Earnest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” if read as written is a simple conversation about a couple drinking and taking in the scenery around a train station, but when broken down is actually a conversation about abortion. Many critics have analyzed the story from a descriptive and conversational stand point. From a descriptive stance they look at how Hemingway described the setting around the train station, and what the couple has with them. Whereas looking from a conversation stand point they analyze what’s said, how it’s said, and the character’s body language. The reason for the analysis is to figure out if Jig will follow through with the abortion and the relationship, if she will keep the child and the American, or if the American will leave her abortion or not.
As you read the discussion between American and Jig you may not realize the descriptive language that deals directly with abortion. Not once is the term abortion or baby said. The critics heavily focus on the topic of the hills surrounding the train station. Jig says “They look like white elephants” (Hemingway 182) when describing them. The hills have two separate sides depending on where you stand. One side is fertile and flourishing while the other is docile and dull. Many have viewed that as the first sign of Hemingway’s referencing the pregnancy. Many view the flourishing side as a sign of a great love or even the idea of a possible family between the two, but Sherlyn Abdoo takes a different approach and compares the hills to “the belly of a reclining women with child” (Abdoo 238). Abdoo also compares the cold, empty side to that of a stillborn child or even a child who has been aborted. Nilofer Hashmi looks at the descriptions of the bare side and compares it to the way the American reacts to the idea of Jig’s pregnancy. Arthur Bethea would agree with Hashmi by the point he made when the husband “beckons her to return to the shade and moral darkness” (Bethea 97) as he hints at the idea of abortion and not a flourishing family which was represented by Jig standing looking at the sunlit side of the hills.
The idea of the white elephant is also commonly discussed. Most reference the Indians view on elephants as a rare and sacred animal, which is how Jig is perceived to view the idea of having the child. Also in Jig perception, it would be privileging to create a family; where Bethea mentions that the American views the idea in the negative light as if a child would be an expensive burden upon their relationship and or his lifestyle. Some may also use the figurative phrase “an elephant in the room” to describe the situation that is uncomfortable to discuss in public places, and the conversation at hand dealing with abortion would be the so-called “elephant” in the commonly used phrase.
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Critics also choose to focus on the luggage that the couple has carried along for their trip. On the couple’s luggage are two tags that say where they have recently been on their vacation. When the American carries the bag over the tracks Hashmi views that as “symbolizing the girl’s side of the issue” (Hashmi 73) and the American deciding with her. Hilary Justice breaks down the idea of the tracks by analyzing the way they are facing and how the station is laid out. The American puts the bags on the fertile side, yet the train coming through the fertile side is the one they take to Madrid for an abortion. She also makes a note that the station is in the middle of the two tracks which could be viewed as the in-between decision of going through with the abortion or keeping the child.
An unusual focus for some is the name of the female protagonist being Jig. The name is fitting according to Abdoo because the name, Jig “underscores her frantic and unstable situation” (Abdoo 238) which is obvious to many when she threatens to scream. A jig is also a short dance which could be compared to how they are dealing with this topic in a public area. They are dancing around the subject of abortion, but do not come out and say it or conclude the conversation. Meg Gillette would agree, but she adds on by saying the name is that of a “modern new women” (Gillette 59). Meaning she is a newer aged female who would rather pursue what is best for her, which in this case would be having a baby, and does not worry as much about keeping the man. She also says that by Jig drinking it makes her more of an empowering or self-serving female. She does not feel the need to be overpowered by the American or have her ideas dismissed by his taking control of the conversation about the “simple operation” (Hemingway 183).
The analyzing of body language plays a large role when trying to figure out how Jig feels about the American pressuring her into aborting the love child. A common topic is her smiling at certain points in the story. She starts off at the being smiling as a way of saying thank you to the women serving the two drinks according to Justice. The second smile was towards the man for carrying the bags over to the train which is read as another thank you gesture. The last smile is to the American as he walked through the beads after placing the bags by the tracks. The critics under the smile as a sense of satisfaction, because she has figured out what it is that she is going to do. There is also discussed body language of the man when he looks down at the luggage. Justice says “he is now the one who confronts the urgency of the situation” (Justice 22) because he has now realized that a decision needs to be made, and the girl is no longer okay with the going through with the abortion.