Study Guide

Hills Like White Elephants Themes

  • Language and Communication

    "Hills Like White Elephants" is a rich study in human communication. Intense, focused, and concentrated, the story depicts a couple at a crisis point in their relationship. They struggle, in public, to communicate their opposing views on the course their relationship should take.

    Because the story ends without clear resolution, we'll never know how or if they manage to find common ground. Bonus: it's significant that the story takes place in Spain but is written in English. A close reading of the text reveals all kinds of translation games, which both disorient the reader and comment on communication in the story.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Does the issue of translation enrich this story, or needlessly confuse it?
    2. What are some of the different communication strategies used by the characters? By the narrator?
    3. Is Jig or the man a better communicator? Why do you think so?
    4. What, if anything, does the setting communicate to the characters? To the readers?

    Chew on This

    Both characters are terrible communicators.

    The characters’ conversation takes place in public, commenting on the differences between public and private conversations.

  • Choices

    The couple in Ernest Hemingway’s "Hills Like White Elephants" faces a difficult situation – how to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. To further complicate the issue, it's pretty clear that one partner wants to settle down and have the baby, while the other partner doesn’t.

    What we see in the story is a public discussion of the matter. Since we don’t learn what the characters actually decide, the story is mostly about how they discuss the issues, what choices they explore, and even what choices they don’t explore. Written in 1927 when sex education and discussion of birth control were federal crimes in the U.S., the story also comments on what little was known about reproductive issues in those days, and how this lack of information impacts the options the characters consider available to them.

    Questions About Choices

    1. What options do Jig and the man think they have? What are some of the choices they don’t talk about? Does this mean they aren’t aware of them, or that they don’t consider them viable options?
    2. What are some of the ways Jig’s ultimate decision (which we don’t learn) might affect the man?
    3. Does the man accept Jig’s choice not to have the abortion, or will he continue to pressure her? What evidence can you use to support your answer?

    Chew on This

    This story helps us explore the difficult issue of whether fathers should have a say in a woman’s choice to have or not have an abortion.

  • Identity

    All of the sudden, the two characters featured in "Hills Like White Elephants" are faced with the potential of a whole new identity: that of being parents. This very short story explores what can happen when one parent wants to reject the new identity, while the other wants to accept it.  The way the two characters deal with all this in a public conversation also raises the question of public vs. private identity.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Does Jig’s identity change over the course of the story? Does the man’s? If so, in what ways do they change?
    2. How do marriage and parenthood factor into identity? Why does the man want to reject the identities of father and husband?
    3. How might going through with the abortion affect Jig’s identity?
    4. The man is identified as American. Is this significant to the story? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Being able to speak and understand Spanish is a big part of the man’s identity.

    Jig feels that having an abortion will destroy her sense of identity.

  • Foreignness and 'the Other'

    The first sentence of "Hills Like White Elephants" contains the name of a river that might only be familiar to the geography whiz or the world traveler. The fact that this story is set in Spain forces us (and the globe trotting characters) into an unfamiliar atmosphere. The question of foreignness is woven into the bigger issue the characters face – what to do about an unplanned pregnancy when one character wants to keep the baby, and the other does not.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'the Other'

    1. Does the Spanish setting add something to this story? If so, what? What, if anything might change if the setting was shifted to a train station in America? In London? In China?
    2. Do the characters seem to feel comfortable with their surroundings? Does Jig really need the man to translate for her?
    3. What is being translated in this story, and why?
    4. What is not being translated?

    Chew on This

    The story seems to be trying to deliberately confuse the reader by playing with the idea of translation.

    Both characters are considered foreigners in Spain, which seems to echo the fact that they are becoming foreigners to each other.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Alcohol is more than just a prop in "Hills Like White Elephants" – it seems to be a major part of the main characters’ relationship, though it’s not clear what effect the alcohol is having on their conversation. Like in many Ernest Hemingway stories, the characters in "Hills Like White Elephants" seem to drink like fish—there are dozens of references to alcohol in this very short piece.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. What does alcohol mean to the man. To Jig?
    2. Does it upset or bother you to read about a pregnant woman drinking?
    3. What role does alcohol play in the couple’s relationship?

    Chew on This

    "Hills Like White Elephants" explores the way alcohol is sometimes used as a buffer in difficult conversations.

    Alcohol is just a prop in "Hills Like White Elephants," and doesn’t contribute to the story's bigger issues.