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Textual Challenges and the Unknowable In Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"

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A Prose Paper from Literary Research 8010
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Fall 2006
Dr. J. J. McKenna


Textual Challenges and the Unknowable In Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"


            Since its publication in 1928, Earnest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” has received the critical attention of many scholars who have speculated, in particular, on the outcome of the unwanted pregnancy and of the relationship between the American and Jig in general.  Yet these analyses, far from presenting the discerning reader with a concrete conclusion upon which to clarify an understanding of the story, can leave the reader disconcertingly unsatisfied.  From Howard Hannum’s speculation that Jig will “have the abortion” then leave because she is “unable to tolerate him” (53) to Stanley Renner’s opinion that Jig will not only not have an abortion but that the American “accedes to the girl‘s overpowering reluctance” (34), each critic presents textual and extra-textual evidence to support the validity of his or her claim.  And while some like Timothy O'Brien surmise that Jig ultimately goes through with the abortion and conforms to the American’s will, her “final compliance” (24), others such as Nilofer Hashmi suggest that “after the operation has been performed, he will abandon her” (72).  How can so many conclusions utilizing the same textual material exist, some of which are polemic opposites?  In the midst of all of these arguments, ironically, resides one underlying certainty: the text does not provide the reader with enough detail to deductively decipher much of anything of the story’s ending.  Therefore, due to the textual challenges and the use of language inherent in "Hills Like White Elephants," one cannot really know the fate of Jig's unborn child.

In the first place, the story contains more than twice as many lines of dialogue than it does narrative, with little room for extraneous text, and of the 183 sentences in the story, 147 of those are dialogue.  Hemingway dispenses with the heretofore traditional methodology of creative prose writing by altogether eliminating authorial omniscience or even first person narration.  In place of “telling” the story of Jig and the American, the author chooses to “show” it or -- perhaps more accurately -- allows us to “listen” to it as though we are the proverbial “fly on the wall.”  Therefore, we know little about the couple except that the girl's name is Jig, that the nameless man is an American and that they are drinking alcohol while waiting at a station for 40 minutes for an express train from Barcelona heading to Madrid, Spain.  Most of the sparse narrative is devoted to a description of the countryside and the station itself, and none contains an authorial interpretation of the couple's conversation.  With little narratory assistance, Hemingway leaves the reader with only a few clues from which to decipher with little certainty the future of their unborn child. 

            For example, after a brief description of the topography of the land and the hot climate as well as the location of the station sandwiched between two sets of rails, Hemingway interjects a few sentences now and again concerning the “line of hills” (273), the “fields of grain” (276) and the “people waiting for the train” (277) but nothing about the thoughts or feelings of the man and woman.  Neither the tone of the dialogue nor a description of their body language suffices as adequate clues to decipher conclusively what the young couple intends to do once the story ends.  Instead of being handed narrative descriptors such as “he said with tenderness” or “she replied sarcastically,” we read our own interpretations into their conversation based upon primarily subjective analysis -- what we think they mean arises from how we imagine they are saying it.  Nowhere is this more poignant than in the story’s final lines:

                        “‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

                        ‘I feel fine,’ she said.  ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.

I feel fine.’” (278)

Depending upon where one places the emphasis, these remarks may convey different messages.  Does the girl say, “I feel fine.  There’s nothing wrong with me,” (italics my emphasis) or does she say, “I feel fine.  There’s nothing wrong with me”?  Or alterna-tively, does she mean, “I feel fine.  There’s nothing wrong with me”?  As becomes evident, simply changing the emphasis on a particular word can affect how one interprets the line.  The sheer variations in critical interpretations of these final few lines attest to the slippery nature of language when words are strung together without the benefit of vocalization or tone.  Often we are told by the narrator that "the girl asked" or "the man said," yet there is little decisive interpretation provided as to how each character spoke other than an occasional innocuous and quite neutral descriptor such as "she had taken off her hat" or "the man drank his beer."  These are hardly the kind of clues necessary to form absolute judgments as to outcome and intent.

            In fact, Hemingway is as sparing with the dialogue as he is with the rest of the text, leaving much to the reader's imagination and conjecture.  Although the word "abortion" is never actually used by either character in the story, the text does lead the reader to that conclusion, telling us that the "operation" is "not really an operation at all" and that "it's just to let the air in" (275).  Afterward, the man asserts, "We'll be fine . . . just like we were before" (275).  Yet the clarity of universally accepted interpretation stops there, for the range of possible endings is great, primarily because of the scarcity of descriptive narrative, so that interpreting the ending involves not only analysis of symbolism and metaphor normally utilized in a close reading of a text but also the overwhelming task of analyzing a dialogue devoid of linguistic cues and clues.  Hemingway leaves readers with little more than they had when they began reading the story.   The girl and the American are still on the platform awaiting a train that has not yet stopped.  We have the impression, vague though it is, that the only tangible thing that has changed during the course of those forty minutes at the station is the state of the internal conflict waging between the man and the woman and within their own minds.

