The Social Exchange of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants

Freud once said there was one question he could never solve, “What does a woman want,” and my response would be Hemingway’s most treasured, literary line, “the hills look like white elephants.”  To understand more, I invite you to read Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Unlocking the symbolism found in this social exchange will help the reader gain a greater understanding to Freud’s timely question.

Hemingway’s story is set in Spain, in the dry summer heat, as two characters, one man (the American) and one girl (Jig) explore a decision to either embrace the life of nomads or terminate the newly discovered baby inside her. Since we live in a bipolar culture, most literature follows along the lines of good or bad, right or wrong, and pro or con…Hemingway’s story is no different.  The setting is at a lonely train station, outside a sweaty bar, alongside two sets of tracks, waiting for a train to arrive.  An amusing diversion is created by Jig to see if her traveling lover and drinking buddy can see what she sees “the hills look(ing) like white elephants,” i.e., white elephants being ornamental treasures which cannot be used for profit. The American is only engrossed with Jig’s simple procedure and how it will make their lives better. The American’s view of the setting is barren and dry while Jig’s view of the setting involves a river and a field of grain which the American never sees.

Most relationships, in interpersonal communication, fall under the social exchange theory of ‘costs and rewards.’  If the costs outweigh the rewards then the relationship falls into dissolution (i.e., the relationship falls apart).  Rewards in a relationship vary from emotional support to financial gain.  If the rewards are not met then the partner will seek out other alternatives.  The American tells her, “We can have the whole world” which Jig responds, “No, we can’t.  It’s not ours anymore.”  One may use punishment or guilt as a way to gain rewards back. For instance, the American keeps telling Jig how other couples, who went through this simple procedure, were happy after it was done.  For the American, happiness lies in Jig’s decision to “let the air in.”

The main issue I am digging for is the fact most people fall under the title of undecided or undeclared.  Most people know what they dislike but they don’t know what they want.  This problem of indecision drives the person to not making adult choices i.e., decisions that make life uncomfortable, hard, and uneasy.  Sometimes the cost is the reward if we look at it from a long-term point of view.  Jig is up against a man who is selfish, immature, and insensitive which is a very deadly combination (unless one is flying to “the second star to the right and straight on till morning”).

Sometimes life throws curve balls and it’s not about if I am happy; but, if the person I am with is happy.  Happiness is not all about a quick fix; or, in the American’s case, the next hot travel spot and exotic drink (what interpersonal communicators call the Peter Pan complex).  Happiness is stepping up to the plate, making sacrifices, because that is what people do when they care for someone other than themselves.  Maybe that is what women want.  In Jig’s case, she wanted to hear from her lover how everything would be alright.  She wanted him to make a definitive statement saying what he really wanted Jig to do.  She never got a definitive statement.  She did get a lot of empty “I love you(s)” and “I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”  These statements are contrary to what the American wants.  Jig ends up wanting to scream and asks the American to drop the subject.  It becomes obvious he is not helping her make this heart wrenching decision she will have to make alone– although it took two to create.

Sometimes a person doesn’t want a solution; they want a partner who is there to encourage and to listen.  In studies on listening, people don’t want advice, they want an empathetic ear.  Along with asking questions, one should be listening, not giving advice but creating a mutual understanding.  There are infinite responses to all questions.  The key is to listen.  All in all, this is not directed at Freud– it is directed at all of us.

Below is my installment to the social exchange of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”.


C. L. Burdett

The indecisive-able, dice-able man

Part insatiable, double shot delectable

Suffer from withdraw.

In the end, he never has to choose

He’s like hedonic youth

Like a man is when he is unrest-ful,

Arrested-ly, under-developed-ly dumb

He’s not a man you can fall into

Pragmatically, erotically swoon toward

But a man for an experienced

Extemporaneous, fanatic dreamer

Whose only gift is the thought of love

Which in this case dies very hard.

He is propped, cut, prepped, scrapped, shot, done up

He will never change

He has no reason because he is life’s lil saying

Of how we get what we deserve

We get what we need not what we want

We are curious forever searching for love

And that in itself is still in

Laboratory, lavatory, hoc.