Relationship in Hills Like White Elephants
Ernest Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” sheds light on the vulnerability and emotional void within a relationship threatened by the impending arrival of an unborn child. The narrative portrays a couple deeply involved in a romantic relationship that is undeniably strained.
Evidence of this tension surfaces at the beginning of the story as the couple anxiously waits for a train, struggling to engage in meaningful conversation. In an attempt to ease the discomfort, the woman remarks on the distant hills: “They look like white elephants,” she said. “I’ve never seen one,” the man replied, sipping his beer. “No, you wouldn’t have.” “I might have,” the man countered. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
How it works
This initial exchange at the story’s outset reveals a relationship in crisis, one that could potentially lead to its demise.
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 pretensions to an idyllic existence that once existed create an ominous tone. The discussion about whether to go through with the abortion reveals underlying fissures in their relationship that they refuse to openly acknowledge. The “unwanted” pregnancy is only the immediate or near-term cause of tensions between the man and woman; the longer-term, underlying cause – the ‘elephant in the room’ if one wants to be quaint – is the fact of a relationship seemingly built on superficial 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 existence they have ostensibly enjoyed to date. In an exchange toward the end of the story, the woman seeks solace in the liberating consequence of the abortion only to have the man dampen those expectations despite his advocacy of her having the abortion. The man has employed a passive-aggressive approach to urging the woman, Jig, to go through with the procedure, subtly moving the action in his desired direction while attempting to place the burden of the decision on her. This is not a healthy relationship irrespective of the issue of the woman’s pregnancy, and a thesis statement on Hemingway’s story should advance that proposition.”