Hills Like White Elephants: Summary, Characters & Setting

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

If you've never read Hemingway's 'Hills Like White Elephants' or if you want to refresh your memory, there's no better place to start than right here! In this lesson, you'll get a synopsis of the short story and a closer look at its characters and setting.

'Hills Like White Elephants'

Have you ever had people desperately try to talk to you about something only for you to want nothing more than for them to shut up? Maybe it's something you don't want to think about or perhaps you're just tired of hearing it. The protagonist in Ernest Hemingway's 'Hills Like White Elephants' - identified only as 'the girl' - actually shares both sentiments at the same time.

Published in 1927 both independently and as part of Hemingway's anthology, Men Without Women, 'Hills Like White Elephants' opens on a traveling couple taking a stop at a railroad junction between Barcelona and Madrid. Initially, the two, introduced as the American and the girl, have a nonchalant chat about the heat and what sort of adult beverage they should order.

As the presumable couple sits down with their beers, it seems that the story is going to be an account of a pleasant afternoon of vacationing lovers waiting for a train. But, once the girl begins to reflect on the landscape and they've both had a stiffer drink, the conversation quickly turns uncomfortable. After the girl comments pointedly on the bitterness of their last drink, the American abruptly interjects with reassurance that 'It's really an awfully simple operation.' Through the context of their dialogue and the thematic elements Hemingway includes, it eventually becomes clear that the American and the girl are talking about the prospect of an abortion.

The American continues to try to reassure the girl: letting her know the procedure is simple and safe (it really wasn't safe at that time). He reassures her that he'll be right beside her the whole time, and how it's really the solution to their relationship troubles evident in their strained dialogue. The girl also tries to put her two-cents in, using the fertile landscape on the other side of the tracks as a metaphor for the life they could have as a family. The American, still pretending to be supportive, continues to push the issue of abortion until the girl begs him to stop talking. Momentarily silenced, the two drink their last beer before the American carries their bags to the platform in preparation for the train soon on its way.

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Coming up next: Hills Like White Elephants: Theme, Symbolism & Literary Analysis

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  • 0:03 Hills Like White Elephants
  • 2:03 Characters
  • 2:18 The American
  • 3:03 The Girl
  • 3:51 Setting
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Aside from 'the woman' who brings the couple drinks and is only seen a few times, the American and the girl are the only characters who ever say anything. Neither is ever given a formal name - perhaps an attempt by Hemingway to make the characters more relatable to his readers.

The American

Though we may not be able to simply label the American as the story's antagonist, we can certainly tell that he does do a fair amount of antagonizing. He constantly brings up the procedure throughout the story, trying to disguise his urgency to be rid of the child with fake concern and support.

Eventually, it's completely evident that his motives are entirely selfish. He claims that he wants her to have the operation because the pregnancy is 'the only thing that bothers us,' demonstrating that he's not actually concerned with her point of view at all. This is especially true since he's taken it upon himself to speak for the both of them. Ultimately, the American is an insecure and manipulative man who wants to maintain control over the girl by remaining the sole object of her attention and affection.

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