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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Some Suggestions for Topics: The following topics
indicate the level of difficulty you should attempt after the six steps
- 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.)
Hints: The best essays display the following traits, which
demonstrate ingenuity, as well as control over the basics for writing a
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.