Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

28 Apr 2011

(Short Story) Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

(Reaction) The Things We Don't Say Out Loud by: Francis Gabriel Concepcion

View other reactions on works by Ernest Hemingway.

In his story, Ernest Hemingway paints a very clear picture of a young couple considering having an abortion. The interesting thing about the story is that the word abortion is never used and yet can still be understood based on what the couple is and isn't saying out loud. It is also in this story that we can truly see an example of excellent dialogue as a way to create tension and character within the story.

It begins with the couple outside a building, having a few drinks before they would board a train to Madrid. As they sit and drink beer, the tension between the couple begins with the woman's comment on the scenery: They look like white elephants. Comparing the hills to white elephants shows a sense of jubilation in the woman, a sort of innocence and purity that she saw in her unborn child.

This jubilation, however, is immediately interrupted with the man's reply: I've never seen one. And their conversation continues: No you wouldn't have, says the girl. 'I might have,' the man said, 'Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything.' It is in this last statement made by the man that we sense the tension begin to build up. In fact, the man's statement can seen to be somewhat contradictory since he already mentioned that he'd never seen a white elephant. Saying that he might have seen one doesn't erase the fact that he hasn't. In a sense, we see the man simply being argumentative.

The woman then tries to lighten the mood once more by suggesting they try a drink, the Anis del Toro. Upon tasting it she says, It tastes like licorice. In a somewhat sarcastic tone, the man then replies, That's the way with everything. This provokes the woman to make a small retort, and creates more tension between the man and woman. 'You started it,' the girl said. 'I was being amused. I was having a fine time.' And it is after this spark in the conversation that the girl takes on a completely different tone of voice.

For one, she begins to turn distant. Where she once saw the fields and hills in a very child-like and innocent manner, suddenly her attitude towards them changed. 'They're lovely hills,' she said. 'They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.' To this, the man changes the topic and then we see just how distant the woman becomes afterwards:

Should we have another drink?/ All right./ ... The beer's nice and cool, the man said./ It's lovely, the girl said./ It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig, the man said. It's not really an operation at all./ The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on./ I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in./ The girl did not say anything.

From here on we begin to see what the tension between them is really about. The woman, safe to say, is somewhat excited about the idea of having a child, of having a baby, whereas the man is reluctant to go through with the birth because it would require a dramatic change in his lifestyle. As a result of this fear in the man, the couple is opting to go for an abortion. So when the woman is reminded once more that she won't get to have this baby, her happiness fades. Their conversation continues:

Then what will we do afterward?/ We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before./ What makes you think so?/ That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy./ The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

Notice that the girl questions the guy when he tells her that they will both be fine afterwards. It only means that she believes otherwise, that things won't be fine, that things will never be like they were before. After the operation, she believes something will have changed. In fact, something inside of her had already changed. She wants to keep the baby. In fact, before this conversation she talks about their lifestyle with a tinge or sarcasm and boredom, I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it-look at things and try new drinks? The mere fact that this girl refers to their sightseeing as things shows a sense of weariness and tediousness with the activity.

The man, on the other hand, showcases his naivety in his trying to calm her, saying that it is the baby that has made them unhappy when in fact only a few moments earlier the woman was pretty happy herself. In a sense, this suggests that this unhappiness is present only in the man. As the conversation goes on, more is revealed to us about the characters.

And you think then we'll be all right and be happy./ I know we will. You don't have to be afraid. I've know lots of people that have done it./ So have I, said the girl. And afterward they were all so happy.

Here, we find the woman again questioning their future happiness, and the man's belief that the girl is simply worried about the operation. Notice that she isn't asking the man if he thinks that they'll be happy. She's stating it plainly, as though trying to convince herself of it as well, yet knowing in her heart that she won't be.

In this part of the conversation, as well, we can sense a bit of sarcasm in the woman's last statement. The fact that she states that she too knows a lot of people that have undergone an abortion shows a sense of defiance in her. Regardless, however, of whether or not these couples they know really were happy after the abortion, the woman firmly believes that she won't be. At this point, the man sort of begins to sense what the whole argument is really about. But at this point, it is already too late.

Well, the man said, if you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to. But I know it's perfectly simple./ And you really want to?/ I think it's the best thing to do. But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to.

