A Literary Analysis of the Short Story Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

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“Hills Like White Elephants,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway, displays a young couple’s struggle to make a decision regarding the topic of abortion. Due to the time period, this decision acts as a major source of controversy, and it presents itself as the main conflict within the story. Through characterization and setting, Hemingway persuades the reader to lean towards one side of the argument without exhibiting an extreme amount of bias.

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In the story, Hemingway uses mainly indirect characterization to develop his two characters. For example, the reader is aware of the fact that Jig, the girl, is insecure and indecisive by analyzing the dialogue and her actions. Specifically during the beginning when the characters are discussing drinks, she continuously asks questions and rarely makes decisions for herself. This leads the reader to believe that Jig is most likely a young adult who lacks independence; thus, she gains the sympathy of the audience, which is most likely composed of other young adults, and takes the innocent role in the story. This quality also foreshadows the idea that she will have difficulty making a decision about the abortion, the main source of conflict in the story. This topic is first seen when Jig explains that “everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things (she has] waited so long for, like absinthe” (Hemingway 212).

Absinthe, which was often used during surgical procedures, introduces the audience to the conflict and causes the first tone shift. The characters’ behavior, which exhibits their inability to communicate, quickly transitions from calm to irritable and validates the idea that the characters are incompatible for each other. As the story progresses, the man, rather than Jig, leads the conversation back towards the topic of abortion by that it’s really an awfully simple operation” (Hemingway 212). He attempts to manipulate Jig’s decision by telling her that everything would be fine afterwards and that it is the right thing to do. He only wants her, and he does not want to be responsible for a child. However, Jig, unlike the man, desires a long term relationship and a family, and their conflicting visions of their life and the baby’s part in it further acts as a division between the two characters. Hemingway, as a result, is able to persuade the audience to lean towards Jig’s side of the argument without directly stating his purpose.

In this story, Hemingway constructs the setting with his purpose in mind. This can be seen in the body of the story as well as in the title of the work. In the beginning, the reader is able to visualize a picture of where the story takes place in his or her mind. Separated by a river, there are two distinct sides of the area. The hills, which are mentioned in the title, are located in the distance on the fertile side of the river. The opposite side, where the characters are located, is described as barren and dry; subsequently, the reader is able to connect the attitudes of the characters to the setting by coming to the conclusion that Jig, who is pregnant, represents the fertile side while the American, who is harsh, represents the desolate side. This further validates the purpose by drawing the audience towards the more appealing side of the setting. Along with this, the decision that must be made is represented in the setting through the hills. Jig describes them as “white elephants” (Hemingway 211) which leads the reader to believe the topic of abortion is like the elephant in the room. The idea that they are white is also significant because the color usually symbolizes purity and innocence which can be used to describe a child. Both characters continuously avoid the topic, but they are aware that they have limited time to make their decision. By using a train station as the setting, the author takes advantage of this idea by connecting the short period of time that the characters spend in the train station to the short period of time that they have to make their choice about the baby. As time passes, the tensions between the characters increase; as a result, the reader can infer that they may resort to desperate measures and may make the wrong decision in the end.

To conclude, Hemingway employs several methods of persuasion in “Hills Like White Elephants.” Specifically, he constructs the characters and the setting in a way that will evoke an emotional response to the topic of abortion. By organizing the work as a short story, Hemingway successfully discusses the controversial idea while entertaining his young audience.

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A Literary Analysis of the Short Story Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway. (2022, Oct 06). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from
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