Hills Like White Elephants is a short story by Ernest Hemingway that offers a brief glimpse into the lives of expatriates during the pre- World War 1 time-frame. Hemingway’s personal experience as an expatriate living in Europe during the 1920s can be seen throughout the images so keenly described in his short story Hills Like White Elephants and is an accurate piece of literature based on experiences that were common amongst other expatriates of that generation – this story reflects many trends popular with expatriates who had traveled to post-WWI Europe. The story can be interpreted through the exploration of the cause of those trends and ideals held by that (lost) generation.
Through this opening passage we are able to understand the location of where our characters are traveling. The beginning of our story sets a scene for the reader:
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 (Hemingway).
The Ebro is a river in Spain Northeast of Madrid, much closer to the border of France. The two characters of the story, the American and the girl are traveling towards Madrid, the central hub of Spain, a place that could solve problem they are having. We understand towards the end of the story, that the couple is discussing the possibility of an abortion, something that was highly illegal in the 1920r’s, especially in a catholic country such as Spain. To understand the mentality, outlook and understanding of life the characters have, presented to us through dialogue, we must first understand the life that an expatriate experienced in the early 20th century. The reason we can rely on this story as one that is accurate to the real experiences of an expatriate in Europe is because the writer, Ernest Hemingway, was an expatriate himself.
Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1899. At the age of eighteen he volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War 1 and was sent to France. This choice is what gave Ernest much insight and relation that helped him develop his works later in life. A large reason of expatriates in Europe during the 1920r’s is due to the result of World War 1 and the exposure that many young Americans experienced when there. In Matthew Boltonr’s essay on Hemingway as an expatriate, he states:
In the wake of World War I, a combination of cultural and economic factors conspired to make the city an attractive destination for footloose Americans. The United States involvement in the war meant that some five million young men had been exposed to life in Europe. With the war over, some of these veterans found that France held far more attraction for them than did their American hometowns (Bolton).
We understand that, World War I resulted in a cultural movement, exposing many Americans to the expatriate life of Europe – the added effects of the war resulted in the generation that fought it to be lost to Europe – the lost generation. The reactionary decade that followed the war gave way to many institutions to American culture that dissuaded much of the lost generation to return to American.
Prohibition noble experiment in outlawing the manufacture and sale of alcohol, had gone into effect in January of 1920. Mainstream American culture, and the legal apparatus that supported it, was resolutely bent on reintegrating the veterans of the Great War into a life of temperance, family values, and the Protestant work ethic (Bolton).
Following Hemingwayr’s understanding of post-World War I America, we can
expect that the writer did not want to return to a land of ?…godliness, propriety, and respectability were of paramount importance (Bolton). The buying power of the dollar to the Franc also was a large deciding factor to the average expatriate. In an article Hemingway wrote to the Toronto Star, for which he worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris, he stated: An American or Canadian can live comfortably, eat at attractive restaurants and find amusement for a total expenditure of two and one half to three dollars a day (Reynolds 5).
Hemingway was an expatriate himself and through the experiences he gained through World War I, as well as working as a foreign correspondent – among many other things and experiences throughout his life – we are able to peer into the life of an expatriate (the life of an expatriate is divulged less through Hills Like White Elephants than it is through Hemingwayr’s other works, such as The Sun Also Rises, but if we can understand the author’s background, or have at least read any of his other works, we are able to acknowledge the meaning of the story and the underlying stories that are not written).
The story of Hills Like White Elephants is one that is built on the curiosity of the reader. The subject of abortion in the story is never directly divulged by the characters, but is hinted upon throughout. The main characters, only known as the American and the girl, are seen to be expatriates experiencing a life of exploration through Europe – them presently being in Spain. They are in a train junction and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid (Hemingway). The full written story takes only eight or so minutes to read and at the end of the story we read that “…the train comes in five minutes (Hemingway). This shows us, through the lack of information and the state-of-fact writing that Hemingway is praised for, that there was much silence during that time period. This helps us understand the setting further. The man in the story seems to push for the girl to receive the procedure. The girl is reluctant, but through the setting we can say that, though reluctant, the girl is also unsure of what to do because they are at a junction – which tells us that the couple has travelled this far already in order to get to Madrid where this procedure could be done.
The man in the story is very matter-of-fact, realistic, and shows a lack of remorse towards the situation. The girl, someone he says he loves, is the opposite. Because of the manr’s pressure, she is considering to not proceed with the abortion. The choice of the man is reason enough for her to understand that this is the life that the man chooses to proceed with a life of adventure, experience and excitement – not one that involves starting a family and taking care of a child. As an expatriate, experiencing a life that is freeing and exciting is something that is expected, but through the story we can see that even if this life is something that the man wants – and maybe it was something that the woman wanted at a certain point – it is not that same now. In the text, we read:
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of
two of the strings of beads.
“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
” I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people
that have done it (Hemingway).
In this excerpt, we see that the man still believes that through this procedure happiness will return. The idea that happiness will return is something that is frequent in the ideals of an expatriate, the belief that after devastation, there will always come happiness – after the abortion, happiness will return. This can relate back to World War I and how many young soldiers found comfort in the aftermath and the beauty of Europe, while back in America, the country was bracing for the aftermath of many young Americans returning home.
Throughout the short story of Hills Like White Elephants we are provided with little informational text aside from descriptive elements of setting and such. We are required to rely on our own understanding in order to decipher the subject and meaning of the story. Through the research, explanation and understanding of the trends of expatriates in Europe – and what cause so many young people to decide on a life as an expatriate we can understand the story better. It seems to be one that shares with us the mentality of expatriates. Many focusing on the good life, the freedom and expressionistic ideals that are not present in America this plays a huge roll on the choices of many expatriates in Europe.
In conclusion, a work like Hills Like White Elephants is one that evokes a sense of nostalgia and melancholy once we understand the trends and ideals of the subjects involved. The life of freedom, happiness, wealth, adventure and relaxation is a powerful pursuit and one that, once held, is something that is hard to let go of. With an understanding of life in the post-war 20th century, we are able to relate to a lifestyle that we have dreamt of one we have imagined to be just a fantasy but one that is not simply happiness and comfort. The depths achievable by man in pursuit of self-discovery and freedom may be deep but the heights that can come may be worth the turmoil and risk. This story explains that through less than enough words and we are the ones who need to unearth the true meaning of the work.
Hemingway, Ernest. Hills Like White Elephants. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.
Ed. R.V. Cassill. New York: Norton & Company, 1995. 443-447.
Bolton, Matthew J. “An American in Paris: Hemingway and the Expatriate Life.” Critical Insights: The Sun Also Rises, edited by Keith Newlin, Salem, 2010. Salem Online.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. 1989. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
Kennedy, J. Gerald.Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1993.
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