Here the woman asks the man if he really wants her to have an abortion. Notice as well that after the man says that it's alright if she doesn't want to do the operation, he adds an assurance of the simplicity of the operation. This shows that he is still pushing her to towards the abortion. He believes it's the best thing to do.

And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?/ I love you now. You know I love you./ I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?/ I'll love it. I love it now but I just can't think about it. You know how I get when I worry./ If I do it you won't ever worry?/ I won't worry about that because it's perfectly simple./ Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me.

Here we see the woman already questioning the man's love for her. Her speech suggests that before the baby, when she mentioned similar statements like how the hills were like white elephants, the guy was perhaps more attentive, jovial, and entertaining of her. Finally, after the man's constant repeating of how simple the operation would be, she gives up and gives in: Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me. She has resigned herself because she is now convinced that no amount of talk would dissuade the man from considering that they keep the baby.

At this point, the man finally senses that something is amiss. He says again, I don't want you to do it if you feel that way. This time he has omitted any mention or reference to the operation. At this point the girl walks toward the end of the station and gazes at the fields and trees on the other side - just as she was looking at them at the beginning of the story. However at this point, there is a difference. She notices that [t]he shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees. The shadow is very symbolic at this point in the story, as it also emanates her mood, and the approach of something ominous.

The girl then says this: 'And we could have all this,' she said. 'And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.' Here it seems as though she is referring to the fields and the world, that they could have the whole world, and that each day that the baby is still alive, it becomes more impossible for them to have that life. This aspect of their lifestyle is evident from the description of their bags: There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights. However, we see the conversation take a strange twist regarding this topic of discussion:

I said we could have everything./ We can have everything./ No, we can't./ We can have the whole world./ No, we can't./ We can go everywhere./ No, we can't. It isn't ours any more./ It's ours./ No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back./ But they haven't taken it away./ We'll wait and see.

Here we find the girl so adamant in insisting that they no longer own the whole world, insisting that they can no longer go anywhere they want. In a way, she is trying to tell the man that she wants to keep this baby. The man, however, either misunderstands what she's saying or referring to, or he's insisting even further that they go through with the operation. Finally, the woman says that she no longer wants to talk, suggesting a sort of resignation to the man's doggedness.

'You've got to realize,' he said, 'that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.'/ 'Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along.'/ 'Of course it does. But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want any one else. /And I know it's perfectly simple.'/ 'Yes, you know it's perfectly simple.'

At this point, one could get lost with how often they use the word it and how it may refer to one thing at one moment, and suddenly another thing the next moment. First, the man says that it's alright with him if she doesn't do the operation. In the next sentence, however, it gets fuzzy. One becomes somewhat confused as to what the guy is referring to when he uses it. On the one hand, it could mean that he's willing to bring up the child if that child means anything to the woman. On the other hand, it could mean that he's willing to go through with the operation if the operation (or their relationship) means anything to her. And from the woman's reply, it might seem as though she understood it to mean that the man still wants to go through with the operation (since so far he has been so persistent about it, and it was mentioned earlier that they would be happy only after the operation is done).

In the end, the story is not only about the issue of abortion, but to a certain extent the miscommunication of the couple. Because of their reluctance to explicitly say what they mean by it all the time, certain points in the conversation seem to be misunderstood both by their partner and by the reader as well. There is hardly any clear-cut lucidity, and oftentimes one loses track of what it is they are really talking about.

However, one point is clear in this story, and it can be seen in the final statement of the girl: 'I feel fine,' she said. 'There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.' At first glance, it seems as though she's merely talking about her condition. However, this statement of hers goes much deeper than that. Here, she is referring as well to her state-of-mind, that there is nothing wrong with her, and there is nothing wrong with her wanting to keep the child. To a certain extent, this statement might also be read as an accusation towards the guy in the sense that she is saying: There's nothing wrong with me, but something wrong with you.

In the end, Hemingway's style in this story is what makes it very compelling. Since he does not expose what each character is thinking, we are left with no clue as to their motives, desires, or aspirations. With nothing but their words to examine, we are able to see what exactly breeds miscommunication in a relationship, and how it creates tension between two people. Is the couple really at odds with one another on the issue of whether or not they should keep the child? Judging from their words alone, it is a bit difficult to tell. Words have fallen short in this case. If only they were clearer about their intentions, perhaps there might have been a better resolution.


Whether one is for or against abortion, one thing is for sure: it is definitely a messy issue, and one has to live with the consequences of his or her actions.

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