The Implicit Narrative of Hills Like White Elephants


Among Hemingway’s excellent works, Hills Like White Elephants is considered as one of his best short stories. In a space of less than 1500 words, the author describes many wonderful scenes in simple terms, which enables readers to understand the whole story through reading.

Ernest Hemingway used to put forward a famous literary theory called “Iceberg Theory”, the core connotation of which is to hide the author’s feelings beneath the succinct descriptions and encourage readers to feel and imagine the true meaning of the text while reading. When reading Hills Like White Elephants, if we do not go deep into the text, we can easily conclude that the story is mainly about a talk between a young couple in a small train station in Spain, which seems to be meaningless since both the origin of the story and the identity of the characters are not introduced in the novel. However, if we carefully analyze the story, the true meaning of the story will finally emerge.

The most confusing part in the story is “an awfully simple operation”. The author doesn’t explain to us what the operation is, but we can find it out by analyzing the story itself. In the story, the man told Jig, his girlfriend, that the operation needs “to let the air in”, which I think is the synonym for anesthesia. That is to say, the operation is absolutely not a small one. The man also describes the operation as the one that “lots of people that have done”, which indicates that the operation is very common. After listening the man’s talk, Jig asked him that “And if I do you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”, which clearly indicates that the operation is actually the abortion surgery because, at least in this story, abortion is the only operation that the girlfriend can do to make her boyfriend happy and make things “like they were”. There is also a sentence that can support my point: the man told Jig that “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to” and it’s easy to find out that the operation is connected with the thing they did in the past, which can be understood as taking an abortion after having sex.

Since we have found out the meaning of the operation, it’s important to find out the attitude of the man and his girlfriend Jig towards the operation. The man really wants Jig to do the operation. Although he always repeats that “if you don’t want to you don’t have to”, the man constantly starts the conversation about the operation and emphasizes the simplicity and universality of the operation after that. He told Jig that, which I think is one of the most important sentences in the story, that “That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.” It points out that the man doesn’t want a baby and that he thinks that as long as Jig takes the abortion, he can enjoy the life like it was. Jig, on the contrary, doesn’t want to do the operation. The attitude of Jig is revealed through her talks: “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” We can see that Jig was actually looking forward to the coming baby. However, because the man insists on Jig’s abortion, she can just “looked at the ground the table legs rested on” and “not say anything”. Jig did know the man’s hypocrisy as she complained that “And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy?”. The man tries to convince the girl that they have a bright future, but Jig just repeated that “No, we can’t.” In the end, Jig smiled and said that “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” Readers can easily feel a strong sense of forced laughter in it.

Besides, we can see that the author also employs many metaphors in the story to describe the relationship between the couple and narrate the story. When the waitress brings the couple beer, the girl “was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.” and praised the hills as “white elephants”. Obviously, the white hills and the brown country create a stark contrast here and it seems like that the holy, white hills symbolize an ideal world while the ugly, dim country symbolize a dull, boring reality. The metaphor of the white elephant also reinforces the hills’ symbol of sanctity, which can be understood as the girl’s wish for ideality. After arguing with her boyfriend for some time, the girl said that “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.” Such statements dissolve the sense of the hills’ sacredness and emphasize the reality, which means that the girl was pulled back to the reality by the terrible things in front of her. After long-time argument between the couple, they both became quiet and “the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.” Such differences in the places that they looked at can be understood as their different thoughts and their future breaking up. When the story is about to the end, the man saw some “labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights”, which may not only reveal their past happy time but also suggests that their relationship may ends in the future.

Based on all the analysis above, I think we can answer the question “what do you think will happen next? are they going to break up?” At the beginning, the girl tried to chat with her boyfriend happily, but her boyfriend started to convinced her to take the abortion. After that, the man repeated things about the simplicity and universality of the operation and tried his best to convince the girl. Although he repeated that “if you don’t want to you don’t have to” falsely, the girl gradually found out that her boyfriend wanted the abortion firmly and the only reason for him to say so was not to harm their current relationship instead of really caring about her feelings. At this time, the girl had two choices: maintain the relationship with the man who probably didn’t love her and didn’t want to take responsibility, or break up with this guy. I think the author has already revealed her choice in the novel by comparing her different thoughts about the natural scenes. As is analyzed above, the girl thought the hills were holy and were like white elephants in the beginning, but in the end, she abandoned her original ideas and put her sight back to the brown country. That is to say, the girl finally abandoned all her illusions about the man and paid attention to something in reality, such as whether her boyfriend was willing to take the responsibility. Also, the girl had already lost her hope for their future, which can be seen in the following dialogue:

‘We can have everything.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can have the whole world.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can go everywhere.’
‘No, we can’t. It isn’t ours anymore.’
‘It’s ours.’
‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’

In the end, the girl answered her boyfriend that “I feel fine”, but the true meaning of these words probably is “I’ve had enough and I do not want to maintain the illusion that we are still in love.” As a result, they will probably break up in the end.

There is also an interesting detail that may help us understand the story, which is the girls’ name Jig. Although the author doesn’t want to give us more information about the man and her girlfriend, he does give us the information that the man is an American. The author doesn’t tell us Jig’s nationality, but we can speculate that she is also an American with the following reasons: she has the same speech pattern as the man did; the man introduced the life in Europe to her, which indicates that she came to the Europe for the first time. As a result, we can say that Jig is probably also an American. But we cannot determine their ethnic identity yet, which means that we should find it out by analyzing the information above. The author points out the man’s nationality as an American directly, which directly indicates that the man is white. Such indication has its historical reasons. American Congress restricted naturalization to “white persons” only and such racial prerequisite remains in force until 1952. As a result, it’s safely to say that the man is white. If we continue such train of thought, we may think that Jig is white as well, but this may be wrong. The author actually indicates that Jig is actually an African American by mentioning her name in the novel. Jig is an American slang that means black person or African American, which is absolutely a racial slur. So, we can safely conclude that the man and his girlfriend are both American, but the man is white and Jig is black. We can then have a new understanding about the story based on such analysis. In the story, the white American was controlling and he tried his best to maintain his satisfaction of desire (not breaking up with Jig), exertion of control (persuading Jig to take the abortion) and preservation of freedom (not wanting a child). He didn’t show any concern for Jig and he continuously neglect everything that Jig talked about in order to secure his own identity. After tolerating the man for some time, Jig finally got angry and fought back by saying “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” and threatening him that she may “scream”. The author wants to use the relationship between the man and the girl to describe the oppression that African Americans were suffering from and their resistance to racism at that time, which may be a new theme of this novel that Hemingway wanted to convey.