Hills Like White Elephants and Other Hemingway Stories

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Epic of Gilgamesh

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Biography
  • 0:38 Style
  • 2:25 Hills Like White Elephants
  • 3:21 So, Why Is This Story…
  • 5:12 Two More Popular Stories
  • 6:41 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed Audio mode
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Ernest Hemingway won the highest awards for literature that a writer can win. His story, 'Hills Like White Elephants,' is probably the most famous example of his distinctive writing style. In this lesson you'll learn about this story and what made Hemingway's approach so successful.


Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899, and he first made his mark as a writer at the age of 17 when he began publishing newspaper articles. During the 1920s, he moved to Paris and joined the expatriate writers there, a famous group of literary movers and shakers who left America to make a new home in Europe. Hemingway then cranked out a series of novels that have stood the test of time: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. He also went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature.


The New York Times probably said it best when they wrote, 'No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.' They chose powerful words, 'lean', 'hard' and 'athletic' to describe his prose. Hemingway practiced economy in his writing. He wouldn't use three words if one, simple word would do, making his stories come across as stripped-down, no-nonsense narratives.

He referred to his approach to writing as the iceberg theory. Hemingway thought of stories as icebergs. The reader only sees what is above the surface, but he knows there's more beneath the surface. What does that look like in a story? Take this example from 'Hills Like White Elephants':

That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy.

And you think then we'll be all right and be happy.

I know we will. You don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it.

So have I,' said the girl. 'And afterwards they were all so happy.

Reading this dialog is like listening to a real conversation. You have no idea what they mean when they say 'it,' but you know something's important about 'it.' The narrator never tells you what the couple means because Hemingway's narrators don't interject their own ideas; they remain neutral and observant. All you get is the tip of the iceberg, what's above the surface, and you have to infer what might be lurking beneath. Hemingway's narrators are like TV cops, 'Just the facts ma'am.'

Hills Like White Elephants

Of Hemingway's stories, 'Hills like White Elephants', published in 1927, is the most widely read because it's not only a rich story, but it's also really short. The story takes place in a train station in Spain. A man and a woman wait for a train to Barcelona, and while they wait, they sit outside, drink beers and talk. Most of the story is their conversation, and like the iceberg, you have to figure out what's beneath the surface. The clues are all there; they're talking about the woman getting an abortion.

Hemingway stories are especially easy to summarize because what's happening in the story is generally not all that important. In this one, the man and woman have drinks, talk about the abortion, try a local liquor and get word that their train is arriving. The story ends with the woman, Jig, saying There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

So, Why Is This Story So Famous?

If nothing much happens in the story, why is it so famous? A big part of that is Hemingway's writing style. The delivery of the words is so factual, so direct, that it gives the story a voyeuristic feel. It's like you're listening in on this couple who doesn't know that you're there.

Going deeper, the story is a great one because Hemingway is making use of some subtle devices to create a story that doesn't need a lot of plot to be great. One example comes from the white elephants mentioned in the story's title. Jig deflects from the difficult abortion talk to observe that the hills near the train station look like 'white elephants.' You know the expression 'the elephant in the room?' It means the thing that everyone is thinking about, but that no one has the courage to bring up.

Well, Hemingway's story is full of elephants in the room - the abortion, keeping the baby and becoming parents and the couple's iffy relationship. Another way to look at it is to focus on the word 'white.' A white elephant is a gift that you don't necessarily want to get because it costs too much to maintain, and the pregnancy in this story has become a white elephant of sorts for the couple.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account