Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Two Notions of the Good Life

by Jason Peters

Ernest Hemingway wrote “Hills Like White Elephants” while on his honeymoon with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, a somewhat boyish looking woman (in the style of the day) and a Catholic, though not a very good one. By this time (1927) Hemingway was also a Catholic—and also not a very good one.

He said that his first marriage wouldn’t have broken up had it produced no children. This remark ignores the adultery that his first wife, Hadley Richardson, finally could no longer abide, but it is useful for considering “Hills Like White Elephants”: The inconvenient intrusion of a child on the peripatetic life of a Hemingwayesque American expatriate lies at its heart. Two characters, a “man” and a “girl” (also called an “American” and “Jig”), are having what you’d have to call an unsuccessful discussion about an abortion.

To the self-assured “man” an abortion is a very simple “operation”; it’s “just to let the air in.” To the “girl” the very idea of it is the bitterness of absinthe—the inevitable distastefulness of all the good in life that we wait so long for, as she half-jokingly puts it.

Hemingway regarded “Hills Like White Elephants” as one of his best stories, if not the best of them all, and it is not difficult to see why. In a sense it is a masterclass in the storytelling techniques he was trying to perfect. I’ll mention only two of them.

The first is that a story should be something like the visible part of an iceberg: you see only a tithe of the whole but what you see implies the great mass beneath it. You understand the submerged part because it has been skillfully built into the visible part that the restrained writer has provided. I say “restrained” because for Hemingway less is more. As Ezra Pound put it, the writer should “use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.”

The second technique concerns dialogue, and in this story we see Hemingway attempting complete fidelity to natural speech, to the way people in fact communicate.

Or miscommunicate. For one of the really clever things about this story is that the first piece of dialogue is a question—“What should we drink?”— that the man answers with “It’s pretty hot.” What he says is an answer to a different question. “It’s pretty hot” answers the question “what’s the temperature?”

This in fact is how conversation works: “What should we make for dinner?” “The kids won’t be home until after seven.” We talk our way to an answer by answering questions other than the ones asked. This is a way of running through the relevant details of the moment so we can decide what to make for dinner—or in the case of the story what to drink.

And so in this story the first exchange is, from an artistic point of view, a perfect imitation. It is also an indication that the characters, for all their talking (and the story is mostly dialogue), will not be communicating at all—or at least not very well.

Hemingway gives us very few tags in the dialogue. First-time readers are often annoyed by the task of keeping track of who’s saying what. And Hemingway gives no instructions on how any given sentence should be uttered, or of how much time lapses between lines. And yet from such elements as context and mounting pressure and the felt pauses that inevitably accompany an argument, especially one in which pretty much no progress gets made, we are able to imagine the whole scene. We do what Hemingway’s technique requires of us: by imagination we intuit the whole submerged part of the iceberg that he gives us only the tip of. Bear in mind that the story takes place over the course of about 35 minutes but takes less than ten minutes to read. Write this for the screen or the stage and you will discomfit your audience with the long silences, the strategic withdrawals, and the reconnoitering that occur in arguments of pitch and consequence.

Part of the submerged mass is the man’s history of bullying the girl. But in this story his control is slipping away. And, ever true to the way of things, Hemingway shows us that with each slip of control there is a more desperate attempt to seize it. When the man’s belligerence doesn’t work he even feigns sympathy, but his grasping is no match for Jig’s inner calm. She has a power of will and a singleness of purpose that disarms him, that unmans him.

The telling lines in the story, the ones that let us know what it’s about, are these: first the man says, “I don’t want anyone but you.” From this point on there is no uncertainty concerning what the two are arguing about. An abortion will preserve his preferred rootlessness. It will assure him that no responsibility will tie him down and keep him in one place.

The second line comes shortly after, and in two parts. It follows upon his looking at their bags, which have “labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights,” and he delivers it from a moment of resolve, perhaps from some dim sense of understanding that the jig is up, that he is losing, that his utterly disingenuous line—“I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to”—is not, as he hopes, converting her desires into his. The line is this: “‘But I don’t want you to,’ he said, ‘I don’t care anything about it.’” It’s a masterful stroke on Hemingway’s part. The man doesn’t want Jig to do what? For a split second it looks as if he’s come around, but all he’s really done is botch the line, for there is no ambiguity in what follows. His cards are on the table. By “it” the American clearly means the baby, which by now is no “it” to Jig. To her the baby has become “the whole world,” not merely something that his whole world is being been cut off by. What that whole world is we’ve just seen. It’s implied by the luggage. More on that presently.

