"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.
Both characters are terrible communicators.
The characters’ conversation takes place in public, commenting on the differences between public and private conversations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.