Hills Like White Elephants: Explication of Symbolism
Published 12 May 2017
Ernest Hemingway, the great American author of the twentieth century, is known for saying a lot without writing many words. He often used symbolism in his short simple writing so that he could accomplish this task. It has many things hidden inside the plot, which the potential reader has to guess and find its meaning reading between the lines. (Renkiel) In the story Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway uses symbolism to not only help tell the story, but to create the tense mood and tone of the story. The story was written in 1927, but is still relevant seventy years later. As long as there are couples who are faced with a crossroads in their relationship, there will be those who can relate to this story.
The story is about an American male and a woman at a railway station between Barcelona and Madrid, Spain and is told mostly through dialogue. In Hills Like White Elephants, the narrative is almost all dialogue between Jig and the American man, so we must take our clues from them. It never comes out and says, but it is obvious that the man wants the woman to have an abortion, which was illegal in Spain at the time. While neither the man or woman wants the baby, she is not sure that she wants to have an abortion as the solution to her problem. The man keeps telling her that it is a simple operation and that “I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.” (Hemingway). They both know that this is the end of the relationship despite the promises made by the American man.
Jig, the woman, and the American are drinking beer and trying new drinks while they wait for their train. She comments that the hills look like white elephants even though neither one of them have ever seen one. White elephants are symbolic for something that is too big and costly for what it is worth. So the white elephant in their situation is the baby. Babies are expensive and even though they bring a huge amount of joy, they are also a lot of work. Hence, to this couple it would be a white elephant and there is no room in their lives for this situation. The thought of a baby permanently ties him to Jig. he is telling her now that he will stay with her, but it is very unlikely since he does not want the ties of this child.
The hills are symbolic of the belly of the pregnant woman. As the pregnancy progresses, her abdomen will grow and become rounded like a hill. It is difficult to climb a hill just as a pregnancy can be difficult is several ways. It can be difficult in a physical way. Many women find themselves terribly sick, and sometimes the pregnancy can even threaten the woman’s life. The time period was the 1920’s and medical advances were not as they are today, therefore, it was not unusual for a woman to die. While from a distance a hill can be beautiful and sensual, so is a woman who is pregnant.
While the hills are like white elephants, an animal that doesn’t exist, the ground is dry and barren. The American man keeps telling Jig that this operation is perfectly safe, but since it is illegal, there is a good chance that she will have to go to a facility that is substandard and dangerous. In those days abortions were so unsafe that they would risk the woman’s life or they would leave her sterile. If she chooses to abort this pregnancy under these conditions her womb will be empty and barren and she could possibly never have children. The ground has produced no vegetation just like the body of Jig. Once a woman has given birth, she has a baby to take away the empty feeling of her womb, but Jig will have nothing but the empty womb if she listens to the man.
Jig needs another female in her life to identify and help her with her situation. It is easy for a man to think that he understands what it is like to carry a child. In reality he is an important part of the child’s existence, but as much as he would like to, he can never really know what the feeling is like. The only other woman in the story is the waitress. When Jig looks to this other woman, she disappears behind the curtain which symbolizes the separation of Jig and the comfort and identification of another woman leaving her very alone.
The railway station where the American and Jig are waiting for their train and drinking is between two rails. These tracks run parallel to each other, but they never cross or come together as one track. This is symbolic of the relationship between the two. They are clearly not heading in the same direction. Jig is not sure what she wants to do, but she is definitely being pressured. The American cannot be blamed for not wanting this baby. Everyone knows what they want and do not want out of life. They are both good people, they just have different agendas. They have acted first and instead of thinking of the consequences. It makes them wrong, but everyone has been wrong about something.
Hemingway uses this short story to bring a message to his readers that make people stop and think. In a very short story filled with dialogue, he uses symbols to make his point. This story has entertained millions for generations because it seems so real. Many have been in the situation that the American and Jig have found themselves, but it is not only about an unwanted pregnancy, but many problems of a dying relationship.
- Hemingway, Ernest. Hills Like White Elephants. 1927. Perdue University.
- Silverstein, Josh. Ernest Hemingway.
- Renkiel, Tomaz. Symbolism of Colors and Places. November 10th, 2001. David Gagne.