in countless "Best Short Stories Ever"-type anthologies, and prompts countless readers to doubt the following truths universally acknowledged:

  • tons o' description = great writing, and
  • day-drinking while traveling through Spain is always a super-romantic way to pass the time.

To be fair, of course, it's a story by Hemingway—a guy famous for his sparse language and for making Euro-trips sound like living nightmares.

In fact, we'd go so far as to call this the Hemingway story. "Hills Like White Elephants" is like a teaser-trailer for the Hemingway canon. It has all the highlights of a Hemingway joint. Beautiful, symbolism-laden European landscapes? Check. Depressed, alcoholic expats? Oh yeah. Simmering existential angst and a general sense of alienation? Mmm-hmm.

And lest we forget—beautiful writing, informed by a singular, brilliant voice? A thousand times yes.

You probably know of Hemingway even if you haven't read his work yet. Hemingway is considered to be one of the great innovators and fictional stylists in 20th Century fiction. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He penned such unforgettable novels as The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. He's also known for having a beard that rivals Karl Marx's, a menagerie of six-toed pet cats, and a penchant for fly fishing. In short, he's a guy you should know about if you care anything—even one little bit—about American literature.

If you're new to Hemingway, you should start with "Hills Like White Elephants." Come for the Spanish scenery, stay for the jaw-dropping, spare-yet-haunting prose.

And if you're already a diehard Papa fan who's run with the bulls in Pamplona and a tattoo that reads, "A man can be destroyed but not defeated?" Well, you have two options: read "Hills Like White Elephants" again, sit back, and sigh, "Dang, he's good" orread "Hills Like White Elephants" for the first time, sit back, and sigh, "Dang he's good."

Basically, dear reader, you're in the opposite situation as the characters in "Hills Like White Elephants." They pretty much have no way to win...and you have pretty much no way to lose. (At least when it comes to reading this story.)

What is Hills Like White Elephants About and Why Should I Care?

Did you ever notice that when someone asks, "Know what I'm saying?", we tend to agree with them—even if we have zero idea what they're talking about?

That's odd…know what we're saying?

Well, even if you aren't nodding along on the other side of this screen, we're guessing you've had an experience or two where a) what's said out loud, b) what's left unsaid, and c) what's actually meant are three entirely different things.

An example? Sure, we have a couple:

  • a) Your soon-to-be-ex says, "It's not you, it's me."
  • b) Your soon-to-be-ex leaves "I don't love you anymore" unsaid.
  • c) Your soon-to-be-ex means, "It's not me, it's you."
  • a) Your mom says, "Uncle Frank is such a character."
  • b) Your mom leaves "There's not a snowball's chance in the Sahara that Uncle Frank is coming to another Thanksgiving" unsaid.
  • c) Your mom means, "Uncle Frank is a racist horrorshow."

Our main man Hemingway was infatuated with the fact that human animals, despite having mastered the power of language, don't really know how to communicate with each other. So he sketched out this little scene titled "Hills Like White Elephants." Here we see a couple dance around what they want to say to each other like Fred Astaire at a Riverdance revival.

So: what do they really want to say to each other?

Sadly, we'll never know for sure. This story—deceptively simply—is anything but straightforward. But that seems fair to us—after all, life isn't all that straightforward. More specifically, interpersonal communication isn't straightforward, and even more specifically, relationships aren't straightforward.

"Hills Like White Elephants" is a great portrait of how we talk at, to, and past each other; how we can go on and on and never quite get at what it is we really want to say. This story is a chance to reflect on the way we talk to our loved ones (and we're not talking about our accents), and what we might, or might not, reveal when we do open our traps and start yammering.

Know what we're saying?

Hills Like White Elephants Resources

Movie or TV Productions

Women and Men: Stories of Seduction.
"Hills" is one of the stories.

Hills Like White Elephants, 2002
A short film.

Videos

Short Amateur Film
Check out what some film students did.

A Documentary Clip
Did you know Hemingway lived in Cuba for over a decade?

Audios

Hemingway's Voice
A collection of clips of Hemingway reading.

An excerpt from Hemingway Reads
One of the few recordings available of Hemingway's voice.

Images

Ernest Hemingway
Dapper in a black beret.

Hemingway as an Older Man
In a rather larger turtleneck sweater.

Hemingway the Hunter
The author posing with animal heads.

Documents

"A Case of Identity: Ernest Hemingway"
An excellent article, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation.

Other

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Information on Hemingway's life and home in Key West and his famous cats.

"Timeline of abortion laws and events"
A very timeline on American legal history, in terms of sex education and abortion.

Michael Palin's "Hemingway Adventure"
A cool way to explore Ernest Hemingway, from his mother's recipe for cold cucumber soup to his travels around the world, this site gives you an in depth look at Hemingway's life.