Analysis of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

**Note: 9/25/12 – I am still amazed that so many people (literally 200 to 400 a week steadily every semester since I posted it) visit this particular paper. Seriously, if you have any questions, go ahead and send a comment. I will try and help any way I can – same goes for any of my other papers on this blog.**

**Note: 3/14/17 – Still 50 – 100 visits to this essay come each day during spring and fall semesters. I check in for comments and questions three to four times a week, so if you have a question or something you want to bounce off of me, please know that I will respond and try to help. I also would appreciate if anyone has done well with their research papers that they send me a link or the text in an email so I can see how ya’ll did. Some of you have some really good premises you’re working on per the comments section at the end.**

Besides the symbolism in the story which has been gone over ad nauseum, I wanted to approach my analysis from a different direction. Keep in mind that in a literary analysis, you need to be focused on just the point you are trying to make and it can be difficult not to go off on tangents, like symbolism. We beat the symbolism to death in the discussion board section of the class, and I found I disagreed with most of the other online analyses I had read on this story that declared that the story’s outcome was that the girl was going to abort the baby and that the couple would part ways. She got lighter at the end – not many people noticed that – kind of like she was going to get her way. I won’t give it away. Here’s my analysis. I got a 98. The link to Hemingway’s story is at the end under the “Works Cited” section. I was never a big Hemmy fan, but I do appreciate and applaud his presentation of this particular story.

The “Elephant” in the Room: Hemingway’s Word Not Spoken

Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” uses dialogue almost exclusively to portray a serious conversation in which a major life decision is about to be made by a young female. Whereas other authors would carefully set the stage and provide backstory including insertion of motive and emotion cues of the characters as they interact, Hemingway puts the reader in the role of eavesdropper to the couple’s conversation beginning as they are seated at a table outside the train station bar. Like any eavesdropper who finds him- or herself tuning in to another’s conversation, the reader is left to discern the topic merely by listening and the occasional “peek” over at the adjacent table as to what action may actually be transpiring. Like the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone sees, but no one wants to acknowledge, not once does the couple’s actual dialogue specifically disclose the very serious and particular subject matter that the couple is discussing: abortion.

Although a sore topic for centuries and prior to the 1920s especially, birth control was a hotly contested issue in America, with proponent Margaret Sanger even living in exile in England for several years to avoid imprisonment, eventually returning to the United States to continue her social reform work promoting a woman’s right to access birth control methods and the right to safe abortions. Although as early as 1920, Communist leader Lenin legalized abortion in the Soviet Union, Hemingway’s story takes place in mid-1920s Spain, a staunchly Catholic country where abortion was still a criminal act until 2009 (“History”). The illegality of the procedure was likely the reason the word “abortion” was never injected into their public conversation. However, in any day and age, enough money seems to be able to buy anything, including the desired medical service of an abortion and with the story’s reference to many hotel stickers on their suitcases, money is apparently not an issue for the American. He was most likely aware of Margaret Sanger’s successful and legal opening in 1923 of the first birth control clinic in the United States and the progressiveness it represented.

It is also possible that he would have been aware of one of Sanger’s mantras, “Every child should be a wanted child,” and used it to persuade the young woman to arrive at this point on their journey (“Biography”). As to the American’s references to the “awfully simple operation” that was “not really an operation at all” and “it’s just to let the air in,” the man was avoiding acknowledging that the child that the girl was carrying – his child – was a human being (Hemingway). In fact, his references to her pregnancy were the same as his references to the procedure, both of which he simply called “it.” In fact, his lame attempt at patronizing her was a statement that he would “be perfectly willing to go through with it [having the baby] if it means anything to you” didn’t set well with the girl. Her sharp retort of, “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” tells the reader (or listener in the case of eavesdropping) that the man clearly does not want a baby in his immediate future as confirmed by his reply, “But I don’t want anybody but you” (Hemingway).

Whereas the interchange reveals the selfishness of the American, it also reveals the reflectiveness of the girl. Her various statements such as referring to the hills as looking similar to white elephants, her gazing across the fertile side of the train station and musing that “we could have all this,” and “once they take it away, you never get it back” reveal that she is thinking much more deeply about the issue at hand than is the man, who seems to take everything superficially (Hemingway).

