Symbolism of Hills Like White Elephants
How it works
The short story “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway is a subdued account of a couple’s meandering discussion of an unwanted pregnancy and the implied possibility of resolving the issue with an abortion. Hemingway uses the objective point of view throughout the story, allowing the reader to act as a clandestine observer and to witness a deeply personal but indirect exchange between the characters. The tale is allegorical, and presents a topic that is morally complex and controversial, especially at the 1927 publication date. In this story, Hemingway uses a wealth of symbolism as an alternative to directly describing the thoughts and emotions of the couple. Even the title itself serves the dual metaphor of describing an “elephant in the room” or trouble that people do not wish to discuss and also a “white elephant” or an unwanted present, which in this case is the undesired pregnancy.
Other important symbols in the story include elements of the surrounding natural environment, the train station and luggage, and the alcoholic drinks consumed by the couple. The story is set in a Spanish train station where a couple have an exchange that hints at abortion: “‘It’s really an awfully simple operation”’ (Hemingway 476). The opening line describes their surroundings: “The hills… were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees…” (Hemingway 475). This is in contrast to the countryside, which is dry and brown. The abundant hills visually suggest the roundness of a pregnant stomach, whereas the countryside symbolizes the barrenness of a discarded pregnancy. Hemingway also uses light and darkness to convey that Jig and the American are divided in their decisions concerning their future. When Jig steps into the light the American urges, “‘Come back in the shade’” (Hemingway 477). The American discourages Jig from viewing the unplanned pregnancy as a positive event, and he instead wants her to remain content in the shade of their current life. Lewis Weeks, in his analysis of the story, said, “The man will not permit it; and the woman will be denied the fulfillment of motherhood” (76).
How it works
The contrasting environments of the setting suggest that the couple is living in the shadows, but Jig is beginning to see the light. The luggage and train station are also important symbols in this story. The luggage likely symbolizes the weight of the couple’s decision concerning the abortion. Hemingway states in the short story, “He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the way of the station” (478). The American sees the unborn child as undesired baggage, which is hefty and cumbersome. The man’s emotional state is also revealed in his anxiety about the arrival of the train “He looked up the tracks but could not see the train” (Hemingway 478). The train station and tracks symbolize the crossroads at which the couple find themselves, and the American is likely afraid that Jig will decide to continue the pregnancy and that he will be propelled onto the unwanted path of fatherhood. The metaphor of the train station also highlights that the decision is time sensitive. Just as the trains keep a strict schedule, there is only a limited amount of time during which the decision to terminate the pregnancy can be made. The elements of the train station and luggage emphasize that a weighty decision must be made from which there is no return. Finally, the couple drinks an alcoholic beverage, anis del toro, while waiting for the train. The taste of the alcohol superficially illustrates the bitterness between the couple that has been brought on by the unplanned pregnancy. A deeper meaning is implied when Jig compares the taste of the drink to licorice: “‘Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe’” (Hemingway 476).
The comparison of the drink to a semi-sweet candy may represent the bittersweet dilemma that the couple faces. Although neither of them can fully predict what effect the termination or continuation of the pregnancy will have on their relationship or on them individually, both parties are likely to suffer to some extent with either decision. It is bitterweet that, although the termination of the pregnancy may preserve their freedom, the future of their relationship is uncertain. Lanier worded it best by writing, “He [the American] knows that the bittersweet taste reminds her of the whole of life as they are living it, a potentially destructive life that is meaningless” (288). The American wants Jig to remain content in their current lifestyle. “‘I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it- look at things and try new drinks’”(Hemingway 478). Jig’s statement expresses that she is tired of their nomadic lifestyle and she is ready to settle down. A sourness has developed between Jig and the American that is will represented by their tart drinks.
In conclusion, Hemingway paints a picture of a conflicted and uncertain future for this couple through the use of symbolism. Jig is unable to fully express herself and fight for her needs. The American is content with his freedom and wants to continue to travel without being restrained by the responsibility of fatherhood. The reader goes on a dismal journey with this couple who may be realizing that their future together has been irreversibly stained by the pain of their inconvenient pregnancy.