By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (1927) is one of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known and most critically acclaimed short stories. In just five pages, Hemingway uses his trademark style – plain dialogue and description offered in short, clipped sentences – to expose an unspoken subject that a man and a young woman are discussing.
You can read ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story.
A man (an American expatriate) and a young girl (or ‘girl’) are drinking in the bar of a railway station in Spain, while waiting for their train. As it’s hot, they order some beers to drink, and then try an aniseed drink. The girl looks at the line of hills in the valley of the Ebro and remarks that they look like white elephants.
Her male companion, with whom we deduce she is in some sort of relationship, says he has never seen a white elephant and then gets defensive and annoyed when she remarks that he wouldn’t have, presumably because they’re so rare.
Their small talk then takes in the curtains of the bar, but gradually their conversation turns to an ‘operation’ (of sorts) which the man is trying to persuade the girl to undertake.
This procedure, which is referred to as ‘it’ throughout the story, is almost certainly an abortion, the girl having fallen pregnant by the man. However, it becomes clear that he wishes her to get rid of the baby, although she remains undecided. Eventually, growing tired of the man’s attempts to sway her, she demands that he stop talking.
They hear that their train is arriving, but when the man goes outside there is no sign of it. When he goes back inside and asks the girl how she is feeling, she replies curtly that she’s ‘fine’.
The title of Hemingway’s story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, is fitting for a number of reasons. First and perhaps most obviously, the title of the story denotes not the main and most pressing topic of the two main characters’ conversation – the unspoken ‘it’, the girl’s ‘operation’, which the man is trying to encourage her to have – but one aspect of their small talk as they skirt around that topic.
The girl’s comment about the Spanish hills looking like white elephants is mere filler, an example of ‘treading water’ as she and her male companion drink enough alcohol to make broaching the dread topic of their conversation – without actually directly mentioning it – palatable or even possible.
‘White elephants’ itself has two potential meanings here. There is a rare albino elephant known as the white elephant, whose presence at the royal court, in countries like Burma and Thailand, was considered a sign that the monarch reigned justly, and that the kingdom would be blessed with peace and prosperity.
But the second meaning is implied in Hemingway’s story. A ‘white elephant’ is a Western cultural term describing a possession which its owner cannot dispose of. The maintenance cost of such a possession is out of proportion to its usefulness or desirability.
Given the (implied) topic of the man and girl’s conversation – the girl’s reluctant decision to abort the baby she has conceived by the man – this meaning of ‘white elephant’ comes into view with a tragic force. The (unwanted) baby the girl has conceived with the man is like the proverbial white elephant, something that would cost a great deal for her to keep and maintain.
But by the same token, she finds it hard to ‘get rid of’ her white elephant, presumably because of the finality of such an act, though it is also implied that she worries over the safety of the procedure. (We should remember that medical procedures in 1927 were often not as relatively clean or as advanced as they now are.)
So the very title of Hemingway’s short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, subtly and obliquely references the very thing which the two of them cannot bring themselves to mention or name openly: the title, then, both reveals and conceals the real subject of the story.
‘Hills Like White Elephants’ contains many of the most representative elements of Hemingway’s fiction: the spare style, the plain and direct dialogue, and the Spanish landscape which he often wrote about. And yet all three of these things can be said to work against, or be in tension with, the story’s subject-matter.
The spare style exposes the uncomfortable nature of the couple’s relationship (despite his repeated exhortations that she shouldn’t go through with ‘it’ unless she wants to, he is clearly trying to persuade her to have the abortion for his sake); the directness of the dialogue masks the failure of the two characters to have a frank conversation about ‘it’; and the Spanish landscape is not mere backdrop but a detail that is brought into the story only because the girl is finding it hard to address the momentous subject she knows she must eventually face.
And that leads us to wonder whether there might not be another meaning playing around that title, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: the so-called ‘elephant in the room’, the idiom (prominent in the United States by the early twentieth century) denoting a conspicuous and important issue which nobody wants to discuss.
One also wonders whether, somewhere in his prodigious mind, Hemingway was recalling Mark Twain’s 1882 detective story, ‘The Stolen White Elephant’, in which the elephant turns out to have been in the original spot all along. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, Hemingway’s ‘hills like white elephants’ are there, prominent and immovable, and even getting on a train is not going to allow one to escape their true meaning.
Because so much of the characters’ dialogue works by subtext and through small talk, we are encouraged to deduce the nature of their relationship through observing how they interact, even more than by paying attention to what they talk about.
The man’s response to the girl’s dismissive comment that he wouldn’t have ever seen an actual white elephant is a case in point, since it suggests a controlling aspect to his personality, whereby an offhand and largely meaningless remark is taken up by him and responded to in a manner that is as defensive as it is petty.
Similarly, it is worth pointing out that the girl goes back on her initial statement that the hills resemble white elephants, saying shortly after this that the hills don’t actually look that much like white elephants after all, and only remind her of their colour. (This is interesting because many so-called white elephants are ‘white’ only in name: many of them are actually grey or pinkish in colour.)
This similarly reflects her vacillation over ‘it’, the termination of her pregnancy which she is evidently reluctant to undertake. As so often in a Hemingway story, how he reveals things through characters’ dialogue is as significant – and perhaps in this case even more so – than what is (not) being said.