“Hills Like White Elephants”
In the story Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway tells a story of a fragile and emotional bareness at the center of a relationship that is threatened by an unborn child. The story portrays a man and a woman obviously in a romantic relationship that is just as obviously failing and fast.
Evidence of the tensions in the relationship is shown at the story’s beginning, as the couple await the arrival of a train and struggle to pass the time in conversation. “They look like white elephants,” she said. “I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer. “No, you wouldn’t have.” “I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”. This exchange at the beginning of the story reveals a relationship that is going through a crisis. One that could end their relationship forever because of awkwardness and a struggle to find peace of mind.
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What is only gradually revealed, however, is the immediate cause of that crisis. The woman is pregnant. It is not revealed that the topic of conversation is the couple’s decision to abort the pregnancy, but it’s not difficult to figure out. In the following exchange, it becomes obvious that the man is more enthusiastic about his girlfriend getting a surgical procedure, and it’s also clear that the result of this operation will presumably repair what is damaged in their relationship: ‘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. ‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’Then what will we do afterwards?’ ‘We’ll be fine afterwards. 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.’ That the man is the principal advocate of the abortion-as-resolution-of-problem position is repeatedly emphasized, as in the following continuation of this exchange: ‘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.’ Hemingway’s couple pretends to be conflicted regarding the effects a child will have on an otherwise loving, mutually-supportive relationship, but the reality appears far different.
The strained tones and the pretense to an ideal existence that once existed create an ominous tone. The discussion about whether to go through with the abortion reveals underlying hole in their relationship that they won’t openly acknowledge. The “unwanted” pregnancy is only the immediate cause of tensions between the man and woman. The long term issue, is the fact of a relationship built on external attractions that conceals the absence of a deeper emotional commitment. This couple fears that a child will ruin their relationship because they will no longer be free to live the carefree life that has seemingly made them enjoy to date. In an exchange toward the end of the story, the woman seeks comfort in the liberating consequence of the abortion only to have the man diminish those expectations despite his support of her having the abortion. The man has a passive-aggressive approach to supporting the woman, to go through with the procedure, subtly moving the action in his desired direction; while trying to put the responsibility of the decision on her. This is not a healthy relationship. Disregarding the issue of the woman’s pregnancy the couple is just not good with each other and will fail to work no matter what unfolds in their future.