Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," tells the story of a man and a woman drinking beer and anise liqueur while they wait at a train station in Spain. The man is attempting to convince the woman to get an abortion, but the woman is ambivalent about it. The story takes its tension from their terse, barbed dialogue.
First published in 1927, the story exemplifies Hemingway's Iceberg Theory of writing and is widely anthologized today.
Hemingway's Iceberg Theory
Also known as the "theory of omission," Hemingway's Iceberg Theory contends that the words on the page should be merely a small part of the whole story. The words on the page are the proverbial "tip of the iceberg," and a writer should use as few words as possible in order to indicate the larger, unwritten story that resides below the surface.
Hemingway made it clear that this "theory of omission" should not be used as an excuse for a writer not to know the details behind his or her story. As he wrote in Death in the Afternoon, "A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."
At fewer than 1,500 words, "Hills Like White Elephants" exemplifies this theory through its brevity and through the noticeable absence of the word "abortion," even though that is clearly the main subject of the story. There are also several indications that this isn't the first time the characters have discussed the issue, such as when the woman cuts the man off and completes his sentence in the following exchange:
"'I don't want you to do anything that you don't want to -- '"
"'Nor that isn't good for me,' she said. 'I know.'"
How Do We Know It's About Abortion?
If it already seems obvious to you that "Hills Like White Elephants" is a story about abortion, you can skip this section. But if the story is new to you, you might feel less certain about it.
Throughout the story, it is clear that the man would like the woman to get an operation, which he describes as "awfully simple," "perfectly simple" and "not really an operation at all." He promises to stay with her the whole time and promises that they'll be happy afterward because "that's the only thing that bothers us."
He never mentions the woman's health, so we can assume the operation is not something to cure an illness. He also frequently says she doesn't have to do it if she doesn't want to, which indicates that he's describing an elective procedure. Finally, he claims that it's "just to let the air in," which implies abortion rather than any other optional procedure.
When the woman asks, "And you really want to?" she's posing a question that suggests the man has some say in the matter -- that he has something at stake -- which is another indication that she's pregnant. And his response that he's "perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you" doesn't refer to the operation -- it refers to not having the operation. In the case of pregnancy, not having the abortion is something "to go through with" because it results in the birth of a child.
Finally, the man asserts that "I don't want anybody but you. I don't want anyone else," which makes it clear that there will be "somebody else" unless the woman has the operation.
The symbolism of the white elephants further emphasizes the subject of the story.
The origin of the phrase is commonly traced to a practice in Siam (now Thailand) in which a king would bestow the gift of a white elephant on a member of his court who displeased him. The white elephant was considered sacred, so on the surface, this gift was an honor. However, maintaining the elephant would be so expensive as to ruin the recipient. Hence, a white elephant is a burden.
When the girl comments that the hills look like white elephants and the man says he's never seen one, she answers, "No, you wouldn't have." If the hills represent female fertility, swollen abdomen, and breasts, she could be suggesting that he is not the type of person ever to intentionally have a child.
But if we consider a "white elephant" as an unwanted item, she could also be pointing out that he never accepts burdens he doesn't want. Notice the symbolism later in the story when he carries their bags -- covered with labels "from all the hotels where they had spent nights" -- to the other side of the tracks and deposits them there while he goes back into the bar, alone, to have another drink.
The two possible meanings of white elephants -- female fertility and cast-off items -- come together here because, as a man, he will never become pregnant himself and can cast off the responsibility for her pregnancy.
"Hills Like White Elephants" is a rich story that yields more every time you read it. Consider the contrast between the hot, dry side of the valley and the more fertile "fields of grain." You might consider the symbolism of the train tracks or the absinthe. You might ask yourself whether the woman will go through with the abortion and whether they'll stay together and whether either of them knows the answers to these questions yet.