Devastatingly compact, pithy and the epitome of the American author’s iceberg theory, ‘Hills like white elephants’ is one of Ernest Hemingway’s most well-known and celebrated pieces of short fiction.
Like much of his work, the story deals with the vacuity of post-war Europe, of short-term thrills balanced out against long-term ambitions, of travelling and alcohol-fueled Americans revelling in les années folles.
And within this, there’s a masterclass in writing craft and technique. With fewer than 1,500 words, Hemingway creates a compelling and rich story, with characters who meaningfully push the narrative forward, and a tension and subtext that whinnies and pulsates from every word.
Be sure to read through the story first. You can find an online copy by clicking here.
Before diving into what exactly makes the story tick, let’s take a broader look at some of its principal pillars.
Presented through the lens of an omnipotent third-person narrator, ‘Hills like white elephants’ is set in North-East Spain and features an unnamed American man and his lover, Jig. They are at a station, drinking alcohol and waiting for a train bound for Madrid. They discuss beers, liqueurs and the eponymous hills. It’s not clear as to the exact meaning of the hills like white elephants and what they represent (although there are plenty of solid speculations), but they serve as a key focal point for Jig throughout, one that she refers back to several times.
After a page or so of dialogue and building tension, the story’s bombshell drops:
It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.
From here on out, the characters’ motivations and drives begin to unfurl. The American man wants Jig to have an abortion. We can infer that he’s happy travelling through Europe and that a young child would be an unwelcome disruption. His ultimate want throughout the story is to maintain the status quo, and his method of doing so is a series of clumsy, blunt and repetitive attempts to convince Jig to go through with the abortion while also absolving himself of any responsibility.
Jig’s position, however, is more complex. On the one hand, she loves the American man and is afraid he’ll leave her. On the other, the idea of having the child and settling down is appealing to her. She must decide whether to stick or twist: to pursue what she suspects will be a more fruitful and fulfilling life, while risking the longevity of her relationship; or to continue as she has been.
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.
The opening paragraph is one of the few chunks of non-dialogue prose in ‘Hills like white elephants’, and it’s exceptional in how it so efficiently sets the tone for the remainder of the story.
The first two sentences place the reader in the Spanish mountains, while also planting seeds for later: the shady, barren side of the valley that the couple are in later contrasts with the fecund fields of grain and trees on the other side.
We also get a description of where the American man and Jig’s drama unfolds: ‘against the side of the station,’ separated from the bar by a ‘curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads.’ Like a theatre stage, this is an isolated setting, away from potential intrusion and external distractions – the perfect spot for building tension.
And finally, this opening paragraph creates an immediate and subtle tension that stays with the reader for the remainder of the story: the fact that it’s ‘very hot’ gives the prose a sense of claustrophobia; and knowing that the train is arriving in forty minutes places a time limit on what’s about to occur.
With just over one hundred words, Hemingway creates a visual backdrop, provides an intimate and claustrophobic setting for the two characters and their conflict, plants literary seeds that will be referred back to poignantly later in the story, and adds a a deadline in which the conflict has to resolve itself, one way or another.
This next section takes the reader right up to the big reveal and crux of the story.
Aside from a short paragraph where the waitress brings the couple their beers and Jig is ‘looking off at the line of hills‘, this section is nearly all dialogue. On the surface, a simple conversation between a man and a woman where they discuss drinks and, of course, the hills like white elephants.
But beneath the surface (where great writers like Hemingway operate), this passage tells the reader so much more. For a start, there are repeated references to the couple’s drinking throughout. Not just ordering two drinks each, but their brief exchange regarding the Anis del Toro:
‘It tastes like licorice,’ the girl said and put the glass down.
‘That’s the way with everything.’
‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of licorice.’
‘Everything tastes of licorice’ is a strange remark to make and suggests that the couple are used to drinking regularly – not just beer and wine, but more exotic liqueurs like absinthe, Sambuca and pastis. It’s a nice use of ‘Show, don’t tell’. We learn something interesting about the couple that’s integral to the plot, and rather than tell us explicitly, Hemingway ushers it into a smooth and advancing storyline.
Then, there’s the subtle tension woven throughout the section, building up until the big reveal. There are two mini arguments that take place: the man being defensive when Jig suggests he would never have seen a white elephant; and again, when Jig expresses her boredom at drinking so much. Once more, Hemingway is here providing further backstory, teasing at a pre-existing conflict that exists between the couple, and one that will soon be revealed.
This section is reminiscent of something I was once told about Hemingway. To practise and hone his technique, he would often sit on terraces of Parisian cafes, eavesdropping on conversations and writing a story based on what he heard. Later, he would try to halve the length of what he’d written, without compromising the essence of the story. Once satisfied with that, he’d halve it again, until he was left with just a paragraph of prose. You can imagine this section, between Jig and the American man, being one of Hemingway’s overheard cafe conversations, one that he worked on and boiled down until it was just the absolute bare bones of what he wished to convey.
Now we come to the crux of the story, the height of the tension that Hemingway has built up during the first page and a half:
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’
Despite not being explicit and actually using the word ‘abortion’, the story’s plot and the couple’s tension is immediately explained.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘big event’ or the ‘crisis’, this is an important part of any story. It’s the moment when the stakes are revealed and the reader understands what the characters are fighting for.
