Hemingway’s Elephant in the Room

…The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is so stripped down and minimalist. Reading his work always gives me the feeling that he did not waste a single word. Because of this, nothing is placed in a story accidentally, and everything has an implied meaning. Hemingway never spells anything out in plain terms, so the reader is always left trying to decipher the clues left behind.

This is definitely the case with Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants from the Seagull Reader Stories volume. The story starts off with “The American and the girl with him” sitting at a train station between two tracks in the middle of the desert in Spain. They are drinking and talking while waiting for their train to come in. The majority of their banter back and forth is very terse and they spend the entire story debating whether or not the girl will have an operation. Hemingway never says what kind of an operation she is thinking of having, but it is fairly plain that they are talking about an abortion.

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.

Just in this quotation alone, it is apparent to me that not only are they discussing her imminent abortion, but also that she has doubts about going through with it. As the story progresses the man continues to escalate his insistence that it is not a big deal and that she should go through with it. The girl continues to go back and forth, never really committing to having an abortion. At one point the man’s prodding starts to irritate her so she tells him to quit talking or she will scream. After the waitress tells them the train will be there in five minutes, the man goes to move their bags to the other tracks. When he comes back (after getting a drink on his own) he asks her if she feels better and she tells him she feels fine.

Did anyone else find it telling that the girl’s name was Jig? I think that her name was alluding to the way they were artfully dancing around the giant elephant in the room (Another metaphor in the story maybe?). The couple’s relationship was clearly over. Neither one of them said as much, but throughout their flippant discussion of the matter at hand, it is painfully obvious that they don’t even like each other any more.


Some people can relate, if not to the abortion itself, then to the relationship between the two main characters. Have you ever been in a relationship that is over long before it ends? It is miserable to be in each other’s company, but you continue punishing yourself because you think you still love them. Either that or you are hoping that it will go back to being as fun as it was in the beginning, and somehow it never happens. Such is the case with the American and “Jig”.

I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?

This passage is the girl trying desperately to cling to a relationship that has already slipped out of her hands. She has lost him even if she decides to have the abortion, like he would obviously prefer her to. Perhaps one less thing to tie him to her, so he can feel less guilty about the relationship ending?

Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

The ending of the story seems to be the girl coming to terms with the ending of the relationship, and also her decision about the abortion, whatever that may be.