The Hills Like White Elephants Essay Help

VCCS Litonline

Preparing Your Essay on "Hills"

Rationale: This sequence of tasks is designed to simulate some of the process of creating an informed interpretation of a story by reading on your own, getting views of other students, a prof, and critics. 

Step 1. Read "Hills Like White Elephants." Read the story in your textbook or in any library's copy of the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway.  On a first reading, make some notes for yourself, especially

  • your impressions of Jig, the American, their problems,
  • any object that might be symbolic in the story
  • questions you might have about the story.

Step 2. Read commentary and questions of others.  Use the study guide for the story online at the Litonline website to take advantage of observations by previous classes by reading the gray block at the beginning and the right-hand column (black print) to see if you can find plausible answers to your questions. Write more notes on your first impressions about

  • the characters
  • their methods of conversing
  • their problem and how it influences their view of things around them
  • symbolic objects
  • any other ideas you have. 
  • Consider the contradiction between "Then I'll do it because I don't care about me" and the ending of the story, if you see a contradiction. 

Step 3.  Read more student comments on the story.  Another set of comments annotates the story (link removed at the insistence of Hemingway's current publisher, Simon and Schuster) as read by students and a teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  Three "tracks" of passages are marked for you in three colors and indicate two symbols in the story, plus character and conversation traits.  Look for the question marks in squares early in the story to get started.

  • References to the curtain or its beads
  • Jig's questions
  • References to the hills

Jot down new ideas or changes in your view of the story, focusing perhaps on their conversational tactics, their relationship, or one of the color-coded ideas from the VCU annotations.

Step 4. Read preliminary views from a previous class and one professor's views. 

Step 5.  Read summaries of professional critics' commentaries. You can do a "key word" search on this long scroll by following the directions on the page of summaries.  Basically, you can use the keyboard keys <Ctrl> + <f> (Hold a "ctrl" key on your keyboard and tap the "f" key once--after you have clicked the link in the first line of this paragraph and your screen has switched to the long page of summaries).  For example, you can see what various critics have said about the curtain, the hills, Jig, the American, and other issues in the story.

Your task is to let the critics' ideas add to your own, as well as noting if their ideas contradict yours or reinforce them.  Jot down quotable quotes--with "quotation marks," of course--from the story and from the summaries.

Essay Assignment: Write your definitive essay about some aspect of "Hills Like White Elephants."  Some grading criteria: The best answers will acknowledge by name the student writer or critic whose views contributed to the answer, as well as acknowledging opposing viewpoints before refuting them.     

Whether you depend on the views of others or strike out on your own depends on your topic.  For instance, many critics have written about what the couple might do next or who "wins," Jig or the American.  Hardly anyone, however, has written about the symbolic value of the oncoming train. 

To assure your readers (and teacher) that your view is well informed, you must quote the phrases that guided and helped form your views.  Acknowledge by name the ideas of critics or the location of ideas, e.g. from the VCU color-coded annotations or the Litonline right-column ideas. 

Step 6.  Read some sample essays about "Hills."  Successful essays by previous students are linked in the list that follows.

Some Suggestions for Topics:  The following topics indicate the level of difficulty you should attempt after the six steps above. 

  • Jig and the American are a modern, even a modernist couple, cynical, amoral, demonstrating that lasting happiness is an illusion in a society that destroys people.  Agree or disagree.
  • The symbolism of the story parallels and amplifies the conflict between Jig and her American--the hills, the train station and its tracks and scenery, the beaded curtain separating the couple from the rest of "reasonable" humanity, and the train itself, along with the luggage, its stickers and its movement.
  • Train time in this story provides tension and makes us aware of the pressure this couple feels to try to resolve their opposite goals.  The train will arrive in 40 minutes, then in 5 minutes, and stay only 2 minutes.  Jig is on a schedule, too, in her first trimester of pregnancy; if she just waits, the baby will arrive.  But if she has the abortion, she loses the opportunity to get her life on the track she prefers.
  • Jig and the American have different goals.  What are those goals, and how do their tactics during conversation help or thwart reaching their goals?  (Hint: Be careful not to summarize the story but to explain who has the upper hand during milestone moments in their conversation--and how you can tell who has the upper hand.)


Grading Hints: The best essays display the following traits, which demonstrate ingenuity, as well as control over the basics for writing a persuasive essay.
  • An Original Thesis: that is, their own perspective on the story and what the author may be telling us about couples or modern life; there are basically four speculations about what happens to the couple/family--
    • Jig caves in to the American and they continue their trip to the abortion clinic, probably in Madrid. Jig has the abortion, and the couple continues traveling around Europe, just as they did before.
    • The American relents and moves the bags to "the other side," the fertile side, to turn aside from the abortion plan by not boarding the oncoming train.
    • Jig has the abortion and the American leaves her, having escaped fatherhood (or she leaves him, no longer able to stand him).
    • Jig has the baby but loses the American.

    Which perspective seems sensible for readers today?  Which perspective seems sensible for readers after the slaughter of World War I?  Which perspective seems sensible for the boom times of the "Roaring Twenties"?  Which perspective seems to fit with the expatriate American (artistic?) existence in Europe before the worldwide Depression?  (Are any other possibilities likely for this couple/family?  Are other connections with appropriate historical eras viable?)

