Ernest Hemingway’s Life and the Themes Presented in “Hills Like White Elephants”

It is not a rare occasion that authors include some details from their personal life in their works. Sometimes, they explicitly remark that a book or a story is autobiographic. In other cases, writers entitle their characters with some features pertaining to themselves. Finally, there are also situations when nothing in the narration indicates a direct connection with the author’s life, yet the reader can discern the association. Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” is an example of such a case. Although the author offers no straightforward manifestation of the storyline’s relation to his own life, a thorough analysis of the plot and its comparison with Hemingway’s biography allows assuming some obvious connections between them.

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The theme that first draws attention in “Hills like White Elephants” is that of abortion. Although the word is never mentioned, the reader understands what the meaning of the two character’s dialogue is. The white color of the hills is associated with the fetus, the one that, Jig is sure, she will never bear (Abdoo 239). According to Reynolds, Hemingway “pushed into the taboo subject matter” obliquely, without “naming the things self” (30).

Thus, it may be concluded that in his story, Hemingway reflected his own attitude toward life: he was not afraid to express himself and discuss even the most unpleasant topics. Even though the very word “abortion” is not used in the short story, it is clear from the context.

Another aspect that associates “Hills like White Elephants” with the author’s life is the theme of masculinity. The main characters of the story are not likely to get married and have children, whereas Hemingway was married four times (Newman). The writer also had three sons from his two first wives, which may put in question the relatedness of this topic to his biography. However, the point here is in “manipulative hedonistic desires” (Lamb 20).

Both the author and the American in “Hills like White Elephants” seek pleasure in women, and both of them do not seem to treat females with sufficient consideration. The man in the story has enjoyed spending time with the girl but does not want to continue seeing her when she finds out that she is pregnant. Even though he keeps telling her that “it’s really an awfully simple operation” and that they “will be fine afterward,” it is obvious that things will not develop that way (Hemingway 36). The American thus tries to escape the reality in which he has found himself by convincing the girl that abortion is the easiest way out.

In Hemingway’s life, there was no abortion, but there ostensibly were numerous occasions on which he made a getaway. He left his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and a child for Pauline Pfeiffer (Newman). Then, he abandoned Pauline for Martha Gellhorn, who was later also deserted for Mary Welsh (Newman). This sequence of escapes is different from that of the male character in “Hills like White Elephants.” However, the behavior of both men on these occasions is quite similar. They tended to look for something better, to get away from boredom and responsibilities, and to seek the improvement of their own situation without minding the women in question.

Like any other man, Hemingway may have had doubts about his masculinity and the ability to provide for his women. Lamb remarks that Hemingway could have expressed his anxiety about “his adequacy as a husband and partner” in “Hills like White Elephants” (26-27). In view of this argument, it seems that the writer may indeed have hidden his inner apprehensions in the story’s lines. The American says that he knows many people who have “done it,” and Jig replies that they were “so happy” afterward (Hemingway 36-37).

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Maybe these words reflect the author’s thoughts about his unhappy marriages, memories of his first wife with whom he had felt so happy, and the realization that happiness under such circumstances is only an illusion. As Wagner-Martin notes, “Hills like White Elephants” is a “concentrated description” of the major emotional event in “the couple’s life as a couple” (44). In Hemingway’s life, there were many of such key moments, and it is likely that he was contemplating on one of them when writing the story.

Hemingway was frequently called a chauvinist and the one who did not treat women as equals. In this respect, “Hills like White Elephants” seems to reflect the writer’s attitude toward women through the antagonist’s treatment of the protagonist (Bauer 125).

At the same time, one of the writer’s biographers mentions that despite Hemingway’s perspective on females, he was opposed to abortions. Dearborn remarks that being the legal guardian of Carol, his sister, Ernest, condemned her when she asked him for money to get an abortion (322). Hemingway told his sister that abortion was “murder,” and he put emphasis on biological rather than religious reasons (Dearborn 322). Therefore, “Hills like White Elephants” may be considered as a linking point between the storyline and the author’s life.

Finally, there is one more topic in the short story that can find its reflection in Hemingway’s biography. At some point, the American leaves the bar to pick up the bags and take them to the other side of the station. The bags have “labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights” (Hemingway 38). This indication of frequent journeys is rather close to Hemingway’s life. At various phases of his life, with different wives, for particular reasons, the write traveled.

He spent his youth in Chicago and moved to Paris with Hadley in the 1920s (Newman). In 1928, Hemingway and Pauline moved back to the USA. Also, there was participation in wars, and there were journeys to different places, such as Germany, Cuba, and others. It seems that the restlessness of the author’s soul and mind found its reflection in “Hills like White Elephants.”

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills like White Elephants” has gained world fame and has become one of the most recognizable works of the writer. However, it is not only the theme raised in the piece that has made it so memorable. Despite being rather short, the story covers several aspects closely related to the author’s personal life. The most prominent of these themes are those of masculinity and escapism. Also, the topic of abortion has some reference to Hemingway’s family life. Finally, the issue of traveling and not being able to settle down, which persisted in the writer’s life, is also mentioned in the short story. While no connections are mentioned directly, critics and researchers agree that Hemingway’s thoughts and apprehensions are depicted in the story to a great extent.

Works Cited

Abdoo, Sherlyn. “Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants.” The Explicator, vol. 49, no. 4, 1991, pp. 238-240.

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Bauer, Margaret D. “Forget the Legend and Read the Work: Teaching Two Stories by Ernest Hemingway.” College Literature, vol. 30, no. 3, 2003, pp. 124-137.

Dearborn, Mary V. Ernest Hemingway: A Biography. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills like White Elephants.” Men Without Women, edited by Ernest Hemingway, Penguin Books, 1955, pp. 35-38.

Lamb, Robert Paul. Art Matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story. Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

Newman, Steve. “The Wives of Ernest Hemingway.” Medium. 2018. Web.

Reynolds, Michael. “Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961: A Brief Biography.” A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 15-50.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Ernest Hemingway: A Literary Life. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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StudyCorgi. "Ernest Hemingway’s Life and the Themes Presented in "Hills Like White Elephants"." June 16, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/ernest-hemingways-life-and-the-themes-presented-in-hills-like-white-elephants/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Ernest Hemingway’s Life and the Themes Presented in "Hills Like White Elephants"." June 16, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/ernest-hemingways-life-and-the-themes-presented-in-hills-like-white-elephants/.

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