“Hills Like White Elephants”
Almost everyone can name at least one of Ernest Hemingway’s great novels, but he was also a prolific writer of short stories. In a recent conversation, however, I could only name one of them, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” That conversation led me to The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a collection of Hemingway’s first forty-nine stories. In the Preface, which was written in 1938, Hemingway casually discusses his favorites, in the following crazy-long, but great run-on sentence:
There are many kinds of stories in this book. I hope that you will find some that you like. Reading them over, the ones I liked the best, outside of those that have achieved some notoriety so that school teachers include them in story collections that their pupils have to buy in story courses, and you are always faintly embarrassed to read them and wonder whether you really wrote them or did you maybe hear them somewhere are, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, In Another Country, Hills Like White Elephants, A Way You’ll Never Be, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, and a story called The Light of the World, which nobody else ever liked. There are some others too. Because if you did not like them you would not publish them.
Today I chose “Hills Like White Elephants,” first published in 1927. This bare story, very short on description, takes place at a train station in Spain, in the valley of the Ebro River. It is structured around a tense conversation between an unnamed man and a girl, named Jig, who sit and drink at an outside table while they wait for their train. The two are irritable and it’s clear they have a problem. After some bickering about their drinks, the man tells her, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig. It’s really not an operation at all.” What follows is an exchange between the man and the girl, in which Hemingway has hidden important clues about the couple’s relationship. The man encourages Jig to go through with the operation, assumed to be an abortion. Jig seems to have a better sense of how their relationship will fare afterwards, and of what the world has to offer them.
I like stories like this, because I like figuring out the dynamics between characters through what they say. Hemingway begins with an immediate conversation clash, as the girl looks out at the line of hills and says:
“They look like white elephants.”
The man shuts her down by replying, “I’ve never seen one.”
Her reply? “No, you wouldn’t have.”
His counter? “I might have. Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
When Jig compares the hills to white elephants, Hemingway makes an obvious reference to something that’s unwanted, but hard to get rid of, perhaps an unwanted baby, or a couple trapped in a relationship. There is plenty of additional analysis of this story, including the symbolism of the dry valley and the fields of grain, on SparkNotes , CliffsNotes, and Shmoop. You can check those out for a more scholarly analysis!
I like this story because, to me, it represents what is classic Hemingway. It reminds me of the tension hidden in the conversations between characters in his novels, especially The Sun Also Rises.
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