Study Guide

The American Man in Hills Like White Elephants

By Ernest Hemingway

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The American Man

Born In The USA

It's easy to vilify the American, an insensitive guy whose kindest words of encouragement include choice lines like:

"It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in." (44)

(Yeah, buddy—that's probably not the thing to say to your pregnant girlfriend as she debates whether or not to have an abortion.)

But for the sake of argument—and it's way too easy just to dismiss a literary character as a cad and be done with it—let's give the American the same treatment we gave Jig in her character profile. In other words, let's try to find out what makes this guy tick.

First things first: what do we know about him? Well, he:

  • speaks English and Spanish
  • has not seen white elephants
  • doesn’t want to marry Jig, but claims he's willing to do so
  • is trying to convince Jig to have an abortion
  • is identifiable as an American (by the narrator)
  • is the father of Jig’s child
  • has been traveling with Jig and staying in hotels with her
  • tells Jig he loves her
  • calls her by name (or nickname)
  • claims to be very worried by the situation
  • doesn’t seem to think the abortion is a big deal
  • knows women who have had abortions, and implies that things turned out well for them

On the first read-through of this list, it might seem that the American is the more impassioned of the two characters. After all, he tells Jig he loves her—and he seems (or at least tries to seem) genuinely happy.

But let's look a little closer. Unlike with Jig's list, we don't see many repetitions of "want" or "doesn't want." Yes; the man doesn't want to get married...but he also seems oddly pliant and accepting of the idea:

"I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you." (91)

And, although he repeatedly pressures Jig to have an abortion, he also couches that demand in something like apathy:

"I think it's the best thing to do. But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to." (57)

So: what exactly does this nameless, faceless American want? If anything, it seems, he wants to continue along in the same manner—drinking, looking at scenery, taking trips, and sleeping in hotels. From a certain perspective (like, say, Jig's) what he wants is a big fat goose egg: he wants nothing; he has no aim whatsoever.

And although we could stop the discussion of the American by dismissing him as a dude who wants zip, nada, and zilch, we want to complicate even that reading. Let's take a look at this guy's (lack of a) name: the American. This lets us know that this character is a stand-in for America, and American values. Now, think of that in combination with the following statement:

"We can go everywhere." (78)

This suggests that the American has really one desire: the oh-so-American desire of freedom. What's important to this guy, Hemingway seems to be saying, is possibility rather than grounded reality. He's a happy camper as long as there are unlimited options.

Oh—and yes. He's also a total jerk.

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