The narration is super-controlled: we're given a bare minimum of information outside of the conversations between the man and Jig (and, briefly, between the man and the barmaid). There are no poetic meanderings or descriptions of the quality of the light—not on Hemingway's watch.
Even the dialogue is controlled within an inch of its life. We don't witness a lover's fight; we witness a tense discussion between two people out in public. These characters are troubled inwardly, but they do their best to keep their emotions bottled up. Just check out the final two lines of the story:
"Do you feel better?" he asked.
"I feel fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." (109-110)
Since these characters can’t get past what they want, to talk about why they want it, there's a complete communication breakdown. The conversation has been controlled until it's become nonexistent; it's been smothered to death.
A man and a woman drink beers while waiting for a train to arrive. They bicker passive aggressively. The end.
Yep—that sounds pretty realistic to us. One of the strengths—perhaps the key strength—of Hemingway's writing is his adherence to remaining realistic. His characters are often bitter, nasty, and disenchanted. His love stories don't end with a bang, but with a whimper. His settings, although beautiful, are often depicted as shabby.
What Hemingway is giving the reader is a reflection of the world we inhabit: cruel, opaque, and utterly mysterious despite seeming straightforward.
Hoo boy. Where do we even begin with this one?
We'll begin at the most basic level: the title refers to the comparison Jig makes between the pale hills of the Spanish landscape and white elephants. Here's the snippet of conversation in which we first hear tell of white elephants:
"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer.
"No, you wouldn't have." (9-11)
A couple of observations:
First: holy barely concealed animosity, Batman. That dialogue is biting.
Second: check out how he passively negates her statement. He cannot vouch for what a white elephant looks like, therefore he can neither confirm or deny that the hills do, in fact, look like white elephants. This is a character-revealing interaction: the American man passively targets Jig, and Jig retorts in an acidic manner.
Thirdly—and this is where it gets deep—according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a white elephant has a figurative meaning: "A burdensome or costly possession. Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value."
Read with an eye towards the figurative, the dialogue can be twisted to have the following meaning:
"I've never seen a costly possession/object without use or value."
"No, you wouldn't have."
This dialogue now contains the entire drama of the story...and, what's more, it contains the entire drama of the story from both his and her point of view.
From Jig's point of view: the American is a freebooting expat who wouldn't know a "costly possession" if he was looking at it. The American has an opportunity to become a father and find real meaning in his life...but he chooses to continue a life of trains, cervezas, and hotel room trysts.
From the American's point of view: the American has never seen an "object without use or value." Everything is equally useful to him; everything is equally valuable. He has a desire to see the world rather than settling down and becoming domesticated—he doesn't see that one lifestyle is more inherently "valuable" than the other.
Want yet another layer? Sure thing: the "hills" can also be read as stand-ins for a pregnant belly. They do have similar shapes, after all. Pregnancy itself, then, could be being compared directly to "a burdensome or costly possession [and] an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value."
"And they lived happily ever after."
...is probably not the postscript to "Hills Like White Elephants."
In the story, Jig seems to want to get married and have a baby. However, the American man seems to want her to have an abortion and for them to then continue the relationship as it was before the pregnancy. Neither of these options seems acceptable to both parties.
This impasse leads to the communication breakdown shown in the final two lines of the story. The man knows Jig doesn't "feel better," but asks her anyway. She responds by pretending not to know what he’s talking about. In light of her previous request that they not discuss it, her response isn't out of character—but it also doesn't seem to be getting them any closer to a solution.
If the fact that that the story is part of Hemingway’s 1927 collection Men Without Women is any evidence, the end is nigh for these two lovebirds. The breakup of their relationship could occur in one of two ways: 1) they get married, have the baby, and then break up, 2) they have an abortion and then break up.
Either way, it's hardly a fairytale ending.
Though the exact location of the train station isn't given, we know that it's somewhere hilly (with an idyllic Ebro view) between Madrid and Barcelona. In fact, don’t experience much of Spain in the "Hills Like White Elephants"—though the fact that both Spanish and English are being spoken is important (check out the theme of "Language and Communication" for more).
But even though we can't find this particular train station on Googlemaps, this setting packs a symbolic wallop.
We discuss this in more detail over in out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section, but the train station underlines the fact that the couple in "Hills Like White Elephants" is at a crossroads in their lives. They're stuck between locations and decisions. And while Spain itself doesn't play a very important role in the story (there aren't even any classic Hemingway meditations on bullfighting) the fact that this couple is far from home does come up—the language barrier and the process of translation serve to highlight the fact that this couple has a teensy bit of a communication problem. (Head on over to "Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegory for more info on this as well.)
