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Hills Like White Elephants | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Ernest Hemingway's short story Hills Like White Elephants.

Hills Like White Elephants | Symbols


White Elephants

The girl introduces the image of white elephants when she says the hills beyond the station look like white elephants. The American responds by saying he's never seen one. The girl hasn't seen one either, so this is an instance where they are clearly talking about something else. These hills are rounded, like elephants, but also like the bellies of pregnant women.

White elephants are very rare in nature, and are considered a portent that something important is about to happen. For example, before the birth of Buddha, his mother dreamed that a white elephant holding a lotus flower in its trunk appeared and entered her body through her right side. Her husband called upon priests to learn the meaning of the dream; they predicted his wife would give birth to a ruler or spiritual leader. White elephants have another less auspicious meaning. The phrase white elephant is an idiom for an unwanted, impractical gift—something the recipient does not want to keep because the gift lacks value. People therefore try to get rid of a white elephant. This definitely applies to the girl's pregnancy. It is an unwanted gift, and one that the American sees as the ruin of his relationship with the girl. Some critics see the pregnancy itself as the white elephant, while others believe that the relationship, or even the girl herself, can be viewed as a white elephant the American may wish to leave behind.

Light and Darkness

In the second line of the narrative Hemingway introduces the importance of light, and the relationship between light and darkness. Where the train station is located, there are no nearby trees to provide shade. The station sits in the full glare of the sun and the only shade available is the shadow cast by the building itself. The intense sunlight shapes how the characters see things. Although the hills' appearance may vary with the time of day, Hemingway specifically says they are white in the sunlight, while the countryside is brown and dry.

This stark division between light and dark parallels the division between the two characters' sides of the discussion, and the harsh choice the American is pressuring the girl to make. Compromise is possible in many situations, as is trying something for a while to see how well it works. However, neither of those possibilities applies here: an abortion is an absolute decision.

The white hills and lack of shadow on one side of the station may symbolize the girl's thoughts of possibly continuing her pregnancy. The dry brown countryside, conversely, may symbolize barrenness, or the results of terminating the pregnancy. Tired of the American's coercion, the girl leaves the shadow of the station and walks to the end of the platform to think about the situation. The American, who is pushing her to terminate the pregnancy so they can return to the fun of their relationship, prefers to sit in the darkness of the station's shade. He encourages her to return to the shade and continue their discussion.

Rather than communicate clearly with each other, the American and the girl order and consume alcohol as a way to avoid an in-depth conversation. When they order anis del toro, this plays further into the light and darkness symbolism. Upon sipping the drink, the girl discovers it tastes of licorice. Although not specifically mentioned, the dark color of licorice comes to mind. The girl is clearly disappointed that the exotic-seeming beverage has such an ordinary flavor with—like absinthe—a bitter aftertaste. This, too, may symbolize the dark side of their relationship in terms of the American's feelings about the pregnancy. This layered symbolism shows the story's complexity, and also how Hemingway reverses meanings for light and darkness throughout. This parallels how the couple changes position as they argue back and forth.

Railroad Tracks

The entire story takes place at a train station—a physical and metaphorical crossroads of railroad tracks in the couple's journey. Each track symbolizes a possible life path. They are waiting for a train that would take them to Madrid. In Spanish, the word for mother is madre, so they are literally sitting on the track to motherhood. People wait at train stations to take the next step on their literal journeys, and in this case, the couple is waiting for an express train. Metaphorically, the American and the girl are discussing the next stage of their life journey, and they have only a limited amount of time, with the approaching train and the development of the pregnancy, to make a decision.

Beaded Curtain

When describing the setting, Hemingway mentions the bar's curtain "made of strings of bamboo beads." The girl comments on the curtain, which has an ad painted on it, and reaches out to touch the beads while they talk. The man speaks through it to order their drinks. This curtain can symbolize several different things that would be appropriate for this story.

Some critics read the beads as being like a rosary, which the girl fingers for emotional support or comfort. A rosary is a string of beads used during prayers in some religions, such as Roman Catholicism. Performing the act of using the rosary is part of the ritual of contrition. Here, the girl may be asking forgiveness for the sin of even considering an abortion. Bamboo stalks, and thus the beads, are hollow (perhaps like the couple's relationship). Others read the curtain as a barrier between the American and the girl—one neither of them ever passes through. Still others note that the station is divided into two sections, or realms, with the curtain between them. Inside, where it is the dark, the American introduces his argument in favor of an abortion. In this dark realm, the American's representations of abortion are a diminished, inaccurate version of the truth. His argument may not hold up in the outer realm of light.

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