Ernest Hemingway wrote the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” in the early nineteen twenties.
The story itself is short with little to no action between the characters, introduced to the reader as the American and a woman named Jig, other than a bit of curious dialogue. Hemingway, for his part, seems to have intended this story to have a deeper, allegoric and symbolic meaning for the reader. With that said, a look will now be taken to dissect the sparse dialogue and determine the true allegory within the story by defining the literary and symbolic illusions.To begin with, this story can be read as viewing a moment in time, where a man and a woman are waiting at a train station to travel to Madrid, and, as the American and Jig sit down in the shade to wait, they have two beers.
Then, the Jig looks serenely off into the distance at the mountains, noting that “they look like white elephants” (Hemingway, 1). The American responds that the words painted on the mountain read “Anis del Toro” which happens to be another drink, and curious, they order two. This particular drink must have some meaning to Hemingway, as the characters in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises favor this liqueur as well.Hemingway’s use of Anis del Toro, in this instance, better defines the allegory in that this is his plot opportunity to show the age difference between the two characters and the innocence of Jig. In her efforts to be sophisticated, she says that the drink “tastes like liquorice” (1) and that “everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe” (1).
He is impatient with her at this point, telling her to “cut it out…let’s try and have a fine time” (1) after she had explained that “I was being amused. I was having a fine time” (1).In this simple bit of dialogue, Hemingway is actually telling the reader much more about his characters. It can be inferred from these few lines that the relationship between Jig and the American is not a happy one.
Even in this simple time, waiting for the train and having a cool drink, he undermines her, telling her to have a fine time even after she admitted that she was having a fine time. Either he didn’t hear her, or he is giving her an order to quit being her younger self and to grow up. However, in attempting to define the flavor of the drink, Jig probably believed herself to be sophisticated, even cosmopolitan, in her reference to the absinthe—which is not a drink to be joked about.Then, to turn the conversation around she explains that “I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?.
.. They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees” (1) to which he responds that they should have another drink. This moment is the defining moment in Hemingway’s allegory as the simple symbol of a mountain looking like a white elephant draws a deeper parallel to a significant event happening in their lives—and event, it seems from the proceeding dialogue, that has been harming their relationship. Jig is pregnant.
But a reader doesn’t know that yet, from the dialogue alone, until it turns a bit more serious when the American calmly states that “it’s really an awfully simply operation, Jig…it’s not really an operation at all” (2). The girl doesn’t respond and he fills the silence by saying that “I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in” (2). She wants to know what they’ll do afterwards and he responds that they’ll be happy because “that’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy” (2).
The American wavers a bit, possibly employing reverse psychology to get Jig around to his way of thinking when he says 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. But I know it’s perfectly simple” (2). They go back and forth, with him saying he wouldn’t have her do it if he didn’t think she wanted to as well, to which she responds, almost in desperation, that “and if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” (2). She finally concedes, saying that “I don’t care about me.
And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine” (2).Then Jig stands (metaphorically and physically) and starts to see the world in a new light when she says that the world isn’t theirs anymore. He must think she’s lost her mind because he orders her back into the shade. From there, the dialogue goes badly for the couple, ending with her declaration that if he says anything more about it, she’ll scream. He takes their bags to the train, returning to find her smiling up at him. When he questions her, she responds that “there’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (3).
Hemingway is truly a master of the subtle dialogue. Without really saying anything at all, these two have had an entire conversation encompassing the dimensions of their relationship in less than ten lines. The literal white elephants, the mountains, serve the greater purpose of the parallel to the baby that the couple is expecting and what that elephant might mean for each of them. For the American, clearly, the baby would ruin their lives.
He has a need for freedom, maybe even a need to have no ties to Jig, despite his love for her—but in the end, a baby, for him, would be the end of things.For Jig, on the other hand, a baby represents something much more significant. She clearly loves the American and is willing to do what he says at any cost, but her reluctance to have an abortion is clear, and she only concedes to it when she says that she doesn’t care about herself, and will do it to get back to where they were before.At this point, even the train station becomes a literal parallel to the couple’s lives. They are heading for a different point in their relationship, one in which either she gets the abortion and they can live in freedom, or she keeps the baby and the American leaves her for greener pastures. His motives for her abortion are clear, even though they are masked with concern for her feelings; the truth is that he desperately wants her to get rid of the baby. If she ultimately does not, his motives aren’t clear, but his dialogue certainly suggests that he feels that having a baby would mean the end of their lives, and the beginning of more problems that he won’t have the effort to deal with.
Jig senses this, of course, but she has already lost her innocence and understands, without saying so, that their relationship, as it stands, is not a healthy one for her.In the end, a reader is left just as the couple is left, without a conclusion. For Hemingway, this serves to highlight the uncertainty of their relationship, and demonstrates that the American might not have the sway over Jig that he once had. A reader doesn’t know which way she’ll decide, but her actions in the end are those of decision, of sudden growth as a woman. And in this moment, Hemingway’s allegorical meaning of the loss of innocence and Jig’s coming of age are defined by Jig’s quiet, yet unknown, decision.
Overall, Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is an allegorical tale defining a moment in Jig and the American’s relationship. Everything from the drink, to the mountains, to the train station encompass parallels to the dimensions of the couple’s relationship. And, with this dissection of the sparse dialogue, Hemingway’s symbolic illusions and allegory form their true meaning.