In "Hills Like White Elephants," everything is boiled down and condensed. Hemingway's writing is journalistic and no-nonsense; he reports dialogue cleanly and directly, without any fluffy adjectives or fancy descriptions. This tight economy of words is perhaps the thing that makes Hemingway iconic
While the narration might seem cold and detached, emotion is present—it's just below the surface. The more we explore this story, the more we feel what Jig and the man might be feeling, and the more our own emotions try to come to the surface.
In "What’s Up with the Title?" we break down the literal meaning of the components of what is for many the story’s key symbol – the "hills like white elephants." In "Setting" we talk about how this symbol can be used to interpret the story. Here, we’ll go with that while playing with the idea of wildlife.
Elephants are wildlife. Jig and the man have been living the wild life, but now it could all come to come to a halt – like it has for the white mountains. But are mountains happy in their stability?
Who knows, but the man doesn’t want to be a mountain, be married and settle down (and he thinks that Jig having the baby will mean he must). Jig, on the other hand, thinks they can only remain in motion, wild and free, is if they do have the baby and get married.
This symbol is overshadowed by the hills and elephants, but the bamboo curtain is still powerful. It sets us up to think about boundaries, thresholds, and separations – all the issues the couple is facing.
As we emphasize throughout this guide, the social, legal, and informational boundaries the couple faces in terms of birth control, sex education, and stigmas about having children without being married, act as curtains that help limit the couple’s options, and their conversation.
And because Jig wants the baby and the man doesn’t, the pregnancy itself acts as a curtain between them, through which only simple things (like what they want to drink) can be communicated clearly. By the end of the story the "curtain" between the man and Jig seems to have turned into a wall.
But let’s backtrack a little and look at some passages where the curtain appears. The curtain is first mentioned in the opening paragraph of the story:
Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. (1)
At this moment we anticipate going through the curtain to the inside of the bar, but the narrator pulls us back to the table outside the bar. Right away we have this feeling of being kept out, stuck outside with the flies.
On top of that, you could write an entire paper just on bamboo as a symbol in "Hills Like White Elephants." Some very old accounts claim that human life was born from a bamboo stem, among other interesting things. That could connect to Jig’s pregnancy for sure. If you want to dig deeper.
Hemingway, a real humorist, is also using the curtain as a comedic prop. We see it in the first paragraph one, with the remark about the flies. His humor is even more evident here: "Dos cervezas," the man said into the curtain" (5).
There is something subtly funny about the man talking into the curtain because we don’t know (though the man obviously does) that someone is waiting on the other side. This through-the-curtain conversation is a little uncomfortable, so much so that we almost miss the humor. Maybe because, although they are communicating well through the curtain, this moment still foreshadows the figurative curtain between Jig and the man when they try to communicate.
The curtain is also a comment on advertisement and communication, and an homage to the sport of bullfighting, which so fascinated Hemingway. It can also be seen as an homage to the other pastime that so fascinated him – drinking. Anis del Toro (booze of the bull) is painted on the curtain, layering on a bit more symbolism.
As we know from Hemingway’s A Sun Also Rises, Americans are often in Spain for the bullfighting. It’s a major industry and part of Spain’s draw as a tourist destination. It’s only natural that a train station bar would advertise a drink that advertises bullfighting and appeals to people attracted to the sport.
That said, it’s doubtful that an observant person like Jig could have avoided knowing that toro means bull. Like she does with the hills in the distance, Jig draws this symbol into their personal story by pointing it out. As we know from The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway's male characters who were in Spain for the bullfights weren't exactly inclined to get married and have children. If the man is anything like these other Hemingway characters, it seems unlikely that he would give Jig the kind of life she seems to want. If the man is a bullfighting aficionado, then for Jig the bull might represent a major obstacle to her wishes.
These are symbols of bodies in motion, of travel and maybe even transience. Since the man and Jig's suitcases have stickers that give a record of their travels, the luggage can be seen as a map of the journey that brought them to this point. The train station is a midpoint between that time and the future time that they will move toward on the train. Train stations, airports, bus stations, and ports, when found in stories, give us the sense of transition, of being between worlds, between experiences.
As we note in our discussion of "Setting," some critics and readers resist or reject the symbolic approach to this story. All this talk of symbolism can seem overly fancy, at odds with the clean, smooth lines of the story. If you are one of those readers, go with that. It’s OK to just let a mountain be a mountain, a river a river, and pregnancy a pregnancy, etc.
