The Hills Like White Elephant is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The story’s two key characters are an American man and a woman named Jig. The two are at a table outside a train station as they await their train to Madrid. They order drinks and hold an argument over whether or not Jig will have an operation that would be fundamental to their relationship. Hemingway makes good use of symbolism throughout the plot using objects, characters actions, and settings among others.
The setting of the story is figurative where the story begins with a vivid description of a train station which is surrounded by fields and hill. This setting helps the audience understand the circumstances of the couple and their relationship. The hills that are seen in a distance symbolize various situations. The hills symbolize the growing belly of Jig since she is pregnant (Weeks, 236). They also various obstacles and hardships the relationship of the two characters will face. Jig says, “They look like white elephants” (Rankin 236). She refers to the hills which represent her child. To her, the hills also signify the many big and small obstacles that existed in the relationship. The layout of the hills makes a significant representation of these challenges since the hills are of different sizes some small and some big. The use of the hills in place of gigantic mountains also emphasizes the fact that the obstacles being faced by the couple are manageable and they would therefore, have the ability to overcome them. On one side of the train truck, the hills appear to be alive and beautiful while they appear dry and dull on the other side (Weeks, 236). This signifies the decision she is faced with the beautiful side representing the challenge and opportunity of the decision and the dry side representing a boring life (Weeks, 237). The man, on the other hand, is not able to see anything as he looks at the hill since his mind is block by the thoughts of the abortion. Moreover, at the end of the conversation, the two are drinking alone with the girl at the table and the man at the bar which makes the implication that the relationship may end with both of them going on separate ways.
The drinks the couples take as they await the train symbolize many things in the relationship of the couple. The girl makes comments about their relationship by stating that they never engage in any other activities together other than trying out new drinks. This signifies the state of their relationship which according to the remarks of the girl is boring and monotonous which greatly bothers her (Weeks, 237). This shows the fact that the girl is ready for a change and a chance to settle down with the American. The man, however, does not seem interested in a change from his carefree lifestyle. Additionally, the fact that the girl has to ask the man for permission to drink and also has to rely on him to make the order since she cannot speak Spanish symbolizes the way the girl is dependent on the man. This disappoints her as her decision will not have any effect on the relationship.
Jig has mixed feelings about the decision since to her she is torn between wanting the baby and having the abortion while the man has already decided on the later. “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for like absinthe” (Hemingway 102). She is disappointed in the fact that her decision and opinions in the relationship do not seem to count.
The bamboo bead curtain is also a major symbol in the story. The beaded parts show partition and separation and signify the situation in the relationship of Jig and the American. The two are separated on the question of abortion, their future together and contentment. The curtain shows that there is something that hangs between them. The curtain represents the pregnancy where Jig wants to keep the child while the American insists on the abortion, which blurs their conversation to light things such as what they want to drink. “Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies” (Hemingway 14). The characters, however, do not go through the curtain and the audiences are stuck outside with the flies. This signifies that the audiences are kept outside the figurative curtain that blocks communication between the characters. Throughout the story, the author keeps the audience outside and thus emphasizes the symbolism of the curtain.
The train station and the bags are symbolic. They represent a map of the expedition that brought them to this point. “He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels they had spent nights” (Hemingway 99). The stickers on the suit cases show how and where Jig became pregnant and shows similarities of the indecisiveness concerning abortion.
The author manages to use symbolism to help the audience understand his story and the characters. The audiences are able to interpret the situation of the characters and the tension between them. He uses the setting of the story, objects, and actions to signify various factors that assist the audience understand the story and the characters. The symbolism is, therefore, a very powerful tool in the book ‘The Hills like white elephants.’
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills like white elephants.” The complete short stories of Ernest Hemingway (1927): 211-14.
Rankin, Paul. “Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants.” The Explicator 63.4 (2005): 234-237.
Weeks, Lewis E. “Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in” Hills Like White Elephants”.” Studies in Short Fiction 17.1 (1980): 75. White Elephants. The Explicator, 63(4), 234-237.