Hills Like White Elephants: Socially and Emotionally Trapped
How it works
“Hills like White Elephants” is a short story written by Ernest Hemingway. The title has significant importance to the rest of the story. The story is a conversation between the two main characters, The American and his girlfriend, who he calls Jig. Although neither of them actually communicate with each other, giving the idea that there is a conflict between the two. At the start of the story, Jig makes a comment about the surrounding hills looking like white elephants. White elephants are not common making this offhand remark an opener for her and the American to discuss their baby and the possibility of them having the abortion. The characters in “Hills Like White Elephants” seem trapped by not only social roles but also by both circumstance and their own personal limitations. Both characters talk, not listening or understanding the others point of view. The narration in this short story has third-person limited narration which causes challenges between the couple.
Although never mentioned by name, it is understood that the conversation is to be about abortion. Frustrated and calm, the American seems to be willing to say whatever to convince his girlfriend to have the operation. In paragraph 60 the man says, “I love you now. You know I love you”. He talks about how everything will go back to the way it once was. The girlfriend seems trapped by her circumstances due to the relationship. The girl, unable to make a decision, seems to consider at one point to have the abortion just to shut him up. In another part of story, she pleads to him “please, please, please, please, please, please stop talking” (126). The conversation she feels they’re having is pointless. The girl seems to be dependant on the American because she can’t read or speak the language. This is shown in between lines 10 and 15 when she asks the American to read the signs for her and has him order the drink that is on it.
How it works
The major conflict of the story surrounds the idea of the abortion that the American wants his girlfriend to get. Drinking seems to be the escape both the American and Jig are using to avoid having a conversation about the abortion. Jig starts to talk about the hills that look like white elephants, then the issues in their relationship start to come to the surface. They argue about comments the girl makes and they both give the feeling of frustration. As the conversation continues, Jig seems to get more drinks because she doesn’t want to talk about “it” bringing the third-person limited narration. Jig remarks that she and the American never do anything but drink as if it’s used to avoid each other. Although the operation is the issue that they are discussing at this point in time, there seems to be a sense that there are deeper problems that are in their relationship. The girls’ unhappiness shows through in line 65 when she states, “I don’t care about me”. Most of the time, a happy relationship wouldn’t give a person those type of feelings. Around line 125 the narrator writes “He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train.” He starts to identify more with the other passengers who are “waiting reasonably” at the station compared to Jig who had just threatened to scream if he didn’t stop talking about the operation and telling her he loves her.
The American and Jigs imperfect relationship isn’t helping them come up with a solution to their dilemma,and the social circumstances aren’t much help either. “During the 1920s, the child assumed unprecedented importance at the center of the American family.” (Gillette, 50) Looking back to older generations, the knowledge of anyone having an abortion is not known and also not thought highly of. Throughout “Hills Like White Elephants”, the American and Jig talk lightly about the idea of an abortion without really saying what “it” is. On the last page of the story in paragraph 100, the girl threatens to scream if he doesn’t stop talking. The American is very conscious of the way he acts in public, and if she were to scream out loud that would draw a lot of attention to him and potentially their conversation.
The definition of a protagonist is the character who moves the story forward and can sometimes be the “good” guy. The American in “Hills Like White Elephants” is the protagonist because he continues to move the story forward. He is portrayed to be the rigid concept of masculinity according to Hemingway. Although rugged, the American is always in control of himself and the situation at hand. “Hemingway is often criticized for his one-dimensional characterization of the women in his fiction.”(Bauer, 124) He tells the girl that he doesn’t care if she gets the operation but when he continues to feel pressured by the conversation he starts to oversimplify and relentlessly pushes her to have it. He emphasizes the third-person narration by never naming the baby, but by calling the baby “it”. As the conversation continues, Jig is realizing new things about the American that she didn’t see before. The American keeps pushing the idea of aborting “it” and it gives the reader a feeling that he doesn’t want to be committed to Jig. It’s almost as if the idea of settling down with her, and having a family isn’t something he’s ever considered and that could be a concern for Jig. His point of view regarding the operation is much different than Jigs in many ways. “Combining the woman’s more mature understanding that they will not be able to go back to where they were after aborting their child with her willingness to consider the possibility of the child’s value to them undermines any view of these characters’ attitudes toward the pregnancy as just being gender-typical.” (Bauer, 124) There is nothing new about this argument, and the American isn’t understanding or supporting the girl in the way she’s hoping he would. The girl sees that their relationship will not go back to normal after an abortion, and although Hemingway doesn’t give us closure, you can’t help but wonder what the couple decided to do. “Indeed, the ending of the story foreshadows his leaving this woman as well. he does not come directly back to her after moving their bags but has a drink alone at the bar first, suggesting his desire to be away from her now that she is not so much fun as she used to be-on the nights, for example, when they would “‘try new drinks'””(Mauer, 124).
“Hills Like White Elephants” revolves around the main characters trying to keep something from “destroying” their lives and the freedoms they’ve had. “As they look out on a scene of Europe, their vision of the continent fuses with their longing to crystalize into a permanent life the unstructured moments that have made up their existence.”(Grant, 267-76) So far the American and Jig have had an almost carefree relationship and the idea of a pregnancy puts a damper on their freedom. Although Jig doesn’t give us the idea that she wants the baby, she does express that she doesn’t necessarily want to get rid of “it”. The story leaves us wondering what they chose to do and if they stayed together. Both characters were trapped by both their personal limitations and their social roles. Neither the American or Jig are really hearing what each other say, nor do they support each other the way a couple should.