Close interpretation of the story “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway leads the reader to an issue that has plagued society for decades. Understanding of the human condition is unveiled in the story line, the main setting, and through the character representation. The main characters in the story are an American man and a female named Jig. The conflict about abortions is an issue that still faces society today. Architectural and atmospheric symbolisms are used to set the mood and outline the human condition.
The love bond between the man and Jig is strong; however, the more powerful bond between Jig and her unborn child is sacred. Many years ago our society was filled with moral and ethical values, unfortunately they have all but disappeared. Hemingway captures a moment in history when the tides were turning from an ethical and ordered society to a less ordered and much less ethical society. Using his ability to manipulate the readers’ imagination, Hemingway creates a realistic setting that conveys powerful and raw-edged emotions. Through the use of various landscapes and structures he is able to give the reader insight into the human condition without actually telling what it is. A good example of this is the hot, dry atmospheric conditions that set the mood in the story and communicate a sense of tension to the reader.
The expression “They look like white elephants”(23) is a metaphor used to imply the sacredness of white elephants in certain South American cultures in relation to Jig’s unborn child. The train station itself is another way the writer uses the setting to portray the human condition in this story. The station, a common ground or meeting place, is representative of the relationship between the American and Jig. The tracks leading in and out of the station describe the emotional pathways each of them takes.
The American is almost exactly opposite to Jig, free spirited and not wanting a change. Jig is love struck and torn. She has to decide between her love for the American man and her love of her unborn child. The American is set on convincing Jig that there is no harm in what she is considering. He tries to calm Jig by telling her “We’ll be fine afterwards, just like we were before”(24). Jig is not convinced. She is not as confident or as willing as the American to rush off into such a carefree decision.
The luggage, covered with hotel labels, plays a significant part in understanding how Jig feels in regard to the decision that she had to make. She was obviously torn between remaining reckless and carefree and making a family with the man she loved. Jig reacts almost visibly in their conversation. Building a social wall is the means to an end for Jig in the fight to make her decision. She is willing to do almost anything for the American but is blocked by her motherly instinct to protect her child.
The American tells Jig “We can have everything”(24), “It’s ours”(24), but she knows better. “No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back”(24) Jig tells him. The fact that she would be giving up a child is one thing, but the difficult decision for her at this point is giving up her ability to ever have children again. Trying desperately Jig pleads with the man, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”(25).
The setting for the story really helps the reader to understand Hemingway’s story line. Hemingway mimics the tension between the American and Jig with his use of the dry, hot, desert like conditions. Analyzing every detail of the story leads you to believe that the decision Jig has to make is whether or not she will have an abortion. Jig’s child is sacred to her, her love for the American, and the social pressures of the era only make it more difficult for her to make her decision.
The American and Jig are together on common ground in the beginning of the story but start heading off in different directions as the story progresses, just as the train station is a common meeting place and the tracks are two paths leading off in different directions.
- Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Discovering Literature; Stories, Poems, Plays. 2nd ed. Ed.
- Hans P. Guth and Gabrielle Rico. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice hall, 1998. 22-25.