“Hills Like White Elephants” calls to mind the “A Game of Chess” section of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); like Eliot’s masterpiece, Hemingway’s story deals with the sterility and vacuity of the modern world. The boredom of the man and the desperation of the girl reveal the emptiness of the postwar generation and the crucial necessity of taking responsibility for the quality of one’s own life. Hemingway’s characters seem to live in a world without a God, without traditions or clear and established values; they are, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, “condemned to be free” and consequently are responsible for their own meaning.
One particularly interesting aspect of Hemingway’s uncompromising dissection of the poverty of the modern world in this story is the juxtaposition of reason and emotion or imagination. The man is perfectly reasonable. He lives in a senseless and violent world; he has the financial resources to do as he pleases; he reasonably concludes that he should enjoy his life, not encumber himself with unnecessary conflicts or responsibilities, certainly not trouble himself with relationships that are demanding or in the least unpleasant. He is quite literal-minded, quite pragmatic, quite unemotional: an admirable fellow by modern patriarchal standards. The woman, on the other hand, is unreasonable enough to imagine that hills look like white elephants and that there might be some virtue to having a child who would surely be like a “white elephant,” a sacred beast in some cultures, but in Europe and America something that is only apparently valuable and is in actuality more trouble than it is worth. Reason here is associated with dissimulation, death, nonmeaning; emotion with life, imagination, growth. Hemingway suggests that reason (the God of modern humanity) is an insufficient standard by which to live. The reasonable male here is a cipher, a man of straw who declines to acknowledge the necessity of making his every moment intense, honest, full....
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