Ernest Hemingway’s short story, Hills Like White Elephants, appears simple enough upon the first read. It features an American man and his female lover, Jig, as they wait for a train to Madrid, Spain. They sit and drink beers as they wait for the train, and discuss some aspects of their lives. However, a second and closer reading of the story reveals that something much more important and life-changing is occurring in the relationship of the American and Jig.
The first clue that things are not all right between the lovers is in their initial conversation, which has a bickering tone. Jig looks at some hills in the distance and says, “They look like white elephants” (1). As the bickering continues, the American says, “Oh, cut it out,” while Jig claims, “I was being amused. I was having a fine time” (1). Yet, there is a sense that she is being sarcastic.
The second clue that the couple is having difficulties comes when the man tells Jig that the operation he suggests she should have is very simple (2). Their cryptic discussion is actually about an abortion, although abortion and pregnancy are never specifically mentioned. Although the man is obviously trying to convince Jig to have an abortion and Jig appears to agree with what he says, there is a deeper conflict beyond whether or not they decide an abortion is the best option. As she looks out at the scenery, Jig says, “And we could have all this . . . And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible” (2). The man does not understand or agree with Jig, telling her he believes they can still have everything; however, to this she responds, “once they take it away, you never get it back” (3).
At this point, it is obvious that the man and Jig are talking about two different things. To the man, he finds it imperative to convince Jig that having an abortion is the right thing to do, and to him that is all the discussion is about. Jig feels as if there is much more at stake. Ultimately, it is her decision whether or not to have the abortion. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a white elephant can mean “a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit” or “something of little or no value” (n.d.). It appears that there is a white elephant in the lives of this couple, a baby that neither of them are sure they can afford to or want to support. Jig asks the man if she gets the abortion, will he again like the things she has to say and stop worrying. She has lost confidence in their relationship, because the pregnancy and specter of abortion has changed the man’s attitude toward her. When she says, “once they take it away, you never get it back,” she means several things at once, including the way their relationship was before, the life they had before, the life they could have if she has the baby, and the baby itself. It is the strongest warning she offers to the man that no matter what decision is made, things are about to change for them forever.
Both characters have the ability to make choices and neither of their lives are entirely controlled by fate. However, what Hemingway demonstrates in this short story is that people cannot always control other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. Jig will make a decision, but she will not be able to control the American’s reaction. The American cannot force Jig to do something she does not want to do. Jig cannot force the man to remain in her life if she chooses to have the baby. Although they have the ability to make decisions, the consequences are not always predictable because more than one person must be factored into the results.
Hemingway’s story is a powerful piece in its subtle commentary about human nature. It is a piece about how people view the same situation in completely different ways. It is also a piece about how the ability to make decisions in life does not always translate to having total control in life. The story does not suggest that fate or destiny is the reason for events in life, but neither does it suggest that people can have power over the outcome of a situation. It is a piece that is ultimately about the deep currents that underlie the surface appearance of situations in people’s lives.
Hemingway, Ernest. Hills Like White Elephants. Anchorage School District, 1927. Web.
White Elephant. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. Accessed 24 Feb. 2013. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/white%20elephant