            Yet even that much has been debated by critics like Hilary K. Justice who note the significance of the man carrying the "two heavy bags . . . to the other tracks" (Hemingway 277).  Justice surmises "the two possible meanings of the man's moving the suitcases and of Jig's smiles are mutually exclusive.  Either they are taking the train to the abortion or they are not.  Either she is thanking him honestly [for choosing not to go to Madrid for an abortion] or she is smiling to mask her true emotions" (20).  Still, the possibility that the American simply moved his and Jig's bags to the other side of the station because there was "no shade and no trees" on one side of the terminal but there was shade on the other side where they sat must be given equal consideration (273).  In this light, little can be made of the couple’s choice of sides upon which to sit, particularly since Hemingway never tells the reader exactly how the station sits in relation to the sun.  If the train to Madrid was on the sunny side of the station, it is only logical to conclude that they were already sitting on the opposite shady side, making either explanation valid.  This, among other things, serves as evidence of the text’s “ultimate ambiguity” with which "Hills Like White Elephants" is crafted (Justice 25). 

Even Jig’s name has been open to speculative interpretation.  Hannum, for example, notes the word play “between the Elizabethan ‘Jug Jug’ and the modern French ‘Zig Zig,’ the term for coitus,” thereby symbolizing “all too well what the girl had meant to the American” (46).  Yet Stanley Kozikowski defines Jig’s name as “a device that separates waste from precious ore (OED)” (108).  With this definition in hand, Kozikowski inverts the imagery of the story’s title by asserting that the American becomes the white elephant to her (108), a conclusion that Hannum also favors (53).  Alternatively, O’Brien proposes that the name Jig “suggests a dance” and that for the American “she is entertainment, material for an interlude” (21).  By attempting to understand the nature of the relationship between Jig and the American, critics strive to give meaning to the story’s end, yet intense analysis and interpretation of something like the meaning of Jig’s name do little to bring readers to a decisive, consentual opinion as to the fate of the unborn child.  If anything, the text serves only to obfuscate meaning rather than explicate it.

            Additionally, other areas of the text read closely by critics such as Hashmi also lend themselves to various interpretations not at all concrete and certain.  Hashmi asserts that "the man now finds her [Jig] boring and demanding, in short, a nuisance" (76).  She observes how simply "using up the few available minutes to have a drink by himself" thereby means "he is clearly dismissing her from his life" (80).  Thus, by convincing Jig to proceed with the abortion, he is "liberating him[self] from responsibility and guilt alike before he abandons her" (78).  Certainly, such an interpretation can be inferred from the text, yet critics like Stanley Renner, while reading the same lines, conclude that Jig "decides not to have an abortion, and her companion, though not without strong misgivings, acquiesces in her decision" (27).  Thus, where Hashmi reads evidence of abandonment in the final lines of the story, Renner sees Jig asserting herself and "becoming her own person" (40).  To most critics, the major crisis in the story is the unborn child and the effect it is having on their relationship, the very thing that remains most indecipherable.

Another critic, David Wyche, discusses the language of abortion in the story as possessing both literal and “allegorical” qualities and cites evidence from the author’s own life that lend credence to one belief that the work is possibly autobiographical, shared by scholars like Gertrude Stein and others (66).  Wyche, though, cautions against “stumbling into the trap of autobiographical assumption” (66).  On the other hand, Margaret D. Bauer cites abortion as an underlying issue but gives weight to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory . . . suggesting that this male character . . . is suffering from what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome” (132).  Once again we see a method of interpretation that adds to the nebulosity of debate and does little to illuminate.

Yet to other critics, the crisis witnessed in the conversation between the two lovers is less about the unborn child than it is about alcoholic intoxication.  Phillip Sipiora argues that there is an alternate interpretation for the story’s final conversation, namely that “she and the American are legally drunk by story’s end” (50).  In less than forty minutes, the two characters each drink “six large glasses of beer and three shots of Anis del Toro” (50).  By inferring average body mass, Sipiora calculates that by story’s end, “her blood alcohol level is at least .134% and his is .131%” (50).  Going one step further, Ellen Lansky asserts that the mass consumption of alcohol by a pregnant character who never “goes to the bathroom” is both “unlikely and unrealistic” (29).  She cites textual evidence to conclude, therefore, that the “metaphoric effect” of consuming alcohol “has a solvent effect on her [Jig’s] body” so that she “becomes a talking spirit . . . non-corporeal; she’s talking alcohol” (29).  Singularly unconventional explanations such as these are due largely to the ambiguity of Hemingway’s text, punctuated by an austere lack of meaningful authorial direction in which to guide the reader.

