1 Kagashicage

Hills Like White Elephants Theme Thesis Statement

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.

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.

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