A thesis statement for a short story establishes the theme and tone of the text that follows, and expresses a conclusive point that the text will presumably validate. A thesis statement for Ernest Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants could read something like this: ‘In his story Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway illuminates the fragility of and emotional emptiness at the center of a relationship that is threatened by the interjection of an unborn child.’
Hills Like White Elephants depicts a man and a woman obviously engaged in a romantic relationship that is just as obviously undergoing serious strain. Evidence of the tensions permeating this relationship is presented at the story’s outset, as the couple await the arrival of a train and struggle to pass the time in conversation. Hoping perhaps to break the ice, the woman observes the hills off in the distance:
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
This opening exchange reveals a relationship in crisis. What is only gradually revealed, however, is the immediate cause of that crisis – the woman’s pregnancy. We are not told, of course, that the topic of conversation is the couple’s decision to abort the pregnancy, but it’s not difficult to figure out. In the following exchange, it becomes apparent that the man is more enthusiastic about subjecting his girlfriend to a surgical procedure than is the woman, and it’s also clear that the result of this operation will presumably repair what is damaged in their relationship:
'It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,' the man said. 'It's not really an operation at all.'
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
'I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.'
The girl did not say anything.
'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.'
'Then what will we do afterwards?'
'We'll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.'
'What makes you think so?'
'That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy.'
That the man is the principle advocate of the abortion-as-resolution-of-problem position is repeatedly emphasized, as in the following continuation of this exchange:
'Well,' the man said, 'if you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to. But I know it's perfectly simple.'
'And you really want to?'
'I think it's the best thing to do. But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to.'
Hemingway’s couple pretends to be conflicted regarding the effects a child will have on an otherwise loving, mutually-supportive relationship, but the reality appears far different. The strained tones and the pretensions to an idyllic existence that once existed create an ominous tone. The discussion about whether to go through with the abortion reveals underlying fissures in their relationship that they refuse to openly acknowledge. The “unwanted” pregnancy is only the immediate or near-term cause of tensions between the man and woman; the longer-term, underlying cause – the ‘elephant in the room’ if one wants to be quaint – is the fact of a relationship seemingly built on superficial attractions that conceals the absence of a deeper emotional commitment. This couple fears that a child will ruin their relationship because they will no longer be free to live the carefree existence they have ostensibly enjoyed to date. In an exchange toward the end of the story, the woman seeks solace in the liberating consequence of the abortion only to have the man dampen those expectations despite his advocacy of her having the abortion. The man has employed a passive-aggressive approach to urging the woman, Jig, to go through with the procedure, subtly moving the action in his desired direction while attempting to place the burden of the decision on her. This is not a healthy relationship irrespective of the issue of the woman’s pregnancy, and a thesis statement on Hemingway’s story should advance that proposition.
Hills Like White Elephants
'Hills Like White Elephants' is one of Ernest Hemingway's most famous short stories. It was initially published in August 1927 by the literary magazine transition, it also appears in Hemingway's second compilation of short stories Men Without Women. At first glance it appears to be little more than a conversation between a couple who are waiting for a train at a train station in the Ebro Valley in North-eastern Spain. None of the characters are given names, the only real information provided for the reader is that the man is American, the nationality of his girlfriend isn't revealed but she cannot understand Spanish. To understand why this short story is so significant one has to delve into the subtext which underlies this ostensibly casual conversation, and appreciate the symbolism behind the title.
'Hills Like White Elephants' under closer consideration is revealed to be a short story about abortion and the extremely strained relationship which exists between the two protagonists. While the word abortion is never explicitly mentioned within the narrative, the operation which the American unceasingly talks about is strongly implied to be an abortion. The girlfriend seems resistant to the idea and tries to avoid the subject altogether, frequently asking the American to stop talking about it. In general the relationship between the couple is tense and neither character communicates effectively. In particular the American often appears insincere, telling his girlfriend whatever he thinks will be the most effective thing to pressure her in to having the operation. However once the girlfriend concedes in an attempt to end the conversation the American continues talking. Equally the girl refuses to speak clearly as to what she wants, and is very passive in the discussion. At times she does give the reader some insight in to the greater problems which pervade the relationship, particularly when she mentions that all they seem to do is try new drinks. The fact that they order two beers immediately upon arriving at the bar and then ask for a new drink, suggests that they use drinking as a way to avoid confronting and discussing meaningful issues in their relationship.
In addition to the dialogue 'Hills like White Elephants' is rife with symbolism which alludes to the true subject of the story, abortion and the relationship struggles of the couple. The title itself is adapted from a line in the story in which the girlfriend describes the hills near the train station as being like white elephants. A white elephant is an idiom which refers to a burden that is difficult to dispose of. Essentially it is how the American perceives the unborn child. The girlfriend at one point retracts her statement that the hills look like white elephants, indicating her desire to keep the child, but she is mostly ignored by the American. In addition to the subtext of this simile the hills and the landscape itself are also representative of the decision facing the girl. On one side of the railroad track is a barren, hilly landscape while the other side is described as fertile and lush. This reflects the two possible choices which lie on either side of this moment at the train station, represented by the train track. This symbolism is highlighted by the description of the girlfriend staring out at the landscape as if she is looking out towards her future.
Overall this short story is very typical of Hemingway, it is predominantly dialogue with only short descriptive passages and very little embellishment. Hemingway does not confront the subject head on but rather communicates it to the reader through subtext, motifs and symbolism. It rewards the reader for careful, contemplative reading and in this understated manner it achieves its striking impact.