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.
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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.
Symbolism and �Hills Like White Elephants�
by Myriah Pirhala
Ernest Hemingway was a very talented and accomplished writer. In the story, �Hills Like White Elephants,� Hemingway has two characters, the American and �Jig� that are obviously facing a possible operation, an abortion. He is very vague with his writings, leaving much to interpretation and imagination. Throughout the story, there are parts of the setting, conversation, and body language that help the reader form their own views of the story. In this essay, I will discuss and explain my views of what Hemingway meant with this complex story.
The American man and Jig, the girl with him, are dealing with abortion. They have different views on this, as you can tell by subtle hints in the setting and less subtle hints in the conversation and the body language between them.
�On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun�(Hemingway 838). This sentence begins to describe the setting of this story. This side is very barren, almost resembling the loneliness and infertility of a desert. This is what they see when they first enter the train station, before anything has been dealt with or resolved. This could be referring to the relationship between the American and Jig, as it is barren and unfruitful.
When the conversation begins, Jig asks the man what they should have to drink. Of all the things that they could have ordered, he recommends beer. He orders two �big ones� (Hemingway 838). This could possibly mean that he is trying to veer away from talking about the �operation�. When the woman brings the beer over, Jig is looking off into the hills. This is a sign that she is thinking of other things, possibly the operation and the thought of a new life and new child. She also mentions �that�s all we do, isn�t it�look at things and try new drinks?�(Hemingway 839). This seems to be saying that she is dissatisfied with their life together. She could want more from life, thinking about a possible life including a baby.
The man then says, out of the blue, �it�s really an awfully simple operation, Jig, it�s not really an operation at all�(Hemingway 840). It seems as if he is trying to convince her to go through with the abortion. As he said this, �the girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on� (Hemingway 840). Her body language at that moment was saying �I am submissive to you�you physically and emotionally dominate me�(Baruchbar 7). He proceeds to say, �I know you wouldn�t mind it, Jig. It�s really not anything. It�s just to let the air in�(Hemingway 840). The man is being very pushy with his words. He is basically telling her how she should feel about it. She does not respond to what he says. He continues to push by saying, � 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 normal�(Hemingway 840). How can the man say that? Has �he� had the operation? Or has someone close to him had the operation?
The story was published in August of 1927. The story is based somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid, Spain. �Historically, Spanish law followed the Catholic Church�s ideology on abortion� (Abortion: Law, History, and Religion, 20). �Prior to 1983, abortion, the sale of contraceptives, and access to birth control information were considered crimes� (Abortion: Law, History, and Religion, 20). This proves that the abortion in question would have been illegal at the time. This would make this anything but �perfectly simple� (Hemingway 840). If they were to do this operation, it would be considered a �back-alley abortion�, where the odds for infection and death are very high. The American might not know these facts, but I would say that he would since he seems to know how �perfectly natural� (Hemingway 840) abortions are. Abortions also have extreme psychological effects on women. Many suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Post- Abortion Syndrome. �In a study of post-abortion patients only 8 weeks after their abortion, researchers found that 44% complained of nervous disorders, 36% had experienced sleep disturbances, 31% had regrets about their decision, and 11% had been prescribed psychotropic medicine by their family doctor� (Ashton).
The man feels that everything will be fine afterwards. That everything will go back to the way it was. He claims, �That�s the only thing that bothers us. It�s the only thing that has made us unhappy� (Hemingway 840). Immediately after the man says this, she takes two strands of beads from the curtain. After the comment the man made, this could mean that she is imagining a life with her and her child, instead of the life she has been living with this man, �looking at things and trying new drinks� (Hemingway 839).
Later in the story, Jig stands up and looks at the other side of the train station. �Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees�(Hemingway 840). As she stood up, away from the man, she sees the very fertile and plentiful side of the station. Perhaps, the two sides of the station correspond with the life of these two people. In the beginning, they saw the infertile side, and now after much of the conversation has passed, she sees the fertile side.
At this point of the story, it seems that Jig is beginning to realize how important this decision is. It looks like she is leaning towards keeping the baby. �I don�t want you to do anything that you don�t want to do�(Hemingway 841). �Nor that isn�t good for me�(Hemingway 841). Jig responds to the man�s statement in a way that she is knowledgeable of the harm an abortion can cause to her, physically and psychologically. �But I don�t want anybody but you. I don�t want anyone else. And I know it�s perfectly simple�(Hemingway 841). The man is stating that he doesn�t want this baby, that he only wants her. He goes back to the statement �perfectly simple�, possibly trying one last time to convince her to go through with the abortion. She then asks him to �please please please please please please please stop talking?� (STANFORD 841). After she says this, the man looks at their bags against the wall of the station. �There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights� (Hemingway 841). The man is reminiscing the places that they have gone together. The man seems to be a traveler, a nomad, frolicking around as he pleases. I believe that he knows if a child were to come, he would no longer be able to do all of this.
As the story ends, the man takes the bags �around the station to the other tracks�(Hemingway 842). �Two lines of rails in the sun�(Hemingway 838) was mentioned at the beginning of the story. By him putting the bags on the other side could mean that he was ready for the commitment of the pregnancy. �He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train�(Hemingway 841). In this statement, what you would normally expect to see is �patiently�, but the man describes the people waiting reasonably. I believe that he has started to see how unreasonable he has been in this conversation and with his behavior. The story ends with Jig smiling at the man, and declaring, �I feel fine� (Hemingway 841)
This story still seems very unclear to me, but after reading it many times I have come to some conclusions. I feel that with the hints in the setting, conversation, and body language, the man becomes more understanding towards the end. I also feel that Jig has come to terms with her life and the importance of the decision she is making. Jig went from very quiet and �small� in the beginning, to calm and �smiling� at the end. The man also changed throughout the story. He was trying to convince her to have the abortion right up until the end. The man then took the bags to the �other side of the tracks� and saw the possibilities of a new life, with Jig and the baby.
�Abortion: Law, History, & Religion.� Childbirth by Choice Trust. 1995.
Ashton, "The Psychological Outcome of Induced Abortion."British Journal of Ob&Gyn. 87 (1980) :1115-1122.
Cited in �Mental Health Risks of Abortion: Scientific Studies Reveal Significant Risk.�
Baruchbar, Heinz-Chaffe, and Moon. �Body Language in Confrontational Situations.�
Hemingway, Ernest, "Hills Like White Elephants." In Judith A. Stanford, Responding to Literature: Stories, Poems,
Plays, and Essays. 4th Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
This essay was posted with permission of student Myriah Pirhala of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in October, 2004.
The URL for this page is: http://vccslitonline.vccs.edu/copy_of_hills/symbolism.htm