So much for the telling lines in the story. The telling gesture, I think, is Jig’s reaching for the beaded curtain that separates the platform from the train station bar. This curtain is certainly suggestive: it’s “to keep the flies out” in a story about letting the air in, and it’s something the man goes “out through.” It’s not much of a barrier to penetration of sexual or surgical kinds. But to Jig, reaching out for it and taking hold of its “strings of beads,” it is a rosary. In a manner of speaking she prays while he stupidly hammers away. In the end she will say, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” Her pregnancy is not a sickness requiring an “operation.” And she is more poised and clear-headed in her resolve than the man recognizes, fear it though he may.

I must pass over far too much about this masterful exchange and many of the story’s images, not the least of which is the table that to both characters is clearly a reminder of what she’ll be laid out on if she gives in to this “man,” a man who has turned out to be a little boy in the presence of a woman—I pass over much to say something about the setting. Hemingway is characteristically sparing in the details, but there is also a characteristic precision to them.

The man and the girl are in a train station, a place of transience. On either side of the station there are tracks; they clearly suggest the two choices on offer. But they also separate two very different landscapes. One side, the side where the American and Jig sit, is “the dry side of the valley” of the Ebro river. But across, on the other side, [are] fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, [are] mountains. The shadow of a cloud [moves] across the field of grain and she [sees] the river through the trees.

That is, the setting suggests not only impermanence and mobility; it suggests not only the two choices on offer. It suggests both barrenness and fertility, the dry side of the valley (“brown and dry”) with its hills like white elephants—costly but meaningless gifts—and the other side, the side with water and grain and trees and the mountains that suggest the mystery and possibility attendant upon life, especially the incipient life the girl is already communing with and the man cut off from. Early in the story she looks at the dry side; later she gets up to look at the fertile side, over which at one point a shadow of a cloud passes—another precise detail signifying much. The order of her looking tells us something about what will happen.

The man moves the heavy bags from the comfort of the shade to the hotter side of the station. His whole world is suggested, pathetically, by these bags with their “labels … from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” The luggage raises a question: What responsibilities to place and to placed people is required of a man who prefers placelessness—or to a man who seems to prefer the noplace of a train station, emblem of rootlessness, where people drink and wait “reasonably” for their trains? In no way has he been schooled in the greater responsibility now facing him.[*] His ‘whole world’ is paltry in comparison to hers, which is now inside her even as the outside world of the fertile valley confirms its wholeness. To reject it is to accept the emptiness of mere mobility and childless sex: the barren side of the valley. “All we do,” the girl says, is “look at things and try new drinks.”

That’s telling. The man in the story, clearly a Hemingway-like character, is not interested in the story’s inherent indictment. (Tell that to critics who think Hemingway lacked self-awareness.)

If we grant the old ethical criticism its due, we can misread this story only by an act of willful ignorance.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What artistic purpose does it serve for Hemingway to leave so much unsaid?
  2. Hemingway seems to be suggesting that there is a connection between a full life and fecundity. What are the prospects for a culture that no longer values fecundity?
  3. What does the story tell us about the importance of being rooted to a place? Are rootless people inherently more selfish?

[*] Compare this to Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” (a better story, in my judgment), in which Nick Adams begins to assume the responsibilities laid out before him.


Sign up to receive new content from the Ford Forum.

1 thought on “Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Two Notions of the Good Life”

  1. Pamela Harman Daugavietis

    Although I never read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” reading Jason Peters’ review of it is thought provoking. I knew Hemingway’s baby sister Sunny as a good and longtime friend when I lived in Petoskey years ago. Through my discussions with her about faith, family, friends and community, I discerned that Ernest Hemingway was raised by a controlling mother and a depressed father who eventually took his own life as Ernest did in 1961, to Sunny’s great dismay. Sunny was a woman of faith and strong character who taught me a lot about being your own North Star, your own best friend and someone who can, in small ways, make our world a better place. She loved her baby brother deeply and even edited some of his books and stories for him. I know Sunny would want the world to remember him as a good man who was a very good writer although confused about who he was from the time he was a little boy until the time he became a man. Like me, Sunny believed the family was the foundation for raising children from birth to adulthood. She would be sad to see that today, the family, with mother and father being equal partners rather than one holding sway against the other is being dismissed as unnecessary.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: