Hills Like White Elephants: an Analysis
Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the most well known writer in literature history, was no exception to the art of conveying life experience onto paper. Known for quite the controversial life, he was married four times; The writer blamed his mother for his father’s suicide, perhaps explaining his detachment from close family relations. Subsequently, depression and ill mental health drove him to commit suicide in 1961.
Nevertheless, his brilliant mind aided in the success of a Pulitzer prize in 1953 and the Nobel prize in 1954 (Elliot, et al. 1030). Symbolism, setting, and the lack of closure in “Hills Like White Elephants” illustrate Hemingway’s own experience that talking instead of communicating will ultimately lead to a relationship downfall. From the opening scene, the audience is welcomed to an intimate conversation between a pair of lovers waiting for the train to Madrid. Symbolism appears rather quickly when the woman notes the hills look similar to white elephants.
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Quite scarce, the white elephant naturally symbolizes a precious gift (Weeks 7-8). However, kings were known to give these animals to fellow rulers who they were not fond of. While rare, these animals were difficult to keep up with and thus viewed as a type of oppression (Sustana 10-13). Hemingway alludes this comparison to the real underlying issue; the discussion of the couples’ unborn child, although the reader is not explicitly told this information.
The audience is clearly able to infer the problem centers around abortion, as the man mentions several times that the operation is quite easy. Further, the audience can reason that this is not the first discussion on the pregnancy, as the conversation is heavy with tension. The white elephant symbolizes fertility for this couple; the mother perceives the baby as a gift and the father feels suppressed by the idea of a child (Elliot, et al. 1035). Miscommunication dominates all aspects of the conversation. For the man specifically, he fails to ask his partner if the operation is something she wishes to perform.
He merely states, “I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple” (Elliot, et al. 1034). Hence, the key indicator of talking versus communicating in a relationship. The man did not pause to reflect on his partner’s feelings, body language, or odd questions, such as, “things will be like they were…and you’ll love me?” (Elliot, et al. 1034). His focus was on his own wishes, and the purpose of incorporating her feelings into his comments was to keep her from outright denying him. Up until this point, He held dominance in the relationship, but crossroads have begun to emerge.
While she asked him to reaffirm his love for her, her constant questions do not imply ignorance, rather, she is making her decision on refusing an abortion while carefully weighing her options on how to end the relationship. She is quite knowledgeable and far more aware than she lets on (Rankin 1-2). Hemingway purposefully left the couple with their standstill to represent the train leaving without the woman, and the final line of the story proves this. The man asks if his lover feels better, and the story ends with her reply, “I feel fine…there’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (Elliot, et al. 1035).
The woman knows that the real issue is not the baby, in fact, the underlying problem is her lover. Perhaps this was the moment in which she fully understood that her pregnancy was the blessing, and her lover was the one holding her back from embracing it (Rankin 1-2). The woman is quite keen, overriding his manipulative pleas with sarcasm and careful answers. Again, he constantly referred to the operation as something easily done, implying that their unborn child could simply be forgotten.
The woman knows regardless of her decision, the relationship between the two will never be the same because of their unborn child (Rankin 1-2). Her cautious tone, diction, and repetitive questions reveal her slipping out of his controlling grasp. Consequently, she is at fault for contributing to the relationship downfall as well, not in the sense that she should comply with her partner’s wishes, but in that she failed to communicate effectively; she did allude her wishes to keep the child, but there was no honest and open conversation in which she professed this desire nor her anger that he could so easily dismiss the idea of raising a family together (Hardy and Hardy 3-4).
Though the conversation moves as the couple waits for the train, nothing is actually resolved or settled. The train itself symbolizes the crossroad that the couple has come to; the two must make a decision on the fate of their unborn child, and consequently, on the relationship itself. Interestingly enough, the man is the last one to focus his attention on the train’s arrival. “He looked up the tracks but could not see the train” (Elliot, et al. 1035). The entire plot has centered around the couple waiting on the train and it never does within the story.
This symbolizes his characteristically ignorant persona; he failed to understand his lover’s point of view during the conversation. Perhaps he fails to acknowledge that the crossroads have emerged as well, and the situation is far more complex than merely a simple operation. The setting is crucial in “Hills Like White Elephants” as it explains much of the mystery behind the plot. In retrospect, when the woman noted the hills looked like white elephants, much more than symbolism had occurred.
Of course, she knew the hills didn’t really look like white elephants, as she even retracted her words later on, saying, “They’re lovely hills..they don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of the skin through the trees” (Elliot et al, 1033). This symbolizes her comparison with the relationship itself; she is looking for purpose and meaning to stay with her lover, and perhaps even reason to go through with the abortion (Hardy and Hardy 3-4).
However, the woman also notes “that’s all we do isn’t it-look at things and try new drinks?” (Elliot, et al. 1033). The static, unchanging nature of their relationship never progressed towards a future, and the woman was well aware of that. Here, she notes his selfish reasoning for abortion; the ultimate reason in walking away from the relationship. Symbolism, setting, and the lack of closure in “Hills Like White Elephants” illustrate Hemingway’s own experience that talking instead of communicating will ultimately lead to a relationship downfall.
While selfish desire drove the man towards wanting an abortion, the woman failed to confront or reprimand him within the story aside from sarcastic blows and side comments. She possessed the ability to read character far better than her lover, and on that account is held responsible for talking at him instead of reasoning with him; perhaps she wanted him to leave and never return so that she may raise the baby with no interference. As for the man, he contributed little if any to the conversation, simply asking for another round of drinks, noting the weather, and downplaying the operation’s immensity. If anything, the rolling hills revealed one, indelible truth: the lover was her white elephant of suppression, and her baby was the sacred gift of freedom.