Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

“Hills Like White Elephants”, by Ernest Hemingway, is a short story published in 1927, which is set at a train station in Spain.  In this story the reader eavesdrops on a conversation held by “the American and the girl with him”.  Most of the story is predominately dialogue between the two characters.  During this conversation, the reader may determine that the couple is at a critical point in their lives when they must make a life-or-death decision on whether the woman should have an abortion.  Although this short story crosses timelines to become relevant to both the early twentieth century and today, Hemingway uses setting and symbolism throughout the story to show that making a decision on whether to have an abortion or not is indeed a difficult decision to make.

The setting of the train station symbolizes the decision that the couple must make.  On one side of the station, there is vegetation and “fields of grain”; the other side is dry and barren.  The fact that the station divides these contrasts of environments represents each choice in the abortion decision.  The choice to have the abortion is represented by the dry and barren side, while the lush fields of grain represent the fertility of having the baby.

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Our first encounter with Hemingway’s symbolism is in the title, “Hills Like White Elephants”, which offers some hints to the ensuing conflict within the story.  The imagery associated with the hills can be taken to represent the pregnant woman’s abdomen and breasts swollen when she is with child.  White elephants are considered to be a sacred being something to be revered, whereas in American culture a white elephant is a gift that is unwanted.  As a result of symbolism, the title gives us the first indication of the conflict to come.

Hemingway never mentions the word abortion directly to let the reader know that this is the position of the man.  The man uses the word “operation” to let the reader know that he means abortion.   At first, the reader may not know that the operation symbolizes the abortion but this is made clear as evidenced by the following quote by the man, “’It’s really an awfully simple operation [. .. ]’.  ‘It’s not really an operation at all’.  ‘It’s just to let the air in.’”.  In that era, abortions were caused sticking a tube in the uterus and blowing air into it.   As a result of the air being injected into the uterus, the uterus will then expel the fetus, which is called a “natural” abortion. This procedure is still in use today.

The beaded curtain presents different interpretations.  At one point in the story, Jig looked at the beaded curtain and “put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.”  In this case, it can be inferred that Jig is a Catholic and the beads represent the rosary, which she holds on to for religious and possibly moral support.  In another instance the beaded curtain separates the barroom where other patrons are sitting from where the couple is sitting. Jig reaches out for the curtain several times. The curtain in this case could be a symbol of a division between a normal life and the confused state that the couple is currently in. The people in the barroom are described as reasonable people and not making this decision.  Jig is reaching out for the normal life where she would not have to make this decision and the man is envious of all the peoples who go about living their lives without children and the burden that they bring.

Another use of symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” is during one of the first comments made by Jig says “’ They’re lovely hills’ [. . .] ‘They don’t look like white elephants.’”.  The hills for Jig represent the child while the hills for the man symbolized the big obstacle the couple had to overcome in their relationship.  Later in the story there fields of grain and a river, which symbolizes the child and beyond the river are mountains, which suggest that if she keeps the child there will be difficulty between the couple.Yet another symbolic signal used by Hemingway is in the different parts of the station.  For example, the station divides by a set of parallel tracks.  This is an indication of the couple being at a crucial juncture of their lives in which a decision must be made when each of the two choices will take them in different directions.

The final use of symbolism is contained at the end of the story.  The man picked up the two bags (two choices) and carries them around the station to the other side of the tracks, looking for the train (an answer), but saw nothing coming.  He went back into the barroom where people were waiting patiently.  This implies that these people were satisfied with their lives, not anxious about anything at this time.  The man drank an Anis de Toro at the bar and looked at the people.  They were all waiting for the train.  He went through the beaded curtain (something dividing the couple).  The man then asks the woman if she is all right.  Her reply is, “I feel fine.  There is nothing wrong with me.  I feel fine”.  She is satisfied with her position concerning the abortion.  For her the pregnancy is not the end all that the man thinks that it is.

Hemingway’s writing style uses setting and symbolism to addresses a very controversial issue in a very powerful way.  He addresses the issue in a subtly and ambiguous fashion which makes it crucial that the reader understands the symbolism in order to understand the characters.  Clearly, Hemingway left the ending of the story open for discussion for many years.  The story not only reflects the thoughts of the early twentieth century, but it is still relevant today.


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