Hemingway believes that a good story conveys far more by subtext than by the use of actual words that is why he uses several symbols to present ideas and emotions. Each symbol develops gradually from the start till the end of the story and communicates the meaning of the story. The symbolism in the story promotes the theme of the loss of child and abortion, loss of love and conflict between the couple, and absence of meaning and aim in the couple’s life (Shi) more than any other devices used in the story.
The dominant symbol that is used in the story is the hills that appear like white elephants. Along with the title, the story refers to the whiteness of the hills and how they look like white elephants. These hills like white elephants are the symbol of the child in the girl’s womb. The child is like a white elephant, an unwanted, costly possession to the man. The man thinks that it is a simple and quick operation to curb the annoyance just like the conversation about white elephants that he brushes aside without much effort. To the girl, the child is a “lovely,” and it fascinates her but for the man, who is trying to persuade the girl for an abortion, the child is a “white elephant” that is nothing but an oppressive burden to carry (Kozikowski).
The couple is trying to decide whether they should have an abortion or not. The girl wants to have a child, but the man is indecisive, so he tries to persuade the girl to do otherwise, though he appears to be supportive of the girl’s decision. The drama takes place “between two lines of rails in the sun.” The two railway tracks going opposite in direction symbolize the opposite opinions of the man and the girl for the abortion (Shi). At the end of their conversation, the girl appears to have agreed to have the abortion, and they both board the same train to go to the same direction which means that there is no conflict of opinions between them.
On one side of the valley of the river Ebro, the hills are sterile, barren and dry, while those on the other side are painted as being alive and “growing things.” Hence, two different kinds of hills symbolize the couple’s difference of opinion. The sterility and bareness of the hills symbolize the abortion whereas having the baby symbolizes being alive and “growing things.” The bareness of the hills is also an extended metaphor for the pointless, self-indulgent life they have been living and the river Ebro that is flowing in the valley symbolizes the stream of life (Renner, 1995, p.28).
The colorful bead strings symbolize joy. “The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads” signifies that she is trying to attain happiness but is unable to hold it for herself. The strings of beads are wavering in front of the door of the pub that is full of darkness (sorrow) symbolize the contrast between joy and sorrow. In the same way, the bareness of the hills and fertility of the fields suggest a distinction between happiness and sadness. Furthermore, the blackness of licorice and lively color of absinthe also indicate this contrast (Abdoo).
The warm wind and the cold beers symbolize the fluctuating tension between them that is continuously increasing and decreasing. The tension between the couple rises with the mention of the warm wind, and it drops with the sip of cold beer. Hemingway uses different drinks, one of which is absinthe, to symbolize the destructive nature of their relationship and the girl’s disappointment in her life, that anything that she experiences for the first time ends up tasting like licorice (Lanier). This frustration makes her realize the connection between the absinthe and “everything” about her relationship with the man. Absinthe remains in the background of the story that brings to mind different images, ideas and emotions that contribute to the significant elements of the narrative.
The humps of the barren hills symbolize the swollen belly and breasts of a pregnant woman, that is becoming more and more prominent and impossible to remedy with every passing day, the man says, “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible” (Weeks).
The strings of beads that is “to keep out flies” functions as rosary that keeps the evil out. The curtain of beads helps the girl to oppose the evil of abortion (Elliott). Elliot thinks that the girl in the play is Catholic that is why the curtain of beads works as a rosary for her. He also believes that her opposition to the abortion is due to her religious beliefs.
The beads also symbolize the unborn child. The physical separation of the two of the strings of beads of the curtain (“The girl looked at the curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads”) is a symbol of the emotional separation of the couple (Organ). Their attitude towards the curtain shows their attitude toward the abortion. The curtain and the child both are unimportant for the man. He takes abortion for granted and believes that it is normal for an unmarried girl to have her abortion just like it is normal for the curtain to be hanging in the doorway. However, the girl’s response to the curtain shows a more profound response to the abortion than the man.
The railway tracks and the station in the middle of the field symbolize the contrast between the natural and artificially made things that signify the loss of life from the natural things. They also signify the man’s and the girl’s contrasting opinions about the abortion which contribute to the loss of love between them (O’Brien).
The two massive bags are the symbols of the weight of his unborn child and the girl whom he will have to marry if she does not agree to have the abortion. He will have to carry these weights throughout his life. Furthermore, the labels “from all the hotels where they had spent nights” on their bags symbolize the shallowness of their relationship. The labels are the symbols of their hedonistic lifestyle without any responsibilities (Friedman). The birth of the child will give meaning to their lives and their “seeing” and “trying” new things will end. Everything will be changed after the birth of the child if she does not have an abortion.
Every object in the story contributes to its meaning in some way. Many critics have highlighted the roles that the symbols played in the interpretation of the story “Hills Like White Elephants” and how Hemingway depended himself on the details to communicate the meaning of the story. These particulars are selective, and each serves its separate purpose. Each symbol is a piece of the puzzle; when all the parts are connected, a unified story emerges.