In the case of ‘Hills like white elephants’, we soon learn that the American man is trying to convince Jig to go through with the operation.
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘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.
‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
In a story packed with dialogue, Jig’s silence is striking. All she can do is look at the ground and listen to the American man tell her what we assume are the same old points he’s made before. By having her say nothing, Hemingway is teeing up the most interesting part of the story and where the real conflict lies: Jig’s internal battle about whether to go through with the operation or not.
It is worth noting here that Hemingway chooses to make the ‘big reveal’ halfway through the story. Many writers – especially those writing today – would’ve been tempted to place this right at the beginning, thus having the ‘Chekhov’s gun‘ device linger throughout the opening exchanges, injecting further tension into the piece. Hemingway chose to go the more subtle, understated route, relying on a slow and steady build up, and ultimately profiting from an explosive moment in the middle passage, from which he then builds on.
Now that the big reveal has been made and the reader is aware of what’s at stake, it’s time for the characters to begin putting their motivations into action. for the American man: convincing Jig to go ahead with the abortion.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’
‘You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it.’
‘I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.’
Jig’s position, however, is more nuanced and interesting and is the most engaging aspect of the story. She isn’t sure whether she wants to go through with the abortion or not. She does know that the American man doesn’t want to have the child, and she fears what will happen if she decides to have it against his wishes. Perhaps he’ll leave her, and she will have to raise the child alone. She spends the remainder of the story battling with her own concerns and doubts, which combine as a powerful antagonist.
Immediately after the ‘big reveal’, Jig’s inner conflict manifests itself as her repeatedly seeking reassurance.
‘And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.’
‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’
‘If I do it you won’t ever worry?’
These lines may appear to be for the American man, but they’re not. They’re a glimpse at Jig’s internal conflict. She’s hanging onto a future where she can have what she really wants, the child and the American man, even though she’ll soon come to the realisation that it’s not possible to have both.
Next, the reader is given another rare passage of prose.
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, 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 she saw the river through the trees.
Here, Hemingway is as concise as he is with the opening paragraph of prose. The text is not only dripping with symbolism, it also transitions neatly into the final act of the story. We see Jig viewing what her future could be with a child – like a fertile field of grain – before contemplating to herself about what that future would look like.
‘And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’
This is the moment where she realises that any hope she had of achieving her goals is impossible. She must choose between her lover and her unborn child.
By this stage of the story, any illusion that the American man is the primary antagonist is over, and he confirms his place as provocateur to her internal conflict.
‘Would you do something for me now?’
‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’
Note that the otherwise super economic Hemingway repeats the word ‘please’ seven times to really emphasise the point. This cathartic release is the final stage of Jig’s realisation – the last act of drama before the story winds down into the denouement.
The tension has burst, the battles have been fought and the story has been told. There is one more return to the old dynamic, where the American man impresses on Jig again that he doesn’t mind whether she has the abortion or not (even though he clearly does), but she quickly and firmly shuts the lid on this by simply responding, ‘I’ll scream’.
From here on out, it’s all about wrapping up the story.
It’s a common and neat device for writers to finish a story with some trope reminiscent of the introduction. This might be the return to a physical location or the recurrence of a particular character. In ‘Hills like white elephants’, it’s a zooming out from the intimate setting beside the bar and a return to the assumption that Jig will go ahead with the abortion. After Jig threatens to scream, the reader is brought from the intense microscopic view of the couple’s relationship back to their physical setting, in the bar at the train station:
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads.
The waitress also tells the couple (and by extension the reader) that time’s up on their argument:
‘The train comes in five minutes,’ she said.
The American man then takes their luggage to the platform, has one last drink at the bar and asks Jig, ‘Do you feel better?’ to which she responds unconvincingly, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
After all the conflict and tension that preceded, Jig has ended up exactly where she started. She has failed to convince the American man to reconsider keeping the child, and she’s failed to convince herself that going through with the operation is the right decision.
To build a more robust and holistic view of a piece of fiction, it can be interesting to imagine the writer making different choices to those that made the final cut. This section allows us to consider a few of those questions, and the impact they might have on the wider story.
As I mention above, many writers would’ve been tempted to kick off with the revelation that Jig is pregnant and that the American man is trying to convince her to go through with the abortion.
How different would the story have looked if that was the direction Hemingway had chosen? How would it have affected the pacing of the piece? Surely, he would have had to pick a new plot point to reveal, perhaps stemming from more backstory about the couple. Or perhaps he would have given the American man a more compelling argument, therefore adding additional layers to the conflict.
‘Hills like white elephants’ is written in omnipotent third person, meaning we get a full look at the story from all angles. However, what if the piece were written in first person? What would the story look like then?
Jig would be the obvious choice for narrator, and there would likely be less dialogue and more of a review of her own internal struggle. How might Hemingway have approached putting her well and truly centre stage?
Alternatively, the American man could make for an interesting narrator. How many changes would Hemingway have had to make to the fundamentals of the story if he’d gone with his usual instinct and placed the narrative focus on the male character?
The piece of short fiction is nice and neat, finishing with a tidy conclusion, but there are plenty of unanswered questions concerning Jig’s and the American man’s pasts and futures. What if Hemingway did as many writers do and built upon a successful short story to write a full-length novel or novella? How might the characters and their relationship evolve? What would be the next stage of conflict for them?