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“Hills like White Elephants” is a puzzling short story that uses symbolism to fulfill Hemingway’s thematic purposes. The writer uses an untraditional method of telling where he does not explicitly describe the characters apart from emphasizing their gender, that is, “the girl” and “the American” (Alashjaai, n.d.). The story’s plot begins at the train station where the characters are waiting for a train to Madrid. They have a paradoxical heated conversation, where the man convinces the girl to go for a simple “operation,” referring to abortion and she unpassionately accepts to go for it. After making this decision, the couple leaves once the train arrives. Hemingway’s short story is rich with symbolism, such as the white elephants, hills, the train, the train station, and the beaded curtain, which better communicates the character’s dilemma, specifically for the girl.
The White Elephant
The white elephant is an important symbol in the story, as it symbolizes an unwanted gift. Noteworthy, Hemingway opens the story with an extensive description of the landscape surrounding the train station, which features hills and a valley. Several lines down the story, the girl says the hills beyond the station “look like white elephants.” The man says he has never seen one, and the woman replies, “No, you wouldn’t have.” The back-and-forth conversation gets tension-filled, symbolizing a controversial issue they are unwilling to discuss (Hemingway, 1927). The mention of an elephant mirrors the euphotic idiom, the elephant in the room, which refers to a problem people are unwilling to acknowledge or discuss. This idiomatic expression parallels the abortion issue the couple avoids discussing.
Further, white elephants are scarce; their birth indicates something important is about to happen. The important thing in the story symbolizes the coming of a child if the couple keeps the pregnancy or death if they choose abortion. Also, a white elephant is an idiomatic expression that means a gift that is expensive to maintain yet has little value, and one cannot get rid of it easily. With that, one can deduce that the couple is struggling to discuss the pregnancy, which is important and not easy to terminate.
The hills represent the subject of discussion, which is pregnancy. The girl describes the hills by likening them to white elephants. The hills have round contours like the elephants, similar to a pregnant woman. Although she does not expressly liken the hills to a pregnant woman, her frequent reference to the hills enlightens on the jargon under discussion. Further, her referring to the hills as white elephants proves that the hills symbolize her pregnancy.
First, a child is expensive to raise, and as described in the story’s opening, the bareness and dryness of the hills symbolize the little value a child brings to the parents while still an infant. Second, the girl is not willing to take an abortion, which the man calls a simple operation, because “once they take it away, you never get it back” (Hemingway, 1927). Third, her referring to the hills as “lovely hills” further proves her unwillingness to do the abortion. In brief, the elephant-like hills symbolize the round belly of a pregnant woman, which she will get when she decides to keep the pregnancy.
The Train and the Train Station
The train and the train station also carry the symbolic meaning of decision-making. The story’s setting is at the train station symbolizing a crossroad in the relationship of the girl and the American. Since the station’s location is a desolate place, it shows that it is not a final destination. Therefore, the characters should decide where to go and with whom. The station between two railroads symbolizes two life paths the characters must decide to go on. In the story, the girl is unwilling to take the operation, while the American views it as a path back to freedom. The girl is at a crossroads between this binary: life or death. Choosing to keep the pregnancy will mean their relationship with the man will be rocky, and he will love her less (Hashmi, 2003). Choosing the relationship means she chooses death for her child.
On the other hand, the train symbolizes a decision the girl should take and is bound to time. In the beginning, the train arrives at the station in forty minutes, giving her the time to think about the decision she is to make. However, the train is later said to reach the station in five minutes, signaling the girl that time is up and she should make a decision quickly. The train symbolizes the time-bound decision of abortion, where the time of pregnancy determines whether the termination can be successful.
The Beaded Curtain
The beaded curtain symbolizes the disparity between their views on the issue of abortion. To the girl, the pregnancy does not “… look like white elephants”; instead, “they are lovely hills” (Hemingway, 1927). Therefore, she views the pregnancy as a lovely idea that she would not mind. Also, the girl fears that when she terminates the pregnancy, she will “never get it back,” meaning she will abandon motherhood (Hemingway, 1927). On the other hand, American views abortion as a simple gesture, downplaying the possible effects. To him, the abortion will make them happy like the many people he has seen done one. In sum, the curtain represents the split views on the elephant in the room, getting rid of the unborn child.
As seen above, these are some symbols Hemingway uses to convey the message to his audience. The symbolism in this short story jogs the audience’s minds to consciously look out for the puzzles, making the story engaging. In addition, the symbols used have significant meanings that drive the plot forward. In short, the story is a symbolic meditation.
- Alashjaai, N. F. (n.d.). The Interpersonal Relationship between Jig and the American in Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants.”
- Hashmi, N. (2003). “Hills Like White Elephants”: The Jilting of Jig. The Hemingway Review, 23(1), 72-83.
- Hemingway, E. (1927). Hills like white elephants. HarperPerennial Classics.