Hills Like White Elephants

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Men, Women, and Relationships Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Limits of Language Theme Icon
Choice Theme Icon
Freedom vs Family Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Relationships Theme Icon
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Men, Women, and Relationships Theme Icon

At the heart of “Hills Like White Elephants” is Hemingway’s examination of the man and girl’s deeply flawed relationship, a relationship that champions “freedom” at the cost of honesty, respect, and commitment. In this sense, the man and girl represent stereotypes of male and female roles: the male as active and the female as passive. In this gender framework, the man makes the decisions and the female complies. However, as the story illustrates, such a power dynamic is fundamentally flawed and destructive. The man is domineering in all his interactions, andthough he pays lip service to wanting to make the girl happy, his decisions are ultimately guided by his own desires. He wants the girl to seekan abortion in order to maintain the freedom he enjoys, but he wants it to be her decision. For the man,it is not enough for her to do what he wants, but she must also want what he wants. The man seeks to control both the girl’s actions and intentions as though she were a child, a deeply unhealthy and damaging pattern of behavior.

At first the girl is resistant to the man’s emotional manipulation. She attempts to paint a picture of the future life she and the man could have together if they were to have a child. The man, though, is unwilling even to entertain these notions, and yet he phrases his refusal in the manipulative language of love, claiming that “I don’t want anybody but you.” Eventually the girl acquiesces to the man’s overbearing insistence, surrendering her personal freedom to his wishes. At the story’s conclusion, when he asks her if she feels better, the girl’s stiff reply reveals her true feelings: “I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” This final act of concealment and self-suppression suggests that this relationship, so representative of the traditional dynamic between men and women at the time,will remain stalled in its present unhealthy stateuntil it likely falls apart completely.

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Men, Women, and Relationships Quotes in Hills Like White Elephants

Below you will find the important quotes in Hills Like White Elephants related to the theme of Men, Women, and Relationships.
Hills Like White Elephants Quotes

“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Alcohol
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

In this statement, the girl is describing the landscape around the train station bar where she and her boyfriend are drinking. The landscape is described as hot, barren, and dry, and from the girl's observation that the hills "look like white elephants" comes the title to the piece. This is an important observation because it means so much more than it appears to. As the story continues, we learn that the girl is pregnant and the man is pressuring her to have an abortion. The girl's declaration that the hills look like white elephants, then, is her coded acknowledgement that there is a problem between them that the two of them cannot speak of openly. The man's response, that he has never seen a white elephant, reveals his wish that this problem would just disappear, and the girl's rebuttal that, "no, you wouldn't have," lets us understand that this kind of manipulation and denial is typical of him. Significantly, the girl only seems comfortable asserting herself in a coded manner.

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“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

Related Characters: The Man (speaker), The Girl (Jig)
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Until this moment, it is at least plausible that the couple is literally talking about white elephants. However, the man's extreme reply to the girl's assertion that he wouldn't have seen a white elephant reveals that their conversation is actually about something much deeper. The man's comment gets at the politics between the two of them--the man seems to feel burdened, annoyed, or even impinged upon by the girl's assertion about him. It seems that he feels that her desires or the way she sees the world limits him in some way and that he is more than what she tells him he is. This is a theme throughout the story, the ways in which two people with desires and realities that are at odds can hurt one another. In this example, the man is indignant about what he perceives as a verbal representation of the ways in which the girl is capable of limiting his life by having the baby.

“Oh, cut it out.”
“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”
“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”
“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”

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

Throughout the story the two main characters bicker relentlessly--everything seems to be a source of conflict, no matter how small. The fact that they seem to have lost the ability to find joy in one another or foster mutual compassion shows the deep fault lines in their relationship, and makes it clear that it's disingenuous when the girl says, "I was having a fine time." It is disingenuous, too, when the girl says, "You started it" and "I was trying." In this exchange, the words that these characters speak seem to have very little relationship to their literal meaning (all the dialogue has become a coded reference to the abortion, of which they cannot directly speak, and its potential effect on their relationship). The girl clearly brought up the white elephant simile in order to raise the contentious topic of the abortion, though here she denies this to try to claim the moral high ground, an obfuscation enabled by the vague way the two of them are using language. Throughout the story, we see the girl's passive-aggressive conversational tactics at war with the man's emotionally manipulative ones.

