White Elephants

White Elephants

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay about the unspoken central theme in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Written for ENG 1121: Composition Analysis.


White Elephants

23 March 2009


          The setting for Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is the Ebro Valley of Spain in the 1920s.  The story takes place outside a train station which is set between two very different geographical areas, which come to represent the different ways Jig and the American each view their situation and the unnamed, but readily inferred, “it”.  On one side of the station where the majority of the story takes place, “there was no shade and no trees… in the sun” (Hemingway 172).  This is a hot, barren stretch, marked by one of the two railroad tracks which flank the station.  Little grows on this side of the station. This is a place of lifelessness and hopelessness, and there is little promise in the hard, hot earth.  On the other side of the station, where the story ends, “were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro.  Far away, beyond the river, were mountains.  The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and…the river through the trees” (Hemingway 175).  This is a lush, fertile landscape, marked by the second of the two railroad tracks, which stretches into the far distance.  Life grows abundantly on this side of the station, and the fertile land holds the promise of future life to come.  The station, positioned directly between the two diverse landscapes, and between the two railroad tracks with different destinations, represents a turning point at which a decision must be made whether to go forward into a new life or to go back into the life which is familiar.

The two sides of the station have very different meanings for Jig and the American, the two main characters of the story.  For Jig, the barren, empty landscape represents the emptiness that will become her life if she has the ‘awfully simple operation’ that is ‘not really an operation at all’ (Hemingway 174).  The emptiness represents the loss of a family she could have had, and the loss of a future as a wife and mother.  Although Hemingway never tells whether Jig is Spanish, American, or something else, in the 1920s it is expected that a woman, regardless of ethnic background, will marry and raise a family, and it is reasonable to believe that Jig harbors a secret belief that having the American’s baby will bind him to her and cause him to follow the social conventions of the period and marry her.  For Jig, the lush, fertile landscape on the other side of the station represents the fullness and abundance that will become her life if she does not have the operation and in which she and the American ‘can have the whole world’ (Hemingway 175).  This side represents having her dreams fulfilled, and living the life that is the proper destiny of a young woman of the 1920s.  The lushness represents Jig’s role as a wife and mother, and her being completed by having a family.  It represents success for her as a woman of her time.

For the American, on the other hand, the barren landscape represents the end of his carefree, casual life and a future of commitment and responsibility.  As a bachelor, the American has few responsibilities, and is free to travel as he wishes.  In the 1920s it is not unusual for young men of good families " or even middle-aged men, if they have the means " to take a long, unfettered tour of Europe; it is, in fact, a desirable way for a young man to get his adventurous spirit under control before he settles down to the serious business of having a career, marrying, and raising a family.  When the American tells Jig, ‘We’ll be fine afterward.  Just like we were before … That’s the only thing that bothers us.  It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy’ (Hemingway 174), it is clear that he has not yet reached the point in his life where he is willing to give up the freedom and flexibility of bachelorhood for the responsibilities of adult life.  The barren plain is symbolic of stepping out of his youthful irresponsibility and taking on the yoke of a wife, a family, and all of the responsibilities which are expected of him by both American and European society.  For the American, the lush, fertile landscape signifies the freedom that will continue to be his life if he and Jig are not encumbered by the need to nurture another life.  It is a sign of continuing his youth, even if he may actually be a bit older than many of the young men touring Europe.  The lushness indicates continued frivolity and fun, without a firm schedule or a clear set of responsibilities.  Losing his freedom and responsibility to the need to marry Jig and raise her baby is not something the American wants to have happen, as becomes clear when he says, ‘We can have everything … We can have the whole world’ (Hemingway 175).  By saying this, the American is attempting to make Jig see the world the way he does; he wants her to see that they live by their own rules, not those imposed on them by society.  He wants her to want the life he wants, with nothing holding them back and with the world as their home, instead of just a little house somewhere where they will be confined and constrained to the dictates of society.  He knows that the prevailing Western culture of his time will require him to give up his idle pastimes and become a sensible, responsible, adult husband and father, and will require him to settle down and provide a stable, decent life for his new family.  He believes that they cannot have the whole world if they have to settle down and raise a family, but that they can have everything if Jig has the operation.

The two sides of the station represent the two sides of the decision which Jig has to make before the train from Barcelona arrives.  Despite all of the American’s prodding and cajoling, only Jig can make the decision which will define both of their lives, possibly forever. Jig tells the American, ‘Once they take it away, you never get it back’ (Hemingway 175).  Although Jig appears hopelessly young and naïve through much of the story, she exhibits wisdom when she expresses that her decision regarding the ‘awfully simple operation’ (Hemingway 174) will have permanent repercussions.

 On the one side, the dry, barren plain represents the masculine side of life.  It is a strong, rugged area, with sharp, clear lines, unsoftened by the curves of growing plants.  The plain is simple and uncluttered, as a treeless plain in Spain will be, and is reminiscent of the clean, spare, unyielding lines and forms which were associated with men in the 1920s.  Looking out over this plain represents seeing the American’s side of the situation, and remaining on this side of the station, and taking the train which stops on this side of the station on its way to Madrid, represents accepting his choice to have the operation and go on with life as they have been going all along. 

On the other side of the station, the lush, fertile, green land, with the rising swells of the hills, represents the feminine side of life.  The fields of grain and the trees are burgeoning with life, saturated with the constant renewal of life and creation.  “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white” (Hemingway 172), and the rounded, rolling hills evoke an image of the primordial shape of the mother goddess that still shadows mankind’s image of woman: the roundness of the ancient goddess’s belly, pregnant with the creation of life; the roundness of the maternal hips which allow life to come forth, the roundness of the breasts by which the goddess nurtures life.  The gentle swelling of the hills carries a promise of life.  The river represents the waters of life, and more specifically, the rushing waters of birth, which bring life into the world.  The water of the Ebro gives life to the grains, grasses, and trees, and promises the continuation of life.  Looking out on the lushness and vitality of this side of the station clearly represents seeing Jig’s view of the situation, and choosing to board the train which will pick up on this side of the station represents accepting the choice to forgo the operation and keep the baby. 

At the end of the story, Jig and the American appear to come to a decision to not have the operation.  The American acquiesces to Jig’s desire to choose life as he says, ‘I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station’ (Hemingway 176).  In moving the bags to the lush, verdant, living side of the station, he indicates that he is no longer fighting Jig’s inclination to have the baby.  He tells her, ‘I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to.  I’m perfectly willing to go through with it’ (Hemingway 176).  By “it”, the American means the operation they have spoken of so obliquely throughout the story, and which is clearly a veiled reference to an abortion.  The American gives in to the fact that having the baby will make Jig happy.  When he moves the bags to the green side of the station, turning his back on the dry, barren side, he frees Jig to make the decision to have the life she wants and to ‘have everything’ (Hemingway 175).  When “She smiled at him … she said … ‘I feel fine’” (Hemingway 176), the stress of the decision is relieved, and she is able to relax and be happy in the abundant, thriving, luxuriant promise of creation, new life, and a future that stretches out before them.

© 2017 Debbie Barry

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Debbie Barry
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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: essay, assignment, Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”, abortion

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..