Hills Like White Elephants

by Hemingway, Ernest

This may be one you remember from your schooldays, maybe one that made you a liberal, or a feminist, or a prolifer, prochoicer, or antichoicer, or the other way around altogether or none of these things at all. But now, I will break from objective narratress and tell you something very personal and even embarrassing about your Miette: the first time I read this one – and I’m not kidding at all – the first time I read this, I’d interpreted the plot to be a conversation between a couple of hippie nomads, and he, in a wormwood-induced stupor, convincing his mate to go through a trepanation. No kidding: maybe give it a second listen and see if you can read it this way? Or maybe I was just mad, or need a hole in my head, or the other way around altogether or none of these things at all.

Article written by miette

Miette has been podcasting the best of world literature's short fiction since March 2005, when she was just a pup.

15 Responses

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  1. Jessica
    Jessica September 19, 2006 at 9:07 pm |

    u is crazy, son.
    it’s about an abortion

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous November 30, 2006 at 1:05 pm |

    tree squirrels do not hibernate.

  3. Robert Nagle
    Robert Nagle February 24, 2007 at 5:02 am |

    I was truly moved by your powerful reading. I’ve read that story a good 10 times, and frankly, I’ve never really gotten into it as I did when I heard your rendering of it. Great job.

  4. Becky
    Becky October 27, 2007 at 7:19 pm |

    The First time I read it, having not been tainted by other predictions, I thought that they were talking about getting married. I saw the “Girl” as just as much a drinker as the American. I can totally see where the abortion thing comes from though.

  5. liz
    liz November 5, 2007 at 3:33 pm |

    I just read it for the first time today and searched for “trepanation” and “hills like white elephants” and found you had the same idea I did.

    How does an abortion “let the air in”?

  6. Mr. J.
    Mr. J. March 1, 2009 at 7:03 am |

    I thought the beauty of the story is that the subject is null. It is a blank you fill in for yourself. What Hemingway describes for me is the couples’ decision-making process. It starts out by minimizing the importance of the topic (through distractions like allusions to white elephants). It procedes through trying to plumb the depths of one’s partner’s opinion – which fails. Then, the mask of apathy is held up even though both partners know each is committed to an opinion. The wife asserts her selflessness. The husband asserts his openness. Both are lying and so the discussion inevitably is dissatisfying. They love each other, but are afraid of committing to the “fill in the blank” without knowing the other’s mind.
    My beautiful wife and I play the same game over and over. “Where do you want to go for dinner / vacation / etc?”
    “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”
    “Should we get this extravagent gift for our son’s twenty-first bithday?”
    “Mmmm . . . do YOU think it’s a good idea?”
    It happens with the smallest decisions (dinner, which movie to watch) and the big stuff (first kisses . . ., pregnancy, moving).
    I don’t know if Hemingway is giving a nod to Twain’s story about poor decision-making where there is a white elephant also. I like to think so.
    I think how you fill in the blank is a Rorschach test. It isn’t about the object. It is about the subject (reader / listener).
    Mimette, I like your trepanation idea. I think they are both trying to undo the opacity surrounding each others’ minds. It is about disclosing oneself to a beloved another, but also about the whole dance we do to make the other open up first.

  7. miette
    miette March 2, 2009 at 4:05 pm |

    Thanks for this, Mr J. I hadn’t thought of the lacuna approach, though it makes absolute sense and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see it any other way (and actually, with this, my appreciation for the story’s style goes through the roof). You put it perfectly.

    Funny that a story about the vulnerability of grown-up relationships is used so taught in school-age classrooms. Hope your students know how lucky they are.

    Best,
    — Mtte.

  8. jenn
    jenn February 1, 2010 at 10:31 am |

    oddly enough i assumed the same odd transpirings. lol i had to google it to find out it was about an abortion

  9. miette
    miette February 1, 2010 at 1:38 pm |

    Hi Jenn, and HA! This is kind of wondrous. It almost makes me want to go and get a PhD so I can issue an official re-interpretation and blow everyone’s little minds (or, at least, air them out, so to speak!)

    Thanks for listening,
    — Mtte.

  10. jenn
    jenn February 2, 2010 at 12:58 pm |

    we should form a new team of literary critics and tell the world what everything really means

  11. Chris
    Chris February 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm |

    I also believe that this story is about a trepanation operation. Abortions “letting the air in” doesn’t make any sense, and it was a fad at the time to get trepanned.

  12. Hem
    Hem August 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm |

    Most dialogues dance around a topic. To the casual eavesdropper (which the reader has become), the conversation seems to be about nothing in particular. If this is indeed about abortion, we must read between the lines. We must look at the clues. All the information we have is:
    1. The girl needs an operation
    2. It is something that has bothered ‘them’ (together, not one person); the only thing that has made ‘them’ unhappy
    3. Lots of people have done it
    4. Afterwards these people were happy (but the girl is sarcastic in her repeating that they were all so happy)
    5. It’s something that the man wants, but the girl must undergo
    6. In order to do it, she must not care about herself
    7. It’s something that “once they take it away, you never get it back”
    8. The first ‘it’ means the operation. The second ‘it’ is the pregnancy: “You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”
    9. The girl says that they could get along. The man replies: “But I don’t want anybody but you.”
    10. Imagine the shape of a hill like a white elephant and the girl’s growing pregnant belly

    ‘Letting the air in’ seems only to be a gentle way of saying that the doctor will only pierce the air of the womb, and nothing bad really happens. The girl knows differently.

    To me this story is about issuing an ultimatum. The man rather heavy-handedly tells the girl (who is contrasted with the ‘woman’) what he expects, and what he wants. When she says that she will scream, he leaves the table. Ultimately, she must make the choice–the baby or the man but not both. By the end, I think we know which one she chooses…

  13. Megan
    Megan October 14, 2012 at 1:04 pm |

    Thank you for such a wonderful reading! This is one of the most over-assigned stories in writing classes these days. I’ve had it over seven times in the past two years, and I was getting a little burnt out on it. Your reading put a lot of oomph back into the story for me. Thank you.

  14. Maja
    Maja May 10, 2013 at 11:56 am |

    First of all, Miette, lovely reading.
    Second, I do think it’s abortion they’re talking about. Cause you see, it is HER that should do it, and he wants no third party, he wants only her, other couples have done it. I personally think that the phrase “letting the air in” is used to mildly indicate that it is kind of a short, painless procedure, and that after that she’ll be just fine.

    Any way, love the story, great reading, and I love love love your accent.

    Regards

  15. Sharon
    Sharon September 10, 2013 at 6:21 pm |

    Thank you for your reading. I am an auditory learner and reading is a challenge because I also am ADD. Listening to you read has really helped me in my college course and saved me money from having to buy the actual audio. I hope to read more stories too!

    You are super awesome 🙂

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