An analysis of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants”

Term Paper, 2009

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of contents

1 Introduction

2 Modern dialogue - the structure of the short story

3 Hills and junction - the strong prominence of place and positioning

4 Repetition, manipulation and sarcasm - the language of the characters

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction


The female character in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” repre­sents the inferior part in the relationship and finally agrees to the male’s wish of an abortion, does not she?

Can the reader of “Hills like White Elephants” experience the success of the male character, known as “the American”, or the triumph of Jig, the female character, at the end of the story?

The argument of the American couple waiting at a junction between Barcelona and Madrid represents the centre of Ernest Hemingway’s short story. Heming­way published this short story as part of the story collection “Men without Women” in 1927 (ANONYMOUS, 1996). Therefore, it can be assumed that the setting of the story is also conceived for the 1920ies.

It is never directly mentioned that both discuss the abortion of their unborn child, although it becomes clear through implications within the text. Whereas the man tries to convince her in a manipulating manner to undergo surgery, she dreams of a future with the child (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 249ff). LAMB even states that: “Much of the conversation is so obscure that on the literal level it can be comprehended only in light of the entire story” (LAMB, 1996: 469). Sev­eral metaphors, images and other literary devices, such as the simile being present in the title and in its several repetitions in the story, add to the reader’s perception of the shown conflict.

Apparently, the male character represents the dominant part in the relationship and the successful one in the conversation. As the girl states “But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine” (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 251) after being talked at by her boyfriend, it seems that she gives up and sac­rifices her wishes. However, scholars discuss whether the American or the girl can force their individual points in the end. The aim of this research paper is to examine this question. An analysis of the structure of the short story, the impor­tance of place and positioning as well as the language of both characters will support the clarification of the hypothesis mentioned above regarding the tri- umph of the man. Nevertheless, there could be another reading, too. Probably his female counterpart is more influential than it seems to be at first sight.

2 Modern dialogue - the structure of the short story

“Hills like White Elephants” consists mainly of the dialogue between the male and the female character. There are only a few narrated segments in the story, “rather like stage directions in their length and frequency of occurrence” (HOL­LANDER, 1985: 213), such as the introductory part. Although this descriptive element introduces the reader to the setting of the short story, it cannot be re­garded as a drama-like exposition. It does not inform the reader about the char­acters, their motives or about previous actions. Its task is rather to set the mood and to establish the landscape as a platform for the conflict of the characters.

The American and the girl as well as the underlying conflict become character­ised by the content and the manner of the conversation. LAMB calls Heming-way’s mode of writing, in which the dialogue receives an essential role in the story’s composition, “modern dialogue” (LAMB, 1996: 454).

In the context of the modern short story, which demands radical compression, a high degree of suggestiveness and implication, the modern dialogue implicates subtly the relationship between characters. For example the first interaction between the American and the girl about the choice of drink, in which the fe­male character asks the man (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 249), implies that she lacks any autonomy. Moreover, his indirect request to drink beer by saying “It’s pretty hot” (HEMINGWAY, 1956: 249) shows his manipulating character (LAMB, 1996: 454f, 469, 474).

Hemingway creates a real-life conversation in this short story, in which the cou­ple talks to each other as if they know each other well (LAMB, 1996: 455). The central conflict of abortion is never mentioned by name because both charac­ters already know which problem they have to discuss like it is the case in real-life talks. Consequently, the reader cannot grasp the story’s wider meaning without developing this conflict out of the situational and linguistic context.

In order to create this effect the modern dialogue has to imitate realistic quali­ties (LAMB, 1996: 454). The integration of real life into fiction and the crossing of boundaries between genres represent one of the characteristics of Heming-way’s style. His work as a journalist plays an important role for his fiction writ­ing. Whereas he included fictional techniques into some of his newspaper arti­cles, such as “strong narrative threads, dialogue, characterization, and descrip­tion that set both a scene and a mood” (DEWBERRY, 1996: 30), he also used non-fictional elements in his fiction. When he worked as a journalist he learned to use short sentences, vigorous English and to avoid adjectives and other un­necessary words, which shaped his prose (DEWBERRY, 1996: 16ff).

Hemingway’s iceberg theory indicated that “you could omit anything if (...) the omitted part would strengthen the story and make the people feel something more than they understood” (DEWBERRY, 1996: 23). One can state that “Hills like White Elephants” represents the prototype of this theory.

3 Hills and junction - the strong prominence of place and positioning

The valley of the river Ebro between Barcelona and Madrid works as a frame­work for the setting of the short story. The Spanish country is on the one hand the place where the American couple had travelled and had spent its hedonistic lifestyle so far and forms on the other hand a strict catholic context. This reli­gious background is not only present through the location but also becomes clear through an object: the bead curtain which can be associated with a chap­let.

The simile “hills like white elephants” represents certainly the most striking ele­ment of place. It mainly works as a hint for the reader to understand the central conflict of the conversation, although there are several different interpretations of it.

On the one hand, a white elephant stands for an unwanted possession. It can be either related to the so called “white elephant sales”, which are similar to second hand sales of unwanted goods and which fundraise money for charity projects (WEEKS, 1980: 76), or to a story of a Siamese king who gave a white elephant as a present to courtiers who he wanted to ruin (HOLLANDER, 1985: 214).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


An analysis of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants”
University of Erfurt
The American Short Story
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
414 KB
Anglistik, Literatur, Kurzgeschichte, short story, Ernest Hemingway
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2009, An analysis of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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