If dialogue alone is not enough to surmise the topic of the conversation, Hemingway gives plenty of clues in the symbolism of his setting. The story opens indicating that the couple is seated facing the dry, barren side of the train station whereas when the girl gets up to look around, she sees that the opposite side of the station has wide open, fertile grain fields and a river. Despite the clouding of judgment one might expect from all of the alcohol the couple consumed in their time of waiting, it’s not the girl who vacillates, but the man. At the end of the story, the man takes the couple’s bags around to the other side of the station to wait for the train – the fertile side. The girl’s response was to smile at him. After his stopping at the bar for a second drink of the bittersweet Anis, he rejoined the girl who smiled again at him. After asking her, “Do you feel better?” her response that she felt fine indicates that she seems to know she has won him over from his preference to proceed with the abortion, although the conclusion is left to the judgment of the reader.

 Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1927. Online reprint., 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <>

“History of Abortion.” 11 April 2011. Web. 15 April 2011. <>

“Margaret Sanger Biography.” 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <>


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24 responses to “Analysis of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

  1. Trisha

    Hello! I am trying to do a conflict analysis essay on HLWE, and I’m completely stumped!!!! What do you think would be the best way to go about this?? Since the story is so short, how do I elaborate on the story? Do I talk about abortion in the 20s or abortion today? I’m essay has to be 3 1/2 pages long. HELP!

    Thank you in advance!


    • For some reason, this wound up in my spam folder. Sorry about that. I do hope that by now you have looked up the definition of “conflict analysis” and are at least no longer stumped on what you are supposed to be looking for. The answer to your question about which era of abortion to talk about is simple: Neither. That’s not what a conflict analysis or assessment is. Abortion isn’t even what the conflict between the parties in the story is and you don’t need to elaborate upon it. Try thinking of the assignment as: what is the tipping point of the conflict toward resolution or agreement to proceed between the two parties? The conflict pretty much is “he wants this, she wants that” and at what point does it begin to resolve toward agreement to go forward? I know that’s still a little obtuse, but it’s not about abortion at all. It’s a battle of wills. Hope that helps.

  2. Krizia

    Thank you for this, big help 🙂

  3. Gibson

    Can you identify your thesis statement please? I never fully understood the concept of a thesis and I just want to see what a correct one looks like in context. Also, would your paper be considered a credible analysis that I can reference to help support my own points in my own paper? I will give you credit and I think your analysis was very informative. Thanks!

    • The thesis statement is merely telling the reader what your stance is, i.e. the point of your paper. The first sentence of my essay fits the bill and the sentences following narrow down the scope. If you have ever written a book report or any other kind of paper for school, you’ve written thesis statements for all of them.

      If you haven’t seen this yet, take a look at Miss Ryan’s 5-Minute Guide to Stress-Free Writing, which is something I created for a high school class when I was a substitute teacher way back when. It’s not as hard as everyone thinks it is. If you are hungry for a hamburger, you usually just come out and say it. That is your thesis statement. If you are trying to convince your friend to go with you to have one as well, you follow up with reasons why you think that’s a good idea. Exact same concept here. Don’t overthink it.

      As to being a “credible analysis,” your analysis is just as credible as mine is (once you write it, of course). If you can back up your opinion with good reasons and quotes from other people who agree with you, then you are “proving your point.” “Proving” in this case being like what lawyers do, as in a case made by an attorney for his client. It doesn’t matter if you quote your school-age niece’s published-online book report. If it’s published somewhere, written or online, such that your professor or anyone else can access it for reference (important point to note), the source is thereby “credible.” You tossing out personal preferences and opinions backed up purely with “because I say so” comes across as pontificating and is therefore not credible because there is no arms-length, objective, third party support used to say, “hey, all these people agree with me.” It’s about a show of force demonstrating you have others on your side.

      Other than that, yes, my essays on this site are extremely well-entrenched both in Google search standings as well as in the specialized software used by colleges to trace back citations and quotations for plagiarism and such. For your own scholastic good, you had better quote this as an online source and do it correctly. Make sure you are following either the guidelines of your instructor or one of the manuals your school uses for quoting an internet source. My name is floating around here on the site, and if it’s not easy to find, there are several links on the sidebar as clues that you can click to hunt me down. I am not trying to make it difficult for you; I am merely trying to instruct you how to find information you need for any given research paper.

