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Analysis of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

The story Hills like white elephants by Ernest Hemingway is one of the masterpieces of this North American author; With a simple and concise style, it immerses us in the mysterious story of a man and a woman waiting for the train to Madrid. This story, full of symbolism and a hidden plot, is one of the most characteristic references of Hemingway’s mastery.

About the Author

Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American writer and journalist. He is currently considered one of the most important short story writers and novelists of the 20th century.

Hemingway grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. After working as a journalist for the Kansas City Star, he was a correspondent for different historical events.

During World War I he was part of the US Army, serving as an ambulance driver until he was seriously injured in 1918. Later, his experiences in the war influenced his works; perhaps his best known work in this regard is his novel A Farewell to Arms .

Hemingway was a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and was also present at the Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris during World War II. Furthermore, he lived in Africa and Cuba and had a life full of adventures, some of which caused him chronic health problems.

As for his personal life, Hemingway was married four times and had three children: Patrick, Jack, and Gregory. Two of his granddaughters, Mariel and Margaux, were famous in the world of art and fashion during the 1980s.

Hemingway wrote most of his works between 1920 and 1961, the year of his death; Some of his works were even published posthumously. His first novel, Fiesta , was published in 1926.

In 1952 The Old Man and the Sea was published , which is probably his most famous novel.

His particular style had a great influence on the fiction of the time. He is owed the “iceberg theory”, a form of writing that leaves part of the plot of the story implicit so that the reader can draw his own conclusions.

In 1953, he received the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea . The following year she won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his complete works.

In 1959, he moved to Idaho, United States. There he committed suicide on July 2, 1961. He was 61 years old.

Literary work

In his literary work, his novels and short stories stand out, some of which are considered classics of American and world literature. Some of them are:

  • The novels:
    • Party (1926).
    • Spring waters (1926).
    • Farewell to arms (1929).
    • To have and not to have (1937).
    • For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).
    • On the other side of the river and among the trees (1950).
    • The old man and the sea (1952).
  • short story anthologies:
    • Three stories and ten poems (1923)
    • In Our Time (1925)
    • Men Without Women (1927)
    • The Winner Takes Nothing (1933)
    • The fifth column and the first forty-nine stories (1938).
    • The snows of Kilimanjaro (1961).
  • Posthumous works:
    • The fifth column and four stories of the Spanish civil war (1969)
    • Drifting Islands (1970).
    • Nick Adams (1972)
    • The Garden of Eden (1986).
    • At breaking dawn (1999).

Analysis of Hills as white elephants

Hills Like White Elephants was first published in 1927, within the storybook Men Without Women . It is a short story that, despite its brevity, makes an impact on the reader. Therefore, it is the faithful reflection of the style of this author. Today Hills as White Elephants is considered one of the prime examples of Hemingway’s iceberg theory.

Hemingway and the iceberg theory (or omission theory)

Hemingway affirmed that what is expressed in a story or novel should simply be a small part of the total story, that is, the “tip of the iceberg”.

Like an iceberg with only 80 percent of its surface visible, the pages had to show only part of the story. According to Hemingway, the writer’s talent or mastery was in using as few words as possible, trying to keep most of the plot implicit.

However, Hemingway also stressed the importance of the writer knowing perfectly all the details of his story. Therefore, omissions had to be conscious and strategic. In addition, they had to allow the reader to make their own interpretation of the facts. This marked the minimalist style characteristic of him and distinguished him from other writers.

Hills characters as white elephants

In Hills like white elephants three characters appear:

Jig : is one of the main characters. She is about a young woman of unknown nationality and of whom we do not know more details. Throughout the story he maintains a dialogue with the American that turns into a heated discussion, full of ironies and double meanings. He appears as a pensive and doubtful person, and at times, emotional; he is about to make an important decision.

The American : he is the other main character and we only know his nationality. He appears as a pushy man who tries to manipulate Jig, hoping she will agree to do what he wants. There seems to be a sentimental relationship between the two, although it is not clear exactly what link they have or how long they have known each other.

The waitress: she is a secondary character who delivers drinks to them in a bar near the station. At one point she seems to interrupt the couple’s discussion on purpose. Somehow, it is possible that this character appears in defense of the protagonist.

Meaning of Hills symbols as white elephants

In the story there are several implicit symbols that allow us to understand what the story is about, which remains surrounded by mystery.

The operation

Although not specifically listed or mentioned, the “operation” refers to abortion. This is the subject on which both protagonists discuss to try to reach a conclusion. Throughout the story, the man makes his position clear that he wants the woman to have the operation. He describes it as a “terribly simple” procedure, “perfectly simple” and “not really an operation.”

The issue of abortion is also glimpsed in other expressions of the protagonists, such as when the North American affirms: “But I don’t want anyone but you. I don’t want anyone to get in the way. And I know it’s perfectly simple.” These words suggest that there will be “someone else” unless the woman has surgery.

The hills

The hills refer to the female anatomy during pregnancy: the curves of the breasts and the bulging belly. By mentioning the hills, Jig is imagining what that process would look like.

white elephants

This is perhaps the greatest symbol of the tale. The origin of this phrase is related to a practice in ancient Siam, a kingdom that is now Thailand. Back then, white elephants were sacred and considered as a treasure. However, for the king to give a white elephant to a member of his court meant that there was enmity between them. Although at first glance it seemed like an honor, in reality the gift would cause the ruin of the recipient, since maintaining the elephant was very expensive. Therefore, a white elephant symbolizes a burden or obstacle, something negative and unwanted.


The contrast between the dry and arid landscape where they are, with the river, the trees and the hills on the other side, highlight the current situation and the promising future that awaits them after the abortion.

the licorice

Licorice is a common plant in Spain with which a drink is made that is characterized by its bitter taste. This symbolizes the negative or bittersweet feelings of the protagonist as she weighs the options.


This plant is known for its abortifacient properties; therefore, its mention is a clear reference to abortion.

Other interesting phrases

In addition to these symbols, the dialogue is full of irony with double meanings that reinforce the theme of the story. For example:

  • When the woman comments that the hills look like white elephants, the man says that he has never seen one. She replies, “No, you wouldn’t have.” If the hills represent female fertility and pregnancy, she might be suggesting that he’s not the type to ever have a child.
  • In another part of the dialogue, although the man tries to minimize the importance of the matter by using other people as an example, the woman knows that it is not as he says and demonstrates it ironically: “And then everyone was so happy.”
  • With the repetition in the phrase “would you please please please please shut the fuck up?” the exasperation of the protagonist is revealed, that she seems to have realized the man’s manipulation. She also seems to have given up hope at her insistence.
  • In the final sentence: “I feel very good,” she said. Nothing’s wrong with me. I feel very good. ”, The protagonist expresses something that seems to be the opposite of her real feelings or even the tranquility of having made a decision. The author leaves this unknown about the woman’s final decision for the reader to make her own interpretation.