Abortion is one of the most highly-contested issues because of differences in conceptions of responsibility and humanity, among other concerns. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” explores the subject of abortion in the context of gender and racial issues. The jig is at the crossroad of her life, deciding whether to abort the baby and keep her relationship with her boyfriend, or have the baby and be alone as a young single mother. The setting, characters, and symbolism in the story argue that Jig is in an oppressive relationship because of her age, gender, and race, although she realizes that she can have a better life if instead of aborting her baby, she aborts her relationship with her boyfriend so that she can attain maturity and independence.
The setting shows that Jig is in a repressive relationship because of environmental elements that exhibit her dissatisfaction and their relationship’s shallowness. Hemingway (1927) described the dryness and heat of the setting with “long and white” hills that have “no shade and no trees” (para.1). Weeks (1980) asserted that the dryness and heat of the setting portray the “limitations and aridity” of Jig’s relationship with the American. Indeed, Jig feels as if the relationship is a hot climate and land pressing on her, as she appreciates the beer’s taste and coldness. Another sign of the Jig’s oppression as a girlfriend is the bamboo beads in the bar. The bamboo beads compose the curtain that separates the bar from the outside world (Hemingway, 1927, para.1), which signifies how the girl’s ethnicity also highlights her “otherness.” She must be a Spanish rural girl, based on the setting, and her nationality is one of the reasons why her boyfriend wants to completely control her. The bar stands also for something temporary, which is what their relationship seems to be. For instance, the girl notices that, as they do in the bar, “all [they] do” is “look at things and try new drinks” (Hemingway, 1927, para.32). The setting underscores the shallowness of their relationship, which indicates that Jig is expecting more from a doomed love affair. The setting supports the theme of a repressed relationship due to gender and nationality differences.
Apart from the setting, characterization reveals insights about Jig and her boyfriend, where, although they are both weak in different ways, the American dominates the weaker sex and personality of Jig. The American has a superior attitude toward Jig because of how he speaks to her. He repeatedly emphasizes that abortion is “an awfully simple operation,” and “not really an operation at all” (Hemingway, 1927, para.41). The story shows how selfish he is to assume that an abortion, an invasive operation that takes out a fetus out from a woman’s body, is ever physically and psychologically simple. Jig, at first, gives in to the American because she is inexperienced and young, and she just wants to be happy. She tells him that she will go through the abortion because she does not care about herself (Hemingway, 1927, para.63) and she wants their relationship to be “fine” again (Hemingway, 1927, para.67). These words indicate she feels forced into aborting the fetus because of her emotional dependence on the American. As the story progresses, Jig realizes how insecure and selfish her boyfriend is (Rankin, 2005, p.235). Some examples are his defensiveness asserting Jig’s lack of proof that he has not seen white elephants (Hemingway, 1927, para.12) and his belief that “it” [the fetus] is the “only thing that bothers [them]” (Hemingway, 1927, para.49). These sentiments underscore that the American dislikes responsibility and commitment.
Upon realizing the shallowness and oppressiveness of their relationship, Jig develops as a character and asserts her will by deciding to not abort her baby. One of the symbols of her decision is when she holds on to the “two” strings of bamboo bead in the bar (Hemingway, 1927, para.50). The two beads can refer to her and the baby, and being of one blood, or coming from one bamboo, they may be better off alone without the man. The white-elephant hills can represent a huge decision that she has to make, and it is white because she will do what right. Moreover, the white elephants in the setting can also refer to the man, something huge and unhelpful that must be removed. Jig resolves the white hill by choosing what is right for her and her baby. In the end, she tells the American: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (Hemingway, 1927, para.109). It is her way of saying that nothing will be wrong again because she (the “I”) will be making decisions for herself henceforth.
Hemingway, E. (2010). “Hills like White Elephants.” In W.R. Clugston (Ed.), Journey into literature (p.7.3). San Diego, California: Bridgepoint Education, Inc. (Original work published 1927).
Rankin, P. (2005). Hemingways “Hills Like White Elephants.” Explicator, 63(4), 234-237.
Weeks Jr., L.E. (1980). Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants. Studies in Short Fiction, 17(1), 75-77.