      Best of luck on your paper and by all means ……. don’t think it is harder than it really is!!! Relax and let it flow. You probably know what you are doing better than you think you do.

  4. susana

    I’m suppose to write a literary research paper and I chose to write about some of the symbols in this story such as the hills, bamboo curtain, luggage/station, and liquor. I’m suppose to use literary criticism to support my idea. I was hoping, if you are able to help me form an arguable question for this paper. I’ve never written a paper like this and I need some direction, hope you can help me out. (Do you know of some good websites I can find criticism for this story?)

    • Most important: please be more specific! Which symbol (singular) or symbols (plural but not recommending more than two or three) are you going to write about and why? What do you think is significant about them and which initial research shows other critics had something to say? Then, do you agree or disagree with them? Finally, support the “argument” for or against your very narrowed down focus. A literary analysis cannot be so broad that you wind up arguing umpteen different points and never able to be convincing about any of them. Pick one, brief aspect. The purpose of a literary analysis is taking a stand on a detail or recurring detail or two at the most and then finding MULTIPLE researched resources that either yay or nay what you think about those details. Using just one person’s say-so does not prove the point you want to make, so narrow down your scope.

  5. roni

    i have to write an literary analysis paper, can you help me?

  6. Suzanne

    Okay, let’s start with defining the terms you’ve mentioned. Resonance here ( “2. richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion” and down under the thesaurus section: “4. a relationship of mutual understanding or trust and agreement between people”) since it’s used in a literary and not vibratory way and resistance is, well, kind of obvious. So you’re focusing on how the text shows the two characters jiving/agreeing as well as in opposition. I’ll throw some questions out at you and see if they help you find some thread that (I’ve got to do it) resonates with you (lol – couldn’t help that):

    Since the text is (a) mostly conversation and (b) a smaller part descriptive, let’s take the (b) descriptive part first: what’s being described? the scenery and staging. Look for the contrast describing the two sides of the station or their actions. Then, is there anything congruous/similar that they both share despite the differences?

    Let’s go to the bigger (a) part: the conversation, and start with the girl first. Do her actions show resistance to the idea/purpose of their trip or agreement with it? Do her words demonstrate one or the other, or both? If both, what is her path of vacillation and where does she end up in your opinion?

    Revisit the (a) part with the man’s actions and with his words.

    At the end, does resistance still reign supreme between them or has a compromise been reached that they both agree or resonate with?

    How much of the story is dedicated to each person’s share of the conflict/resistance and how much to reconciliation/agreement/resonance? You could guesstimate, or even count sentences to see which Hemmy addresses more.

    Don’t know how long your paper needs to be, but here are a few other questions you might delve into of a more philosophical nature:

    Can there ever be 100% agreement or resistance? Why? Human nature? Culture? The man’s traveling Europe with a woman he may or may not be married to in the early 20th Century that he seems to have gotten pregnant. You can see he’s got some bucks in the bank. What does each one’s resistance/affinity to the proposed trip, and how strongly they stand up to the other to fight for their preference, say about their individual principles? Is it a weak character that gives up resistance and acquiesces to the other, or is lack of resistance or compromise even the same as resonance?

    Good luck – and when you get it done and it gets graded, post it somewhere at the end of the semester – I’d love to read what you do with it. 😀

  7. Daniel Weber

    I am writing a paper on the short story about how the text demonstrate resistance and resonance. Having some trouble bringing it all together, any ideas? Please get back to me

  8. arvella

    I really enjoyed your take on this. I also had the feeling she had changed her mind, that he came around for her. Not sure but that was how it played out to me. Thank you for your essay, was a big help to me. God bless you!

  9. Pat

    I really liked how you put your research into your essay. I’ve been banging my head on how to do that and now thanks to your essay I know how to. Thank you. I’ll be using your essay as my guide for today.

  10. Suzanne

    My take on it is that she keeps the baby, but nearly all of the other critiques I’ve found online think she went through with the abortion and the couple breaks up without citing convincing arguments. Who’s right?

