Hills Like White Elephants

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Themes and Colors
The Limits of Language Theme Icon
Choice Theme Icon
Freedom vs Family Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Relationships Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hills Like White Elephants, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Freedom vs Family Theme Icon

As the story makes clear from the beginning, both the man and the girl are accustomed to a free, uncommitted lifestyle. When the man looks at their combined luggage, it is covered with “labels…from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” The two of them have spent a long time traveling together, going wherever they wanted without restriction. The decision to carry through with the girl’s pregnancy and create a family would completely alter the nature of their relationship. They would have to settle down. Rather than spending nights in hotel after hotel, they would have to build a home of their own. The man very definitively doesn’t want to “settle down” in this way, and thinks it will be easy not to. He is firm in his conviction that this pregnancy is “the only thing that’s made us unhappy” and that getting the abortion will be “perfectly simple” and “perfectly natural.” In a sense, he thinks that the pregnancy is something they can just leave behind the way they would leave a hotel they’d already stayed in.

The girl, on the other hand, maintains a wholly different attitude toward her pregnancy. To her, having a child with her partner promises a world where “we could have everything,” an altogether different definition of freedom. Ultimately, however, she tentatively agrees to the procedure, surrendering her own freedom of choice to a different sort of idea of “family,” as she hopes that doing so will restore the man’s love for her. The story implies, though, through the girl’s initial resistance and then her perhaps too-strong statement that nothing is wrong, that the girl will not be able to so “freely” move on from the pregnancy, and that the man’s insistence on maintaining his definition of freedom has impinged on the girl’s own freedom.

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Freedom vs Family ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Freedom vs Family appears in each chapter of Hills Like White Elephants. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Freedom vs Family Quotes in Hills Like White Elephants

Below you will find the important quotes in Hills Like White Elephants related to the theme of Freedom vs Family.
Hills Like White Elephants Quotes

“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig)
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the man is continuing to use the girl's pet name to manipulate her into feeling like he will love her more if she has the abortion. He is also, in this statement, continuing to use language to try to paper over the reality of the situation they are facing. Before, he told the girl that the operation wasn't "really an operation at all," and now he's saying it's "not anything" and it's "just to let the air in." These words are obviously literally untrue, but his rhetoric is meant to manipulate the girl into believing that the abortion is the best choice, and that it isn't even something worth speaking of directly. That the girl falls silent here is significant, too--we can't tell at first if it's because she's angry at his attempts at manipulation, or if it's because the manipulation is working and she is listening to him, but Hemingway uses this ambiguity to build tension.

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“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only that’s made us unhappy.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

It is at this moment that the reader realizes that the girl has been silent not entirely out of anger, but also because the man's manipulation of her is beginning to work. He has promised her several improbable things, and now, by asking what they will do afterwards, she shows that she is seriously considering the abortion as a result. His manipulation continues as he tells her an obvious untruth, that the pregnancy is the only thing wrong with their relationship. This is a clear instance in which the the girl's and the man's conceptions of happiness are at odds. The girl no longer seems to want a nomadic lifestyle of traveling and heavy drinking, but the man promises her the happiness of "before" the pregnancy. He is essentially referring to them resuming the lifestyle that the girl has already expressed is inadequate for her. The only reason that the man's logic prevails is that the girl is swayed by his promises of love and happiness. These promises ring hollow, though, as we see them being made as a way to manipulate the girl out of making the choice that she wants.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.”
“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Until now readers could not be entirely sure of the tone of the conversation that the man and the girl are having--we're not sure to what extent the girl is actually buying his manipulation. In her statement that she has known lots of people who had abortions and "afterward they were all so happy," though, we realize that the girl's statements have a twinge of sarcasm; she is still resisting, after all. This is another instance of the complexity of language in the story--we've seen it working as a code, as a smokescreen, and now saying one thing and meaning the opposite. This exchange also shows that the girl's and the man's interests are at odds, and it gestures towards the idea that the reason for the opposed interests could be gendered. Though we have no reason to trust that the man is truthful when he implies that the people he knows who have been in their situation have been happy with the choice to abort, it's certainly possible that the man is telling the truth, that his (male) friends have found freedom in the choice to terminate a pregnancy, while the girl's (female) friends have been saddened by the same choice. This points to the ways in which the same choice will have an opposite effect on the girl and the man, and how this choice might break across gender lines.

“…But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Now it seems clear that the girl is leaning towards agreeing to terminate her pregnancy, but it certainly doesn't seem like a choice that she has freely made. Instead of choosing abortion because she is genuinely convinced by the man's appeals, she uses the abortion as a bargaining chip, essentially making him promise that he'll love her and that they will communicate better and have a nicer relationship if she does what he wants. This question of hers is particularly significant because it implies that their elliptical and evasive conversational style is also something that she wants to address in their relationship. It seems that she would like them to be able to speak openly about their problems and needs, but, ironically, she doesn't feel free to openly express this desire. This exchange also demonstrates the power inequality between the man and the girl. The girl is in a position in which she feels that in order to obtain things that should be given freely in a good relationship, she must give up a pregnancy that she really wants. The story demonstrates the powerlessness of this woman, and the ease with which the man can manipulate her into a significant and painful choice.

“Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

A major theme in this story is the ways in which our words become estranged from their meanings in tense situations, and this is a perfect example. The girl, who is by now irrevocably entangled in the man's web of manipulation, seems to feel that she has few options left for resistance. Her disingenuous avowal that "I don't care about me" is framed as a selfless offer to follow the man's wishes, but is actually meant as an appeal to him to recognize his own selfishness. By seemingly embracing his consuming power, she is attempting to passive-aggressively critique it, hoping to make him see that he is forcing her into making a choice that is not her own. This is clearly gendered--and the story was written at a time when, even more than today, women were expected to give up their own ambitions and desires in order to accommodate their men. This statement also touches on the ways in which each person's desire appears to impinge on the other's freedom. The man doesn't want to be responsible for a child, and the woman doesn't want to terminate her pregnancy. It then seems oddly honest to say that if she did terminate it, it wouldn't be because she cared about herself.

“And we could have all this,” she said “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

Related Characters: The Girl (Jig) (speaker), The Man
Related Symbols: Barren/Fertile Land
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Like her statement that the hills look like white elephants, this is the girl's attempt to make a coded appeal to the reality she envisions. Just before saying this she looks out on the landscape that had been formerly described as barren and suddenly she sees grain and trees. The hills are fertile to her, while to the man they were dusty and empty, which symbolizes their conflicted views of their situation. By this point in the story the girl has been manipulated thoroughly, and it seemed that her ability to resist the man was limited to small disruptions of his own script ("Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me."). This outburst, though, is an unexpectedly radical appeal to the man to see things wholly on her terms--that she should have the baby, and that it would give them "everything." She is letting him know here unequivocally that this is the life that she wants.

“What did you say?”
“I said we could have everything.”
“We can have everything.”
“No, we can’t.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

As the conversation progresses, the girl's seeming optimism is tempered. The tone of their conversation makes it seem like she was only capable of making such a sweeping statement ("we could have everything") because she already felt that the possibility was closed. This also shows the conflicting realities of the man and the girl--while for her having everything would mean starting a family, for him having everything means returning to their life of superficial adventure. They appear here to be having the same conversation, but they are arguing about different things. This conversation is poignant, too, because it shows the ways in which the girl perceives her choice to be limited. She has not yet had the abortion, but she seems to understand that the choice has essentially already been made by the man. Because she does not seem open to sacrificing her relationship and having the child without his support, she is powerless to oppose him. This draws attention to the cruelty of his giving lip service to the idea that this is fully her choice, even though he is withholding the support that would make it truly her choice.

“We can go everywhere.”
“No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.”
“It’s ours.”
“No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

While in the above quote it wasn't entirely clear that the man and the girl were having two different conversations, here it is obvious. The man is talking quite literally about their freedom to travel, which he values above all else, and the woman is talking about several things at once. On one level, she is talking about the baby, which she sees as already gone. On another level, she seems to be talking more abstractly about a togetherness or a sympathy between the two of them that seems to have been destroyed in the course of deciding to have the abortion. When framed this way, the girl was given no choice at all--the only way to make the family that she desires work would have been for both of them to want it. Since the man has never been willing to entertain the idea, her hopes were dashed, even though he technically said she could do what she wanted. This is a further indication of the power imbalance between the two of them, in which the man is in a much better position to get what he wants.

“Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.”
“Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else. And I know it’s perfectly simple.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most crass manipulations of all. Here the girl is clumsily trying to win the man over to her perspective on the abortion and their potential family, and the man reframes it in a way that preys on her hopes. Throughout the story, the love lost between them has been frequently alluded to, and it's clear that the woman wants kindness and love to return to their relationship very badly. While she believes their relationship would be better if they had the baby, he believes that it would improve by not having the baby and returning to their carefree lifestyle. The man here tries to get his way by framing his desire for the abortion as being wrapped up in his unrivaled love for her. "I don't want anybody but you," he says, though that's a hard thing to believe after the way he has treated her throughout the story. He seems to be promising her a familial love only if she has the abortion--which will, ironically, destroy the possibility of the real family that the girl wants.

He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.

Related Characters: The Man
Related Symbols: The Train Station
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a poignant moment, as the man glances at the luggage after recognizing that he has not yet persuaded the girl to see the abortion his way. The luggage, with all the labels from far-flung hotels, is symbolic both of the life of freedom and adventure that they've had so far, and of the burden (the "baggage") that the pregnancy has placed on their relationship and the limits that a baby (in his opinion) would place on their future. It's powerful that the same luggage can simultaneously symbolize opposite realities--this is emblematic of the impasse in their relationship, as they cannot agree about whether the baby would be a good or a bad thing. It is significant, too, that the man is having this reckoning inside the train station. To board the train represents a choice; it represents the way in which they will go forward with their lives. The man must move the luggage because he knows that the train, like this significant choice, is coming soon, even though they have reached no resolution.

He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train.

Related Characters: The Man (speaker)
Related Symbols: Alcohol, The Train Station
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout this story, the man and the girl drink copious amounts of alcohol as a means of escaping their reality. So much of this story is about finding ways to avoid confronting their difficult choice: their refusal to speak about it literally, their symbolic preference of the shade over the light, and their relentless drinking, for instance. This moment represents a whole new level of evasiveness, as the man stops at the bar to drink apart from the girl, even though he has a beer waiting at their table. His observation that everyone else is "waiting reasonably for the train" seems to imply that he believes that the girl is out of line, or that she is the only person who is not facing a significant choice with dignity and reason. This condescending and unempathetic observation is emblematic of the sexism that the man displays toward the girl, and the uneven power in their relationship. Even as the man does everything he can not to listen to the girl's perspective and confront their choice head on, he still judges her for not approaching the situation rationally, as he presumably believes he has done.