            Taking a stylistic analytical approach to the story, Alex Link believes that “the man’s struggle to win Jig’s capitulation . . . takes precedence over anything the object of their struggle might be” (74).  He makes an eloquent argument that “Hills Like White Elephants” is “a textual artifact” from which “the story is able to manufacture such a rich interpretive web from ostensibly gossamer materials” (66).  I would argue, however, that it is the critical reader him or herself and not the text who manufactures the interpretation.  Almost nothing of consequence occurs during the story outside of the dialogue and drinking.  Inevitably, the only thing critical readers of Hemingway’s story are left with is the linguistic equivalent of a desert, as dry and desiccated as the countryside where the story takes place.  Unlike the “fields of grain . . . along the banks of the Ebro,” the only text fertile enough to provide a meaningful harvest of comprehension is that which grows in the imagination of the reader (276).  And like imagination, the interpretations harvested from the nearly infertile text are arguably as “ostensibly gossamer” as the materials from which they are derived (66).

            For a story of less than 1500 words, there certainly exist a myriad number of possible interpretations, only some of which have been cited here.  “Attempts to analyze even short passages of the dialogue,” Hannum admits, “produce pages of prose” (46).  In addition, much of the focus of these analyses relies ultimately on the final few lines of the story, which we have seen lend themselves to a variety of interpretative conjecture and speculation.  Even the critics themselves who often eventually espouse one particular analysis over another admit that the textual challenges of the story almost resist consistent interpretation.  I would strongly agree and add, moreover, the logical conclusion that the story is impervious to any diagnostic method of analysis that purports to unravel the ending’s central riddle: the fate of Jig’s unborn child and, therefore, of the relationship itself.  Renner, for instance, admits “the precise facts of the trains and tracks are left vague in the story” primarily because the location where the abortion is to occur is never actually stated (34-35).  This is critical to our understanding of the story, for if we admit that the author made no mistake but purposefully omitted the details necessary to successfully cipher the couple’s decision as to where they were indeed going, then even the significance of the phrase “other tracks” in the story may no longer mean that the man accedes to her wishes (277).  “If the place of the abortion is Barcelona,” Renner writes, “then the train headed in that direction could not be the one they are about to board at the story’s end” (35).  Such an admission does more to confound the issue of whether or not the couple has an abortion than to clarify it.  Lansky also admits that though “the story is over . . . the conflict is not resolved” (30).  Even the title of the story possesses an “imperviousness to obvious interpretation” (74) says Hashmi, though she gives in to overstatement by claiming that “Hemingway lets the omniscient reader obtain a ‘wide-angle’ view of the concluding scene in its tragic entirety” (81).  It is an interesting assertion that ironically demands a juxtaposition of reader and narrator given that the story itself contains no trace of authorial omniscience. 

            Wise indeed is the reader who can claim omniscience when closely reading the textually challenging story “Hills Like White Elephants,” for a text so stylistically different from its predecessors in all the ways we have mentioned earlier successfully resists interpretation.  It is because of this that the interpretations we do find critics espousing contain opinions sometimes diametrically opposed to one another.  Such interpretive polar opposition is indicative of the textual challenges that lead, ultimately, to the conclusion that the fate of the unborn child can never be known.

Works Cited


Bauer, Margaret D. “Forget the Legend and Read the Work: Teaching Two Stories by Ernest Hemingway.” College Literature. 30.3 (2003): 124-37. Academic Search Premier. Project Muse. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 08 Oct. 2006 <>.

Hannum, Howard L. “‘Jig Jig to Dirty Ears’: White Elephants to Let.” Hemingway Review 11.1 (1991): 46-54. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Hashmi, Nilofer. “‘Hills Like White Elephants’: The Jilting of Jig.” Hemingway Review 23.1 (2003): 72-83. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Ed. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 5th ed. New York, 1953. 273-78.

Justice, Hilary K. “‘Well, Well, Well’: Cross-Gendered Autobiography and the Manuscript of ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Hemingway Review 18.1 (1998): 17-32. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Kozikowski, Stanley. “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Explicator 52.2 (1994): 107.  Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at

Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Lansky, Ellen. “Two Unfinished Beers: A Note on Drinking in Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Dionysos: The Literature and Addiction TriQuarterly. 5.2 (1993): 28-30. Academic Search Premier. MLAIB. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Link, Alex. “Staking Everything on it: A Stylistic Analysis of Linguistic Patterns in ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Hemingway Review 23.2 (2004): 66-74. Academic Search Premier. Project Muse. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 08 Oct. 2006 <>.

O’Brien, Timothy D. “Allusion, Word-Play, and the Central Conflict in Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Hemingway Review 12.1 (1992): 19-25. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Renner, Stanley. “Moving to the Girl’s Side of ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Hemingway Review 15.1 (1995): 27-41. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Sipiora, Phillip. “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” Explicator 42.3 (1984): 50.  Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

Wyche, David. “Letting the Air into a Relationship: Metaphorical Abortion in ‘Hills White Elephants.’” Hemingway Review 22.1 (2002): 58-73. Academic Search

Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 09 Sep. 2006 <>.

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