    I outlined my observations as to why she kept the baby in my paper. I think in other replies to comments here I’ve pointed folks to the various reasons and resources I used in coming to my conclusion. If yay or nay is to be your paper’s position, I suggest looking up first what Hemmy wrote about his intentions in response to various critics who wrote about his story. I had found such a site, but it was over a year ago when I wrote the paper and don’t have it bookmarked any more. I’m sure I started the big browse with searching the college’s online research sources (monotonous as that was – ugh), but somehow wound up with a site of snippets of professional commentary stretching all the way back to soon after the story was published. It was a mile long, but helped immensely. Unequivocal evidence comes from the horse’s mouth of the guy who penned the story, so unless the final word comes from author Hemmy’s mouth or pen (which I won’t give it away as to what he actually responded to inquirers), EVERYTHING ELSE you read – including my paper – is merely someone’s opinion.

    Of course, as I see it, just because 99 people think it’s a good idea to jump off a bridge (without a bungee) and one person doesn’t, doesn’t mean the majority are right. What they have is groupthink and their position is “supported” simply by the “evidence” of numbers. Of course, Hitler convinced a ton of people he was right, but that didn’t make him so. Bottom line about what “experts say” making it right or wrong: Remember that the whole point of proving a thesis is to, uh, prove it! Pick your side and sway the audience with your hard-dug-up nuggets of proof that you’re right. Good luck!

  11. Amy

    Hello, I’m trying to put together a good thesis. Do you think there is enough evidence to write a paper supporting that she gets the abortion in the end, or more that she doesn’t?

  12. bald

    hi, I am going to write about how the setting represents the overall story. Pls help

    • Suzanne

      Not really sure what you need help on, so I’ll take a guess here:

      If “setting represents overall story” is your angle, you must have some ideas already as to which specifics you are going to use to have come up with that inspiration to lean that direction. To me, “represents” indicates you are going with the symbolism aspect. So, simply put: find those details of the setting that could convince a reader of your chosen premise. If the setting IS to represent the entire story, you need to do some serious research on maps and topography of Spain and find out where this rail station is or was most likely located so that you can Google-earth it and find out more than just the few details Hemmy included. I did this and found it very interesting and helped me draw some of the conclusions I drew when I composed my essay. Then based upon those landscape specifics you find plus what Hemmy DID include, you will need to tie the substance of the story to the symbolism of the story that you have chosen.

      Hope that helps get you started.

  13. Steve Lusine

    This was a great help. I have to prepare my part of the presentation concerning “Hills Like White Elephants” and this helped immensely. Great essay.

    • Suzanne

      Thanks, Steve. That is why I post my school essays. Writing has always been a strong point for me, and if I can help someone else who has to study the same topic understand it a little better, I am happy to share. Hope your presentation rocks!

  14. Suzanne

    Picture the text as a movie script. It gives enough instruction that you can sketch out an overhead map of the area: train station with a train track on each side, one side is fertile valley, the other side desert-like, the interior of the station has a bar, there’s a table on the dry side, she walks to the end and looks at the fertile valley, and at the end, he moves her bags to the opposite side. I also did a google/terra map to see what the region looked like since Hemmy was actually in that region. Basically, plot it out physically so you get a better visual on the actual scene that you – as the film maker – would be staging. Other than that, the bit about the abortion topic is in all of the commentaries I found, I just didn’t like the “it’s this, so there” attitude of everything I read. I’m an analyzer and visualizer, so visualizing the actual scene is what made it make sense to me. Hope that helps!

  15. Hatsu

    How did you figure this out? I’ve been re-reading it and trying to understand what the heck they were talking about.

  16. Suzanne

    No prob. Refer to your handly-dandy required copy of the Prentice Hall Reference Guide, MLA section or its reasonable equivalent. On or around p. 435 of the PH version, it says how under works cited type #49: Posting on a Blog. My name appears here on this reply, the post name, the blog name, the server (i.e. wordpress), the date of the post, web and the date you accessed it for use in your paper.

  17. Mohammad

    hey how can I cite this website in MLA format. I have a research paper on this subject.


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