Literature Annotations


Hemingway, Ernest
Hills Like White Elephants


Genre Short Story (5 pp.)
KeywordsAbortion, Communication, Depression, Freedom, Love, Parenthood, Sexuality, Women's Health
Summary

An American man and "a girl" sit drinking beer in a bar by a train station in northern Spain making self-consciously ironic, brittle small talk. The woman comments that the hills look like white elephants (hence the story's title). Eventually, the two discuss an operation, which the man earnestly reassures her is "awfully simple . . . not really an operation at all . . . all perfectly natural" (726).

The woman is unconvinced, questioning "what will we do afterward," but says she will have the operation because "I don't care about me" (727). A few moments later, however, she avers that they "could" have everything and go anywhere, suddenly as earnest as he had been earlier. When the man agrees that they "can" do these things, however, the woman now says no, they can't, her change in verb tense suggesting that the possible lives they once could have pursued (and produced) are even now, before any firm decision has been spoken, irrevocably out of reach. When the man says that he will go along with whatever she wants, the woman asks him to "please please please please please please please stop talking" or she will scream. The train arrives during this impasse, and once the bags are loaded, the woman, smiling brightly, insists she feels fine.

Commentary

This story deftly and painfully captures the difficulty of talking about, or rather around, abortion. The fact that neither person specifies what this "operation" is called exemplifies their communication problem, as does the man's odd comments about the procedure "letting the air in," the woman's fumbling with her metaphor, and the tonal shifts in each person's remarks, from sarcastic to earnest to resigned. An effective way to stimulate discussion of this story is to have two readers assume the two voices.

SourceThe Norton Anthology of Short Fiction
PublisherW. W. Norton
Edition1990
EditorsR. V. Cassill
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate SourceOn Doctoring
Alternate PublisherSimon & Schuster
Alternate Edition1995, 2001
Alternate EditorsRichard Reynolds & John Stone
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published in the collection, Men Without Women (New York: Scribner's Sons) 1927. Also available in: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition (New York: Scribner) 1998.
Annotated by Holmes, Martha Stoddard
Date of Entry 07/06/00
Last Revised 03/05/02