Study Guide

Hills Like White Elephants What’s Up with the Title?

By Ernest Hemingway

What’s Up with the Title?

The (White) Elephant In The Room

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."

Dang, Hemingway.

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