The third-person narrator takes the fly-on-the-wall technique to extremes in "Hills Like White Elephants." We can see both the journalist and the storyteller in Hemingway working together to construct the story. It doesn’t tell us what the characters are thinking, only what they do, see, and most importantly, what they say. And it only provides a bare minimum of context: the scenery (Spain, the river Ebro, some white hills), the weather (hot), and the train schedules.
The fact that the story is told in the past tense means the narrator is putting it together after the fact, from memory, so to speak, and rendering it in symbolic terms, using simile and metaphor.
This all points to our themes "Language and Communication," and "Foreignness and the Other," which, combined, creates translation. The narrator is sometimes translating the dialogue for us (his English speaking readers) from Spanish to English. Likewise, the man translates various things for Jig.
But while it’s obvious when the man is translating for Jig, it’s not always obvious when the narrator is translating for us. We’ll show you what we mean with two brief examples:
First, look at this passage from near the end of the story:
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads. "The train comes in five minutes," she said.
"What did she say?" asked the girl.
"That the train is coming in five minutes." (102-104)
This passage is often cited to show that Jig doesn’t speak Spanish, but what’s more interesting is that it’s twice translated – once for us by the narrator, and once for Jig by the man. So, the big question is, why didn’t Hemingway choose to say, "The train comes in five minutes" in Spanish, and then let the man translate it for us when he translates it for Jig? (Remember that the man originally orders the two beers in Spanish.) As with most questions in this story, there are many answers. One possibility is that Hemingway wanted to call attention to the narrator a little bit, to show us that the narrator speaks Spanish, and to make us aware of the fact that the characters are in a situation where a variety of languages are being spoken.
This next passage also plays with this reality, but is less easy to pin down than the one above:
"Dos cervezas," the man said into the curtain.
"Big ones?" a woman asked from the doorway.
"Yes. Two big ones." (5-7)
Here the man orders the beer in Spanish. (It doesn’t seem likely that the man ordered in English and that the narrator translated it to Spanish.) Even if the man didn't speak great Spanish, he still could have pulled off his order. The question here is whether the narrator is translating the woman/waitress’s speech (and the man's subsequent reply) into English.
And honestly, we don't know the answer to that one...and we can't very well ask Hemingway. (RIP, Papa.)
It’s rare that we can’t use one of Booker’s Seven Basic Plots to shed new light on a story. But "Hills Like White Elephants" is a revolutionary approach to story writing—and perhaps even a reaction against stories that fit into traditional plot structures.
Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but this one seems to have erased the "beginning" and "end" bits and left us suspended in middle limbo. All we get is conversation between two unhappily coupled individuals—we don't know whether they stay together, and we don't know whether they were ever happy to begin with.
If anything, "Hills Like White Elephants" can be seen as a stage in one of Booker’s Seven. But which of these plots the story fits into would depend on what happened before its characters got to the train station...and what happens after they leave.
The initial situation is really a view of some hills, but we thought we’d just skip right to the bar...which is where we'll stay throughout the story.
Similes are dangerous business, folks. Use them with caution. Jig’s seemingly innocent statement that the hills are like white elephants quickly turns into a competition with the man over who has traveled more. But that’s just the top layer of the conflict cake.
It turns out that the woman—nicknamed Jig—is pregnant. The man suggests getting an abortion; Jig seems to prefer the option of getting married and having a baby.
Jig, sick of hearing her boyfriend talking, asks him to please shut up. Or rather—she asks him to please, please, please, please, please, please, please shut up. Then she threatens to screams.
Luckily, the waitress arrives to let the (un)happy couple know that their train is arriving.
When the man walks off with the suitcase, we wonder for a moment if he'll disappear, bags and all. When we see him headed back we wonder if Jig will still be there waiting.
The story doesn’t give us much time for suspense, but it’s definitely there.
The action is winding down when the man has a drink at the bar, and when he’s walking back to Jig. At the same time, all closure is suspended; we don’t know quite how things will end.
Not a very dramatic finale...unless you pay attention to the undertones of the mini-conversation Jig and the man have at the very end of the story. We suspect that this couple isn't destined to live happily ever after.
"Hills Like White Elephants" is a revolutionary approach to story writing, and perhaps even a reaction against stories that fit into traditional plot structures. As a result, this story can't be broken into three acts.
What can we say: Hemingway was a rebel with a literary cause.