“Hills Like White Elephants,” written in 1927, is a classic example of a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The story is just 1,469 words long and, at first glance, retells to the reader a little dialogue between Jig and the American waiting for the train. Nevertheless, the author managed to fit into such a short work several important themes related to each other and express them through many non-obvious but vivid symbols. Hemingway portrays a girl and a man discussing an unnamed issue; however, the reader clearly understands that they are talking about abortion. The man is confident and convincing; for him, “it’s not really an operation at all” (Mays 666). At the same time, the girl is confused and not sure of the correctness of such actions. Although the author does not reveal the ending and there is no give certainty about the dialogue’s outcome, it can be assumed that the girl decided to refuse abortion.
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The story begins at the station between Madrid and Barcelona. While waiting for the train, the young couple decides to have a drink, during which the central dialogue unfolds. The man tries to convince Jig of the need for an operation, which is obviously an abortion, but the girl persistently avoids the conversation. Then he unfolds an argument, in which it is noticeable how Jig begins to experience discomfort and doubts the correctness of the decision. The whole story is a “dialogue with simple words, and there was no extra description so that the readers needed to get the character’s feeling and the implied meaning” (Jiahong 100). The conversation escalates until it reaches a peak in the form of Jig irritation. However, the reader does not see any definite result. The story ends with the man taking the bags to the platform; the train should soon arrive.
The main characters of the story are the girl named Jig and the man called the American. The man continually tries to conduct a dialogue around abortion and persuade his girlfriend to go for an operation. He does not care about her feelings, only about how to convince her in the correct decision. The American is trying to manipulate Jig, arguments to her about the need for an abortion, and then saying, “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to” (Mays 667). The man continually emphasizes that the last word remains with the girl, with all phrases trying to persuade Jig to make a convenient decision for him.
The author shows how Jig constantly tries to distract herself from the subject of the conversation, and in the end, she asks the man to stop talking. The reader may notice that the girl is preoccupied with a romantic relationship with the man (Schumacher 17). Gig seeks the man’s approval by asking, “if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” (Mays 668). Obviously, the girl depends on the American; she is afraid of losing his affection and love. Thus, the characters and their dialogue define the story’s central themes, which later evolve into the final ideas that Hymengway offers to the reader.
The central issue of the work discusses gender and differences in perception, depending on it. During the dialogue, Jig “jumps between selfless submission to completely masculine desires and deep nihilism until she asks him just to stop talking” (Schumacher 11). The American treats abortion easily, while for the girl, it is a difficult decision. Under normal circumstances, pregnancy symbolizes joy and hope; however, it causes sadness and frustration in the story. Jig hopes for support and understanding from the man, but for him this is a burden (Zhang 44). The girl does not even speak Spanish, which constantly makes her turn to the man for a translation; she depends on him even in communication with the world. The moment when Jig cannot decide whether to order a new drink with water or not clearly indicates her uncertainty. She hopes and relies on the man, looking for support in him.
The symbolism supports the theme of the difference in perception of such a gender-specific phenomenon as pregnancy. For example, the central symbol of the work – hills looking like white elephants – hints to the reader about the characters’ attitude to the current situation. Jig notices the similarities at the beginning of the story, which clarifies the subject of further discussion. She tells the American that the hills are like white elephants, to which he replies that he has never seen one. The girl’s answer clearly illustrates the topic of gender difference because she says, “No, you wouldn’t have” (Mays 666). Thus, the hills, which look like white elephants, can represent a pregnant woman with her rounded belly and bust. The man cannot notice such an allusion because he is not able to give birth. Therefore, the problem of abortion is specific to women; the American cannot appreciate the full importance of such a sensitive topic.
Toward the end of the story, the reader realizes that if at first, the girl tried to seek the man’s approval, to adjust to his opinion, now she wants to make her own decision. Even the name “Jig” alludes to the fact that the girl’s paths with her partner will part, although the story does not directly reveal this. There are such idioms as “jig’s up,” “one’s jig is up, “one’s jig’s up, “and” the jig is up, “which are all used to express the end of someone or something (Zhang 44). This symbol is supported by another significant element of the story – the railroad tracks. The man and the girl are waiting for a train to take them away in a specific direction, representing a particular choice. During the dialogue, Jig moves in the direction of making a decision, which, in the end, will determine her future life.
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The narrator does not take any part in the story; he only observes what is happening, without drawing any conclusions. This is how the work is constructed: the reader is invited to create a picture of the complex psychological dilemma of a young girl himself. This fact may indicate Hemingway’s attitude to the problem of abortion and pregnancy. A woman is often left alone with the situation; others do not understand her feelings, like the American. However, it is necessary, without any support, to make serious decisions “for their position within society, their ability to communicate, and their influence on others” (Schumacher 18). Thus, the author paints for the reader a picture of a woman’s dependence on a man and an inability to be open about her feelings about pregnancy. However, all signs hint that in the end, Jig is able to make a decision that seems right to her without indulging her partner’s wishes.
Mays, Kelly. The Norton Introduction to Literature, Shorter Thirteenth Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Zhang, Jianying. “An Analysis of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants from the Perspective of Feminist Stylistics.” 2019 2nd International Conference on Arts, Linguistics, Literature and Humanities (ICALLH 2019), vol. 7, 2019, pp. 43-47.
Schumacher, Alina. “Disenfranchised Mothers and Maternity Insurance – Tracing Progressive Arguments in Ernest Hemingway’s Short Stories.” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-20.
Jiahong, Ren. “The Analysis of Characters’ Speech Acts in Hills Like White Elephants.” Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, vol. 4, no. 14, 2017, pp. 98-106.