Hills like White Elephants -- Critical Literary Analysis
One of the first things entering the mind of a reader (on an obvious level) in Hemingway's short story is that the image of a white elephant the woman sees in the line of hills in the distance has created a classic man-woman conundrum. She sees it her way and he sees it his. The beer and the anis del Toro -- and the expectant train -- are just pieces on the chessboard, merely part of the setting that perhaps will play a role in this very short story.
Like his other short stories, this brilliant piece of fiction by Hemingway is very tightly written but it packs symbolism, irony and characterization into a short amount of space. In this story, the ultimate meaning is that the man does not wish to take responsibility for the woman's pregnancy and on the other hand she has superior imagination, vision, understanding, and knowledge of the natural world and of humanity. The white elephant to her is a rare and beautiful thing but to him the white elephant is something of less value he would rather avoid.
Notwithstanding the initial response a reader might have, the actual richness and complexity and irony of this story is revealed upon closer inspection. Indeed, according to Lewis Weeks, writing in Studies in Short Fiction, there is depth in the imagery of the hills that look like white elephants, pointed out by the author in the first sentence of the story. The hills were "long and white" initially but into the story a few lines they present a nice literary juxtaposition; they are "…white in the sun" but the land around them was "brown and dry" (Weeks, 1980, p. 75). This contrast opens the literary door for further imagery, irony, and friction between the two characters.
Hence, the woman notes that they look like "white elephants," and the reader is introduced to some tension for the first time when the man says he has never seen one. Rather than agreeing with her description, he takes a contrary position. And an alert reader wonders why she is gazing into the distance anyway as they wait for the train. Meanwhile, contrasts, symbolism and colors bring an element into the story that leads to more tension. The reader certainly knows that liquorice is dark and absinthe is licorice flavored. The contrast between the white hills and the dark drinks -- along with the fact that absinthe is believed to be an aphrodisiac -- lend a curious sense of tension to the story from the very beginning.
"Everything tastes of liquorice," she says to him, sounding impatient and inferring that things have not being going well in their relationship. With that simple line more tension is introduced as he tries to cut her short. They go back and forth and this is Hemingway's style, to build up tension so that the reader begins to wonder why there is tension and conflict when it seems such a sublime setting and the fact of two people having a drink while waiting for a train would, in a typical human setting, present a thought of travel, fun, and anticipation.
By the time the reader realizes the woman is pregnant her gazing into the distant hills and seeing an image like a white elephant has more meaning for the reader. As Weeks points out, there is powerful irony in the concept of a white elephant for several reasons. For one, a white elephant (an albino) is extremely rare. For another, Weeks explains that a white elephant is associated with "potentates"; kings and powerful leaders have "royal elephants" and those beasts are said to have "sacred attributes and spiritual powers" (76). And the third image for a white elephant in common narrative usage is that it is something worthless; for example, a "white elephant sale" is a fundraiser in which people donate gifts they don't need and don't want and those gifts are priced very low because people who buy them will have to dream up a potential use for them.
Like a chef blending different ingredients into a stew, Weeks mixes the white elephant theme with a sprinkle of the pregnancy and a dash of abortion images, and comes up with a stark image. The woman has said that if she agrees to the abortion, when she makes comments like the hills being white elephants "…you'll like it" and things "will be nice again" (Weeks, 76). By referencing the skin of those white hills, Weeks believes Hemingway is hinting at an image of "…the fully pregnant woman, nude and probably lying on her back with her distended belly virtually bursting with life and with her breasts, engorged by the approaching birth, making a trinity of white hills" (Weeks, 77).
Critic James Nagel, meanwhile, writes that part of the genius of Hemingway is that he can condense a story brilliantly; "…his ability to do so much with so little" sets him apart from other writers, Nagel asserts. Certainly Hemingway in this story has created a female who has "…a deep awareness of the situation that [the man] does not recognize… [and moreover] scholars have seen this allusiveness as an indication of her superior imagination and knowledge" (Nagel, 1994, p. 1). This is easy for a reader to grasp because she is the only one who seems interested in the big picture -- that is, what is on the other side of the valley, and symbolically, what is out there for her beyond this train station setting -- while he looks at her and at the table and seems to care only about the drinks and himself.
What the reader should glean from the man's comments is that he really doesn't want any obligations (Nagel, 2). When he goes to the other side of the station -- and somehow manages to belt down another drink alone -- he notes that the people in the bar seem reasonable. That clearly suggests that the pregnant woman friend he says he loves is unreasonable. Nagel believes Hemingway did this to "portend eventual separation for the couple" (2).
Scholar David Wyche references other critics who interpret meanings and ironies in the story that are worthy meat for discussion. For example, the destination for this couple -- once the train arrives -- is Madrid, Spain, and according to Timothy O'Brien, Madrid is very similar to the word "madre," the Spanish word for mother (Wyche, 2002). This seems at first to perhaps be a stretch, but it is worthy of mention because in fact the first four letters in Madrid and madre are identical. Moreover, Hemingway was always extremely careful with every word; each word had meaning that was often deeper than what it appeared to be. It could be argued that he was a pathological tightwad when it came to his use of words; in other words, less was more for Hemingway.
And when Jig (the pregnant woman) sees the shadow -- "The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain…" -- that could well portend the "foreshadowing" of the death of her unborn child, according to Wyche's use of a reference by Kenneth Johnston (1). But a reader could take issue with that interpretation because Jig's comment about the shadow included this line: "…and she saw the river through the trees." Seeing the river -- a symbol of life's movement from mountains to the sea -- through the trees could just as well mean she has hopes for a positive outcome. The cloud -- according to Hilary Justice, referenced by Wyche -- could also symbolize "fertility," because the sun was hot that day but a cloud brings "…cool relief" in the form of rain to a "parched valley" (Wyche, 1). This…