Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a conversation between a man and a woman that cuts across time and culture. The man, referred to as “the American,” and the girl, Jig, have had to change trains somewhere in the Spanish countryside. In the course of a half hour, the man convinces Jig, with whom he has apparently had a sexual relationship, that she should have an abortion. Hemingway has been accused of being misogynistic, yet in this story he shows a sympathy for the feelings of women, and an understanding of a woman’s desire to choose. In this case, it seems that Jig would choose life for her unborn child. Through the use of alcohol, promises of the abortion’s simplicity, badgering, and passive-aggressive behavior, Hemingway shows the “American” to be a selfish cad whose only concern is that his lifestyle may be hampered by the addition of a child.
The story is set in a small train station in the Ebro valley of Spain. There is a bar inside the station and tables and chairs outside. It is hot, probably midday. We get the impression that the man and woman are a couple of independent means. They do not have to bother with the day-to-day cares of jobs. They are reminiscent of the characters of Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises,” which was published a year prior to this story. Here we have just another two examples of what Gertrude Stein referred to as “a lost generation.”
There are forty minutes before the train to Madrid will arrive. A cursory reading of the story may give the impression that the conversation goes rather quickly. In fact, it is slow, perhaps with long pauses punctuating the conversation. An issue has arisen between these lovers. They are arguing mildly. She snipes at him and he responds defensively. He does not want to attack her. He does not want to put her on guard. He has an agenda.
The girl asks, “What shall we drink?” (415). She is initiating the drinking, though from further reading, we see that this is just what they do. They “look at things and try new drinks” (416). It seems that they use drink to fill in the empty spaces in their lives, the slow spots in the conversation. Perhaps he uses the alcohol to give him a little liquid courage to say what is on his mind. More likely, he is using it to soften her up and make her just a little more pliable. No doubt this has worked before. Perhaps it is even the cause of their current situation. He places the order for the beer. Two big ones.
Jig sees the sign painted on the beaded curtain advertising Anis del Toro and wants to try it. He orders two with water. The water makes it easier to drink, makes the alcohol content less noticeable. They bicker some more, although she is becoming conciliatory. He suggests another round of drinks. She agrees. He comments on how nice and cool the beer is. Again, she agrees. The drinks have dulled her senses; loosened her up and mellowed her out. Her inebriation makes her receptive to his suggestions. He sees this and knows that now is the time to begin.
It is here that he broaches the subject of the abortion. “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” (416) he says and begins to hammer at her with a series of repeated variations of phrases. “It’s […] awfully simple,” he says, adding “It‘s not really an operation at all.” This idea of simplicity is quite interesting when contrasted with the story’s title. On the one hand, we have the “white elephant” which is a costly, high maintenance item. On the other, we have the “operation,” which is simple and natural according to the man. At one point, Jig asks if things will be like they were before she got pregnant. Will he like it when she says that “things are like white elephants […]” (417)? Or, she is asking, will he continue to offer these simple solutions to the other white elephants that will come along in their relationship. What is the next thing she will want to keep that he will want to get rid of?
In all, the man repeats this idea of its simplicity six times. He also uses variations of “I wouldn’t have you to do it if you didn’t want to” (416) multiple times. Alex Link covers the repetition of words and phrases in an article for the Hemingway Review. Link argues that “it is through this repetition that much of the argument is played out. Within the economy of this short story, barely 1,500 words long, repeated items are notable” (2).
The man continually tells Jig of the simplicity of the abortion. He treats it as though it were nothing more than having a boil lanced. “Let the air in” (416) and voila, it is done and you are on your merry way. He repeats the concept of simplicity in an attempt to make her see that she is being unreasonable. He has known “lots of people that have done it” (416) he says. It is just the most common thing he can imagine. Jig, to her credit, does not succumb to this line of reasoning. She has known her share of women who have had the procedure as well. “And afterward they were all so happy,” (416) she says. That the man’s response to this statement is defensive lets us know that this last sentence has been delivered with a hint of sarcasm.
Passive-aggression is the chief tool of the American. I am only thinking of you, baby. Only if you want to do it. It is so simple. I love you. “I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time” (416) he says. This is a standard phrase used by many men in this situation, though apparently he wants to keep this woman around. He has not just handed her some money and sent her off to a back-alley abortionist. “I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you,” (417) he tells her, referring to marriage, or at least having the baby. “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” she asks him. “Of course it does,” he replies, no doubt emphatically. “But,” he says. He qualifies this statement with “I don’t want anybody but you” (417). It is not that he has anything against the baby. It is just that he cannot devote all his time, attention, love, and affection on Jig if there is someone else in the scene. Surely, she can see that. Surely she can see that the only real option here is the abortion, a procedure he knows is “perfectly simple.” He just wants her to say that yes, he is right. She is being so silly. Of course this is the right thing to do.
Link, referring to the fifth repetition of the phrase “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to” (417) brings to light the true passive-aggression of the American. In this instance, the man begins by saying, “You’ve got to realize,” (417). Link argues that “the repetitions, as well as the addition of this phrase, emphasize the man’s persistence and power to change the conditions of the agreement, as well as Jig’s reluctance or inability to want or feel as he directs” (2).
The man does not want to have any reason to feel guilt later on. He does not want to be the target of blame. He wants to be able to say that he told her to do it only if she wanted to. Because of this, he continues to repeat the statements in an attempt to get Jig to take ownership of the decision. He wants absolution before the fact. Jig is not so easy to give it though. It is the incessant repetition of the ideas of simplicity and it being her choice that finally gets to her. She tells him “I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me” (417). Her acquiescence is not quite good enough for the man and he keeps at it. “All right. But you’ve got to realize” he begins to say. “I realize,” the girl responds, cutting him off, adding “Can‘t we maybe stop talking?” (417). Just to seal the deal, to enforce his lack of culpability, he adds a little nugget to make himself look better. “I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you,” he says. It is apparent to Jig that his heart is not in this offer. “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” (417) she asks. “Of course it does,” he says. Of course it does, but . He speaks the weasel words pure and simple and she has had enough. Like a tiny, vicious weasel, attacking again and again his words eventually wear the prey down until it submits. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking,” (418) she asks him. She is broken. She has succumbed to his haranguing. She knows that he will not change. Perhaps now she does not care. He has revealed himself for the shallow person he is.
The man’s words, dripping with care and concern, are crafted to get her to submit to his will. His only real concern is that they can continue this life of the lost generation, this carefree rambling about the countryside. Moving from hotel to hotel, being amused, looking at things, trying new drinks.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Discovering The Many Worlds of Literature: Literature for Composition. Stuart Hirschberg and Terry Hirschberg, Eds. Longman, 2004. (415-418)Link, Alex. “Staking everything on it: a stylistic analysis of linguistic patterns in Hills Like White Elephants” Hemingway Review (22:2) Spring 2004. (66-74,3)