Hills Like White Elephants
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Talking versus Communicating
Although “Hills Like White Elephants” is primarily a conversation between the American man and his girlfriend, neither of the speakers truly communicates with the other, highlighting the rift between the two. Both talk, but neither listens or understands the other’s point of view. Frustrated and placating, the American man will say almost anything to convince his girlfriend to have the operation, which, although never mentioned by name, is understood to be an abortion. He tells her he loves her, for example, and that everything between them will go back to the way it used to be. The girl, meanwhile, waffles indecisively, at one point conceding that she’ll have the abortion just to shut him up. When the man still persists, she finally begs him to “please, please, please, please, please, please” stop talking, realizing the futility of their conversation. In fact, the girl’s nickname, “Jig,” subtly indicates that the two characters merely dance around each other and the issue at hand without ever saying anything meaningful. The girl’s inability to speak Spanish with the bartender, moreover, not only illustrates her dependence on the American but also the difficulty she has expressing herself to others.
Both the American man and the girl drink alcohol throughout their conversation to avoid each other and the problems with their relationship. They start drinking large beers the moment they arrive at the station as if hoping to fill their free time with anything but discussion. Then, as soon as they begin talking about the hills that look like white elephants, the girl asks to order more drinks to put off the inevitable conversation about the baby. Although they drink primarily to avoid thinking about the pregnancy, readers sense that deeper problems exist in their relationship, of which the baby is merely one. In fact, the girl herself implies this when she remarks that she and the American man never do anything together except try new drinks, as if constantly looking for new ways to avoid each other. By the end of their conversation, both drink alone—the girl at the table and the man at the bar—suggesting that the two will end their relationship and go their separate ways.
A white elephant symbolizes something no one wants—in this story, the girl’s unborn child. The girl’s comment in the beginning of the story that the surrounding hills look like white elephants initially seems to be a casual, offhand remark, but it actually serves as a segue for her and the American to discuss their baby and the possibility of having an abortion. The girl later retracts this comment with the observation that the hills don’t really look like white elephants, a subtle hint that perhaps she wants to keep the baby after all—a hint the American misses. In fact, she even says that the hills only seemed to look like white elephants at first glance, and that they’re actually quite lovely. Comparing the hills—and, metaphorically, the baby—to elephants also recalls the expression “the elephant in the room,” a euphemism for something painfully obvious that no one wants to discuss.