Ernest Hemingway’s famous story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a short work but full of contextual details. The setting in which the events of the story unfold is notable for how much it influences the course of the narrative. Various non-obvious aspects presented by the author allow the reader to find new meanings in the story and reveal the characters more deeply. First of all, it is worth noting the location within which the conversation unfolds.
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The Spanish countryside emphasizes conservative views on difficult moral decisions such as abortion. The railway station refers to the crossroads on which the couple is located. The hills against the background of the story unfold to show the man’s lingering from the events and his misunderstanding. Hence, this paper will reveal the meaning of the setting details to reflect their influence on the plot and mood of the story.
“Hills Like White Elephants” tells the short story of a couple waiting for a train at a station bar and having a tense and delicate conversation. An American man and a young woman talk about a simple procedure that the woman, Jig, must undergo to preserve but not ruin current happiness of the couple. Although the direct name of the procedure does not sound in the conversation, various phrases and hints indicate that this is an abortion. The man keeps repeating that the procedure is completely simple and many girls had it, and although the woman agrees with him, doubts sound in her voice. At the same time, the man says that he does not force Jig to do anything if she doesn’t want it, but this decision will be the best way out of the situation.
The whole conversation and situation suggest that the couple is uncomfortable discussing this issue, but the man wants to hear an affirmative answer, while the woman hesitates and draws other options for the future. The story ends with the arrival of the train and the woman’s consent to the procedure, although the answer still does not sound certain.
First, Hemingway chose a specific location to describe the actions of his story. The valley seems almost empty, hot and dried by the sun, which adds more tension to the story’s conflict. At the same time, at the beginning of the story, the reader can see the mention of the Ebro River in the landscape, which represents hope and life surrounded by dry nature. However, the landscape becomes hotter and drier after each paragraph of the story, making the situation more tense and unbearable because of the issue under discussion and the weather simultaneously.
Hemingway writes: “They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table” (256). This view of a lifeless wasteland is presented almost at the end of the story and can reflect the emptiness in a young woman’s soul from losing hope and making the tough decision.
Moreover, Hemingway chose Spain for this story, which also had significant meaning for the conflict revealing. Spanish setting “contributes to the ironic tone of the story, for the moral drama takes place in a predominantly Catholic country where the church stands in firm opposition to abortion” (Johnston). Thus, the narrative acquires an ironic and satirical tone since the central conflict between the characters is moral. In countries with dominant religiosity, such conversations could not arise at all.
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Moreover, unlike her companion, the girl does not know Spanish and asks him “what does it say” (Hemingway 254). This situation emphasizes her dependence and incompetence, the American being her only acquaintance and guide. Consequently, the Spanish hinterland is used by the writer to underline the depth of the moral conflict that the couple is experiencing, creating a contrast between the surrounding religiosity and the topic of abortion.
The bar at the train station is also a notable element of the story’s setting, as it symbolizes path and movement. Hemingway writes, “It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes” (253). The timing in this sentence emphasizes the urgency that requires a decision and its certainty. The writer creates the impression that if the woman does not give an answer before the train arrives, it will be too late to make a decision, although she will continue the journey together with her companion. However, the decision has to be made in a short time in reality also, since the procedure is only possible in the early stages of pregnancy.
The characters show that they are in an uncomfortable situation where they both do not want to make a decision by being in a bar, drinking, and having a not-effective conversation. This location emphasizes the tension of the situation as abortion is an “unspoken reason for their trip to Madrid” (Bloom). The drinks served in the bar also describe the tension of the situation, since the characters drink them quickly and order only to keep their hands busy and distract attention from an uncomfortable conversation. Thus, the setting of the story emphasizes the dynamics of events, the reader experiences anxiety. Moreover, the train must arrive soon, which means that a decision must be made, which cannot be delayed any longer.
Moreover, the train station symbolizes a pathway for both characters, on which their joint fate is decided. Although the couple travels together, the conversation between the young people gives the impression that they will choose their own path depending on the outcome of the conversation. In reality, this assumption is correct, with the difference that the characters choose their moral path but not the railroad direction. At the moment of the conversation, both the man and the woman know that their life will no longer be the same, regardless of choice, since this experience will leave an imprint on their relationship. For this reason, the train station is the most appropriate setting for this conversation as it symbolizes the starting point and crossroads in the couple’s relationship.
Another important detail, undoubtedly, are the hills themselves, against which the conversation unfolds. At the beginning of the conversation, the woman pays attention to the hills and compares them to white elephants, but the man apparently does not care about this fact. The hills symbolize the unborn child for a woman, whom she imagines more romantically but cannot reach now. Jig says, “But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” (Hemingway 255). Jig tries to make sure by asking this question that the man’s opinion of her as a woman will not change and will not destroy their relationship. Pregnancy for Jig, as well as the white hills, has greater importance than for her man.
Furthermore, the hills also allow the writer to show the man’s attitude towards pregnancy, abortion, and the doubts of his companion. Kozikowski notes that “American man, as distant from metaphor as he is from the hills.” In reality, the hills symbolize childbirth, just as their color refers to the difficult decision and the uniqueness of the woman’s position. However, only she was given to understand how much pregnancy and abortion are of great importance in a woman’s life. Her companion cannot understand this fact, which is emphasized by the presence of hills, to which the girl pays attention, but the man does not. The setting, in this case, highlights the man’s indifference and Jig’s anxiety.
Therefore, Hemingway skillfully incorporates many details into a short story, turning it into meaningful work. It is difficult to learn much information directly from a conversation between a young woman and a man. However, the setting allows the reader to understand the meaning of events occurring. The irony of the situation is underscored by the Spanish location with a dominant Catholic restrained faith, within which it is impossible to talk about abortion. The railway station is a symbol of a difficult decision, as well as its fatefulness. The hills refer exclusively to the values of the woman, which the man does not share since he cannot understand them. Thus, the setting in the story plays no less role than the characters themselves and their dialogue.
Bloom, Harold. “Bloom on Ernest Hemingway.” Ernest Hemingway, Chelsea House, 2021. History Research Center. Web.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Johnston, Kenneth G. “Setting (Excerpt from The Tip of the Iceberg: Hemingway and the Short Story).” Ernest Hemingway, Chelsea House, 2021. History Research Center. Web.
Kozikowski, Stanley J. “Metaphor (Excerpt from ‘Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’” The Explicator).” Ernest Hemingway, Chelsea House, 2021. History Research Center. Web.