Hills Like White Elephants

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

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

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“…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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.LoreLorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse

“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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

“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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.