Girl in Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants

It’s very telling that the female protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is referred to as “the girl” instead of the woman. While the central conflict of the story is her pregnancy, she “has allowed herself to be guided like a child,” which is why she has earned the title of “the girl” throughout the story (Renner 39). She exemplifies problematic ideals of femininity by being completely subservient and dependent on the American, like a child, or a “girl,” as well as passive and indecisive.

She is the archetype of a “stereotypical passive female, not even knowing her own mind, accustomed to following a masterful male for her direction in life” and exemplifies submissive behavior (Renner 28). Her representing femininity really displays the tragic nature of how femininity is perceived, especially in the 1920s; this means femininity is seen as inferior to masculinity and that women’s choices – including important choices about their own body – are to be dictated by men, or as Renner puts it, as an “accessory to a male” (28).

From the first words she utters, the girl is asking for her boyfriend’s permission, about a simple, unimportant question: “What should we drink?’ the girl asked” (Hemingway 145). This proves her submission. She can’t make even simple decisions by herself such as what drink she should order, which makes the subject matter of this short story even more daunting, as the decision she is being forced to make is a severely impactful and important one, that affects both her life and the child’s life forming inside of her.

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She continues to be flighty throughout the story and ultimately is indecisive even when it comes to her titular hills like white elephants comparison.

While she originally declares they “look like white elephants,” she quickly changes her mind and says “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees,” which proves her indecisiveness and brings to question what the hills represent (Hemingway 146). If the readers interpret the hills to be representative of her pregnancy, her indecisiveness can represent her apprehension toward getting the abortion. Kozikowski describes the hills as white like “the pallid skin tone of a stillborn infant,” simultaneously dead and filled with the “beautiful….. promise of life” and as “highly esteemed [as the] Siamese white elephant” (107).

This comparison is paradoxical and contradictory in the same way that the girl is constantly contradicting herself. Like the hills, the girl cannot make up her mind and is inconsistent. This reveals the complicated feelings the girl has about the operation; she simultaneously wants to satisfy her boyfriend by having the abortion, with hopes that “things will be like they were” (Hemingway 147) and she can keep her comfort object and travelling companion, but she also sees the baby as “intrinsically of value” and priceless, once again, like the Siamese white elephants (Kozikowski 107).

The woman represents femininity, and one aspect of femininity is women’s maternity and maternal instincts. It is fitting for the archetypical woman, despite being childish, to feel connected to an infant and to feel maternal love, even if this maternal love is shallow and the girl is arguably unfit to raise a child due to her own arrested development issues.

Considering her feminine instincts, it’s clear that the abortion is the American’s idea. He said he “wouldn’t have [her] do it if [she] didn’t really want to,” but the word choice of “have” is very telling (Hemingway 147). Have has two meanings: in this context, it means “undergo,” as in undergo the operation. It also refers to possession, in the way the American has possession over the girl and her decisions.

With this knowledge, “have” feels more like “force.” Hashmi said the American’s “hypocrisy is not only patent but unbearable,” because while he says she doesn’t have to go through with it, the girl really only has two choices, according to Hashmi’s analysis: “either have the abortion to satisfy the man and stay with him… or face the future on her own,” and the girl has been proven to be incapable of being on her own (149).

She also prioritizes the American to a pathetic extent, which is telling about femininity and masculinity; being a woman means putting a man’s needs first. The only emotions she articulately expresses is her desire to keep him happy and satisfied. Originally, when the American mentions the operation, the girl is silent in response and instead distracts herself by staring at the table or simply saying nothing as he drones more about the simplicity of the operation. This reaction is more similar to a child being scolded than a conversation between two adults.

Eventually, she agrees because she doesn’t “care about” herself (Hemingway 147). She would rather him be happy than herself be happy. This isn’t a selfless act of love or anything romantic. It’s representative of how women cater to men and their desires instead of caring about or even considering their own.

She continues to act more like a child later on in their conversation, threatening to scream if her boyfriend continues speaking about it. She is unable to truly articulate how she feels in any healthy or responsible fashion, due to her lack of maturity and complete dependence on her partner. There are a couple of possible reasons why she can’t do this. One possible argument would be that she’s afraid of upsetting him, which would be consistent with how she panders to him and his wants instead of her own.

Another argument is that she simply doesn’t have the vocabulary or ability to speak for herself due to her childlike behavior and lack of emotional intelligence. It’s very possible that the girl is simply unable to defend herself and act like an adult because she has been trained to be emotionally stunted, instead of being taught to be emotionally independent and self-assured. This is completely gendered, and can be observed in contrast to how the American clearly states his opinions and his desires while the girl stifles and stays silent.

She cannot speak her opinion because women are not taught to speak their opinion. She does not know how to break the boundaries of her assigned gender roles.

The couple’s dynamic is unhealthy and based solely on the girl’s dependence on him. This is reflected on their travelling dynamic alone. They’re in Spain and she cannot speak Spanish, meaning she has to depend on him to communicate with locals, which can be seen by their interactions with the waitress. This detail is reflective of how she is emotionally. Without him, she cannot travel; without him, she cannot really emotionally survive. She really “may or may not have any option other than to continue to be the man’s companion” both on their vacation and in life (Hashmi 74).

Ultimately, “Hills Like White Elephants” deals with the idea of “choice.” Choice is related to abortion, like the pro-choice movement, and the girl. There is some level of irony in the fact that she is the one having an abortion but seemingly has little choice in anything she is doing, from her drinks to her body.

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Girl in Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants. (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from

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