The frequently anthologized Hills Like White Elephants first printed in transition magazine in 1927 is often read and taught as a perfect illustration of Ernest Hemingway’s minimalist, self-proclaimed “iceberg” style of writing: In much of Hemingway’s fiction what is said in the story often is less important than what has not been said. Like the iceberg—only one-eighth of which is visible above the surface—Hemingway’s fiction is much richer than its spare language suggests. Hemingway has great faith in his readers and leaves them to discern what is truly happening from the scant facts he presents on the surface of his story. On a superficial level, Hills is merely about a man, a woman, and an “awfully simple operation” (275). What the narrator never actually tells the reader, however, is that “awfully simple operation” is an abortion, a taboo subject in 1925. Underneath the surface of this story are THEMEs and motifs that are characteristic of many of Hemingway’s other works as well. As do many of those works, “Hills” tells the story of an American abroad and depicts the strained relationships between men and women that clearly intrigued the author. As with many of the relationships Hemingway portrays, this man and woman apparently have nothing in common but sex and the heavy consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Hills is also a story of avoidance. Instead of having a significant, rational conversation about the issue at hand, the “girl,” Jig, says only that the hills of Spain look like white elephants. “Wasn’t that clever?” she asks the unnamed man (274). This rather inconsiderate male companion agrees, but he actually wants to talk about the procedure. Jig would rather not discuss it. When he pressures her, she replies, “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” Jig is the typical Hemingway female, selfless and sacrificial. She is prepared to have the abortion, but the reader is left with the distinct impression that any previous magic between the couple is gone. “It isn’t ours anymore,” Jig tells the American (276). The unfortunate accident of pregnancy has ruined the relationship; it will never be the same. Hemingway explores many of the same themes in his important war novel A Farewell to Arms and in The Sun Also Rises.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” 1927. Reprinted in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition. New York: Scribner, 1987.
Johnston, Kenneth. “ ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: Lean, Vintage Hemingway.” Studies in American Fiction (1982).
Renner, Stanley. “Moving to the Girl’s Side of Hills.” The Hemingway Review (1995).