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Literary Analysis: Symbolism in Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants
Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story “Hills Like White Elephants ” has been the subject of analysis since it was published in 1927. Typical of Hemingway’s work, the short story is concise both in words and in commentary. Hemingway’s writing offers an objective point of view; that is, the narrative refuses to divulge what exactly the characters think or feel, or want, allowing instead for dialogue and action to express the character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. Such an approach to writing provides plenty of room for interpretation, especially in the case of this short story where the topic of the characters’ conversation is implied rather than outright stated. A close reading of the dialogue juxtaposed with the symbols, however, can provide insight into the meaning of Hemingway’s work. This essay discusses how symbols reveal that this story is specifically about the two characters’ differing views on abortion.
Many scholars have already established that the story is about abortion. Wyche writes that pregnancy is one of the two main themes in the story, the other being the search for the biographical basis of the story itself (56). That being said, symbolism plays an integral role here in expressing the characters’ differing views. One of the most revealing symbols in the story is the term white elephant. In the story, the woman named Jig remarks that the hills in the distance look like white elephants. The term white elephant is a known euphemism for possessions that are purposeless and impractical yet hard to maintain and throw away. The term is believed to have originated in Siam, where the king supposedly gifted rare white elephants to subjects who caused him displeasure. The subjects, in turn, would be forced to care for the white elephant to the point of financial ruin, since they could not dispose of it lest they cause the king further displeasure (Larsen and Watson 890). In the story, white elephants represent the couple’s unborn child. The unnamed man in the story clearly does not want the child, whereas the woman is undecided. For one, the man admits in a roundabout way that he does not want the child, stating that “But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want anyone else.” This basically implies that he does not want others, the unborn child included. For another, the man sees the unborn child as a white elephant as evidenced by his contradicting statements. The man reassures the woman that it is ultimately her choice, yet he also falsely reassures her that the procedure just involves letting air in. He glosses over the fact that abortion can be a painful and risky procedure. His repeated emphasis on the supposed simplicity of the operation, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” betrays his words of assurance.
While the man’s opinion on the matter is clear, the woman’s side is less apparent. It can be reasonably assumed, however, that the woman is at the least undecided on the matter. It appears initially that she shares the man’s view. After all, it is she who brings up the comparison with white elephants in the first place. It nevertheless becomes clear that she does not really share the man’s opinion. It is difficult to tell if she wants to continue the pregnancy, but it is apparent that she is having doubts about ending the pregnancy. Indeed, the man and the woman will not be having the discussion in the first place if they agree that the pregnancy should be terminated. Furthermore, the man’s attempts to pressure the woman into getting the abortion serve as further proof that she still has not made up her mind.
Another important symbol that points to their disagreement is the bags. In the story, the man stands up and carries “two heavy bags” to the other side of the station. Hemingway uses the two heavy bags as symbolism for both Jig and the unborn child and the potential burden that they pose to the man while he anxiously waits for Jig’s decision on whether or not to go through with the abortion. Just as how white elephants are burdensome to maintain, the bags are heavy and difficult to lug around. Even the man’s act of taking the bags to the other side of the station away from him is evocative of him carrying a burden.
The drinks the couple tries further imply the stark contrast between their viewpoints. The man simply refers to the drinks as “drink” and says “That’s the way with everything” in response to Jig saying that absinthe tastes like licorice. The man’s perspective is plain, whereas Jig’s perspective has layers. To him, the matter is clear: she has to abort the baby if she wants them to remain together. On the other hand, her ability to distinguish the tastes of drinks symbolizes her nuanced view on the matter. The fact that for the woman drinks are not merely drinks is also reflective of her mixed emotions. She acknowledges the different consequences that she faces including losing her unborn child and regaining the affection of the man as a result, having the child and losing the man, losing them both, or the remote possibility of having a family with him.
Finally, the curtain stands for the turning point in Jig’s life whatever her decision may be. When the man “walks out through the bead curtain,” it only conveys Jill’s unspoken acceptance of the relationship’s end if she continues her pregnancy. It implies that she thinks she might be better off with just the baby. The man perceives the unborn child to be the “only thing” that is making them unhappy. On the contrary, Jill considers the baby as “everything.” The wind also embodies the changes that have taken place in the relationship. Jig’s pointless stare through the bead curtain represents her uncertainty and state of being torn about the man’s recommendation, as well as her contemplating on what the future holds for the two of them after she reaches a decision. But towards the end of the story, the white elephants have taken on an entirely different meaning. The man is now a white elephant in Jig’s eyes because she has decided to go through with her pregnancy. The “lovely hills that don’t really look like white elephants” now signify the unwanted child that she now wants to raise.
While Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is short and features a seemingly plain dialogue and little action, careful analysis of the text shows that there is conflict brewing underneath the surface. While not explicitly stated, perhaps due to the controversial topic, the story is about a man and a woman discussing abortion. But beyond the general topic is the struggle between the two characters’ perspectives on the matter. In just a few pages, the story not only explores the complexities of a relationship changed by differing viewpoints but also inadvertently rouses questions with regarding freedom of choice in abortion and birth. Indeed, this short story’s ability to offer such depth and richness in so few words are testament that it has the qualities of classic literature. It is by far a prime short story example that more than deserves its hallowed place in American literature.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Weber State University . https://faculty.weber.edu/jyoung/English%202500/Readings%20for%20English%202500/Hills%20Like%20White%20Elephants.pdf. Accessed 30 November 2020.
Larsen, Derek and John J. Watson. “A guide map to the terrain of gift value.” Psychology and Marketing, vol.18, no.8, 2001, pp. 889-906.
Wyche, David. “Letting the air into a relationship: metaphorical abortion in `Hills Like White Elephants'." The Hemingway Review, vol.22, no.1, 2002, p.56+.
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