  • Extensive Support: There are several paragraphs and each paragraph includes important phrases quoted from the story and explained in view of the thesis, as well as consideration of actions the characters do or don't do, say or don't say, mean or don't mean.
  • Using and Acknowledging Sources: Ideas from the summaries of professional critics and from the sample student essays are mentioned with the critic's or student's name, and the essayist agrees with and amplifies the idea with a new example or disagrees and offers refuting evidence from the story and interpretation of that evidence.
  • Style: Not only are verbs correct and sentence endings marked, quotations introduced and blended into the writer's own sentences, but there is a distinctive voice or attitude expressed smoothly in varied sentence structures and varied lengths of sentences.

Each of the sample essays shows "extensive support" and "style," but most do not address an ending as appropriate for a particular historical era, and most do not acknowledge critics or other students.  You don't have to repeat these oversights.  In fact, if you leave out other readers' views, since I've provided multiple examples, you will be asked to revise to add them and to comment on those you mention.

Ernest Hemingway, the great American author of the twentieth century, is known for saying a lot without writing many words. He often used symbolism in his short simple writing so that he could accomplish this task. It has many things hidden inside the plot, which the potential reader has to guess and find its meaning reading between the lines. (Renkiel) In the story Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway uses symbolism to not only help tell the story, but to create the tense mood and tone of the story. The story was written in 1927, but is still relevant seventy years later. As long as there are couples who are faced with a crossroads in their relationship, there will be those who can relate to this story.

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The story is about an American male and a woman at a railway station between Barcelona and Madrid, Spain and is told mostly through dialogue. In Hills Like White Elephants, the narrative is almost all dialogue between Jig and the American man, so we must take our clues from them. It never comes out and says, but it is obvious that the man wants the woman to have an abortion, which was illegal in Spain at the time. While neither the man or woman wants the baby, she is not sure that she wants to have an abortion as the solution to her problem. The man keeps telling her that it is a simple operation and that “I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural.” (Hemingway). They both know that this is the end of the relationship despite the promises made by the American man.

Jig, the woman, and the American are drinking beer and trying new drinks while they wait for their train. She comments that the hills look like white elephants even though neither one of them have ever seen one. White elephants are symbolic for something that is too big and costly for what it is worth. So the white elephant in their situation is the baby. Babies are expensive and even though they bring a huge amount of joy, they are also a lot of work. Hence, to this couple it would be a white elephant and there is no room in their lives for this situation. The thought of a baby permanently ties him to Jig. he is telling her now that he will stay with her, but it is very unlikely since he does not want the ties of this child.

The hills are symbolic of the belly of the pregnant woman. As the pregnancy progresses, her abdomen will grow and become rounded like a hill. It is difficult to climb a hill just as a pregnancy can be difficult is several ways. It can be difficult in a physical way. Many women find themselves terribly sick, and sometimes the pregnancy can even threaten the woman’s life. The time period was the 1920’s and medical advances were not as they are today, therefore, it was not unusual for a woman to die. While from a distance a hill can be beautiful and sensual, so is a woman who is pregnant.

While the hills are like white elephants, an animal that doesn’t exist, the ground is dry and barren. The American man keeps telling Jig that this operation is perfectly safe, but since it is illegal, there is a good chance that she will have to go to a facility that is substandard and dangerous. In those days abortions were so unsafe that they would risk the woman’s life or they would leave her sterile. If she chooses to abort this pregnancy under these conditions her womb will be empty and barren and she could possibly never have children. The ground has produced no vegetation just like the body of Jig. Once a woman has given birth, she has a baby to take away the empty feeling of her womb, but Jig will have nothing but the empty womb if she listens to the man.

Jig needs another female in her life to identify and help her with her situation. It is easy for a man to think that he understands what it is like to carry a child. In reality he is an important part of the child’s existence, but as much as he would like to, he can never really know what the feeling is like. The only other woman in the story is the waitress. When Jig looks to this other woman, she disappears behind the curtain which symbolizes the separation of Jig and the comfort and identification of another woman leaving her very alone.

The railway station where the American and Jig are waiting for their train and drinking is between two rails. These tracks run parallel to each other, but they never cross or come together as one track. This is symbolic of the relationship between the two. They are clearly not heading in the same direction. Jig is not sure what she wants to do, but she is definitely being pressured. The American cannot be blamed for not wanting this baby. Everyone knows what they want and do not want out of life. They are both good people, they just have different agendas. They have acted first and instead of thinking of the consequences. It makes them wrong, but everyone has been wrong about something.

Hemingway uses this short story to bring a message to his readers that make people stop and think. In a very short story filled with dialogue, he uses symbols to make his point. This story has entertained millions for generations because it seems so real. Many have been in the situation that the American and Jig have found themselves, but it is not only about an unwanted pregnancy, but many problems of a dying relationship.

Works Cited

  • Hemingway, Ernest. Hills Like White Elephants. 1927. Perdue University.
  • Silverstein, Josh. Ernest Hemingway.
  • Renkiel, Tomaz. Symbolism of Colors and Places. November 10th, 2001. David Gagne. 

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