“I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”

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

In this statement, the girl expresses a major dissatisfaction with their relationship and with their life. While the man seems to enjoy their life of traveling and drinking, the girl seems to want something more—perhaps to start a family and have the stability of a home. Obviously, though, because of the splintered communication between the two of them, she can only allude to this disconnect. This statement, however, is a marked departure from their previous chattering and bickering, in that it comes closest to expressing a concrete problem and the corresponding desire that this problem implies. When the man simply responds, "I guess so," the girl seems frightened or regretful, since she walks back her statement by denying that the hills look like white elephants after all. Again, this is an example of the girl's desires being at odds with the man's desires, and the mismatched power between the two of them.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

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

When the man says this, the girl has just made a small overture towards him by reversing her earlier claim that the hills look like white elephants, which symbolically indicated her willingness to bury the topic of the abortion in favor of having a more cordial time. However, the man sees an opening for manipulation in the girl's sudden kindness. This is the first time in the story in which the man uses the girl's pet name, Jig, and he seems to do it to offer her a glimpse of the tenderness and love he has been withholding. Because of the tremendous power his love seems to have over her, this is a manipulative gesture. He does not introduce the pet name in the context of offering her a choice about her pregnancy, but rather in the context of telling her that the operation will be simple, or not even an operation at all. 

“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.

“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.

“Well,” the man said, “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.”

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

After the girl's sarcastic reply, the man knows he needs to change tactics. Since presenting the abortion as the choice that would make the girl happiest is not giving him the result he wants, he moves on to disingenuously defending his good intentions by saying that "I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to." Hemingway subtly modulates the tone of the dialogue here. While before the man was using the girl's pet name and describing how good things could be, his voice now seems a little more flippant and frustrated. The disingenuousness of his statement is confirmed when he adds, "But I know it's perfectly simple." It seems, then, that he is patronizingly telling her that she is free to make the wrong decision if that's what she really wants. Throughout this story the man's manipulation rests on the supposed choice that the girl has about her pregnancy, but the man has never seriously entertained allowing her to make that choice uncoerced. 

“…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. 

“Come on back in the shade,” he said. “You mustn’t feel that way.”
“I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I just know things.”

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

The light in this story has been described as beating and harsh--the characters go to the shade of the train station bar just to avoid it. But this avoidance, like their strange and elliptical conversation, represents their unwillingness to talk about the girl's pregnancy, the huge issue in their relationship. In this exchange, the girl has just been fairly honest (in a coded way) about wanting to keep the baby and about feeling that they can't "have everything" without it. In response, the man tells her to "come back into the shade," which represents his desire not to dwell in the harsh truth of her emotions. The man tells the girl that she "mustn't feel that way," referring to her sense of loss, and she recognizes that this is diminutive and manipulative, responding that she doesn't "feel" something, she "knows" something. The man here seems to be playing into stereotypes that men are more rational and that women are more emotional, but when he tries to reduce her choice about the abortion to "feeling" the girl pushes back. 

“All right. But you’ve got to realize—”
“I realize,” the girl said. “Can’t we maybe stop talking?”

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

By this point the girl is exhausted by their coded bickering and the man's relentless manipulation. She's not able to get the upper hand through conversation, so, reaching the limit at which language can no longer productively address the problems in their relationship, she asks him to stop talking altogether. Significantly, before she requests silence, the man is beginning to launch into another line of reasoning for why she should have the abortion. He implies, with the phrase "you've got to realize," that the girl is not making an informed decision. He seems to be chalking her choice up to emotional reasoning rather than rational thought, and he frames his statement as though he is about to enlighten her. The girl rejects this by interrupting him and saying that she does realize--the girl wants to communicate that she knows all the things he's going to say to her, and her desire is still hers. Throughout the story we see the man trying to get his way by reframing her choice in his own terms rather than allowing her to choose based on her own values and hopes.

“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. 

“Would you do something for me now?”
“I’d do anything for you.”
“Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”

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

This is another situation where Hemingway builds tension through the ambiguity of not knowing exactly what the girl is thinking. The man clearly believes, when she asks him to do something for her, that he has gotten his way and that she is about to ask for something as a concession in return. Out of relief, he says he would do anything. However, the girl surprises us by pleading with him to stop talking, implying that she has still not been won over by his manipulation. The girl recognizes at this point that language is not her friend--any battle between the two of them fought verbally will be won by the man because he has no scruples about manipulating and reframing the situation any which way for his benefit. Within their relationship, language has little correspondence with truth or reality, and the girl sees that she just won't be able to use language to win him over. It's poignant to understand that the girl realizes that her only power is in silence, as she cannot make the man comprehend her reality through language. This seems allegorical for the ways in which women as a whole have been culturally silenced for so long.

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.