Hills Like White Elephants

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The Limits of Language Theme Analysis

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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.
The Limits of Language Theme Icon

As in most of his fiction, Hemingway is interested in where language breaks down between individuals and how what is unsaid or what is unspeakable can define and divide individuals. At a purely stylistic level, Hemingway exposes the inadequacy of language through his use of unnamed characters and minimalist, stripped down sentences. Without using details to describe how “the man” or “the girl” look or sound, Hemingway instead chooses to focus almost exclusively on the dialogue between the two charactersto suggest the growing alienation between them. The story’s very title of “Hills Like White Elephants,” with its use of simile to gesture at the story’s underlying tension of a pregnancy neither character feels able to directly mention, reflects the characters’ critical loss for words.

Beyond narrative style, the conversation between “the man” and “the girl” hinges on the inadequacy of what they can say or not say to one another. The man continually misunderstands or contradicts the girl, to the point that the girl begs him to stop talking at all. Though they mirror each other’s language, repeating the same words, the effect is as of an echo chamber—words repeated meaninglessly without actual communication. Finally, the looming decision that drives the whole story—whether or not the girl will get an abortion—goes unnamed by either character. They both allude to it but seem unable to discuss it directly, allowing the conversation to lapse into silences or angry outbursts instead.

An added layer to the issue of the failure of language in this story is the fact that the events are unfolding between two English-speaking tourists in Spain. Throughout the story as the characters drink,the waitress intermittently enters the scene, speaking in Spanish, which the man must translate for the girl. This situation draws attention to the idea of translation, and yet also underscores how, ironically, even though they speak the same language, it is the man and girl who are in the most need of a translator.

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The Limits of Language ThemeTracker

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The Limits of Language Quotes in Hills Like White Elephants

Below you will find the important quotes in Hills Like White Elephants related to the theme of The Limits of Language.
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 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.

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

Related Characters: The Girl (Jig) (speaker), The Man
Related Symbols: Barren/Fertile Land
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a crucial passage in the story, because this exchange becomes the man's opening to begin his most intense manipulation. The girl has just made a reasonably provocative claim, that all they do is look at things and drink (which, like everything else in this story, refers to so much more), but she seems unable to stand firm in this statement. Instead of requiring the man to respond to her and address her concerns, she symbolically retracts herself. When she brought up the hills looking like white elephants, she was seemingly trying to bring up the topic of her pregnancy, and by telling the man that the hills don't actually look like white elephants she signals her willingness to bury the topic once more. Significantly, in this observation the girl refers to the organic features of the landscape, making it seem less barren than it had before. She refers to the trees, and to the "skin" of the hills. This shows that, even as she tries to bury the topic of fertility, it still has a grip on her subconscious.

“…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.

“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. 

“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.