Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants

Ernest Hemingway uses the setting, symbolism, imagery, genre, tone, and the title in Hills like White Elephants to illustrate the tension that can be brought to a relationship when there is an unwanted unborn child. The setting of the story is a railroad station in a valley called the valley of Ebro in South America. You can infer the main characters are on a vacation. The couple stops at a small station bar and gets a drink while making light conversation.

The story starts out seeming like a simple conversation between a couple while they wait for their train to Madrid but soon you realize the conversation is much more serious. The setting of the story is significant because valleys have a hill which is why the title is Hills like White Elephants. Each character describes the hills differently. The hills can represent this dream Jig has of a family relationship or the harsh stifling of the dream. They represent the hope she has that her sexual relationship with the man can turn into a solid relationship with a family (Hashmi).

This story is about a young couple arguing about abortion. The girl, Jig, does not agree to it, but the American man said it was the only way. The girl wants to carry on with her life with the new experience of a child. The American said it would take her whole life away and the baby will be a burden. “To Jig, the unborn child she carries is eminently, painfully real; to the American it is a concept, an abstraction, and too expensive to keep” (Wyche).

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She is hesitant about the whole topic and chooses not talk about it anymore. They started drinking beer at the beginning of the story and later on the beer is put on felt pads. Felt symbolizes the comforting barricade that alcohol provides them between the truth and the table.

This was possibly significant because they were trying to forget about reality at the moment. The felt pads could also evoke, in light of the couple’s conversation, images of the operating room and gauze pads used to soak up blood (Wyche). There are many elements in the story, such as disconnection, manipulation, dominance, innocence, and irresponsibility. The short story has several elements to the tone. The author uses dialogue between the man and Jig to show how it can be tough to talk about a difficult situation. The man just wants to have fun he doesn’t want the responsibility of a child his tone is sincere but stern. He makes it very clear he does not want this child; although he keeps telling her that she doesn’t have to go through with the abortion if she doesn’t want to (Hashmi).

A white elephant symbolizes something no one wants. The white elephant in this story symbolizes the girls’ unborn child. At the start of the story, the girl made a comment about how the hills looked like white elephants which seemed harmless, but it served as the topic for her and the American to talk about the unborn baby and their options. Later into the story, the girl takes back her comment hinting that she wants to keep the baby. She mentions the hills being like white elephants but takes it back saying they are exquisite; she wants to see the good in having a baby.

The story links the hills and metaphorically, the baby to elephants. The train station is another symbol in the story. They stand for people in stopping point for people that are traveling. Jig and the American’s suitcase have stickers on them that give a record of where they have been. It documents their travels and can also be seen as a map of the expedition that brought them to this point.

The train station is a midpoint between that present time and the future time that they will move in the direction of on the train. Train stations, airports, bus stations, and ports, when found in stories, give us the sense of transition, of being between worlds, between experiences. The train can symbolize their predicaments and the upcoming decision they have to make. It is like they are caught between two sets of rails (Wyche).

The couple is at reach a crucial point. If Jig gives in to her lover’s wishes, their lives cannot, as she well knows, be the same as before. The aborted fetus will continue to come between them as they try to “look at things and try new drinks”. Their old existence, like their feelings for one another, will not be theirs anymore. They will have negated the relationship, and once it is taken away, “you never get it back”. Should Jig insist on having the baby, the American, having lost his “unencumbered sexual playhouse”, will leave her, either sooner or later (Wyche).

The imagery used in this story is simple and easy to understand, but it is also mysterious and could be confusing. Hemingway did believe that some things are better left to the imagination instead in words on paper. In the story, it says the hills are long and white. Are they white because of snow or the color of the rock? Hemingway could have used this imagery to make you think of the pregnant belly of a woman lying down.

The weather was also mentioned in the story. It said the air was broiling hot and there not much shade. The gasping air signifies the emotional relationship between the man and Jig; there is tension and fundamental differences between the two (Holladay). A curtain made of bamboo beads was another imagery used in the story. It hung across the open door in the bar “to keep out the flies”. The meaning of this could be an allusion of the unwanted pregnancy. The curtain could be a metaphor for the birth control that was not used. It also could symbolize her facing the reality of the curtain and aborting the baby and returning to the role of a sexual partner (Hashmi).

The genre of the short story is a realistic fiction with dialogue throughout. You can sense an awkwardness and uneasiness of the two main characters. The conversation between the two seems to indicate that there is little love between them (Hashmi). The author uses dialogue to make the plot ambiguous and leave room for interpretation. The man and the girl are trapped in a state of imbalance and disagreement (Link). The title Hills like White Elephants is critical in this story.

The title alone is the main focus to interpret the story. The title is a simile which means it is comparing two or more things using “as” or “like.” This proposes that a simile will be complexed into the story. The simile does not give us a clear picture of what the story is about. It could be about hills, elephants, or the color white. It does not give much information to what the story will be about; the title is very mysterious. At first glance you see the title and think it is going to be about elephants, but is actually about a woman and a man talking about their unborn baby and their options.

First, let’s look at the first word of the title “hill.” What comes to mind? Hills can be different colors sometimes they are green or sometimes brown. Hills are a mound but not high enough to be considered mountains. Hills in the story could symbolize the woman’s pregnant stomach. Hills in this story could also mean obstacles. The couple has a “quiet but crucial struggle” (Holladay). Next, in the title are the words “white elephants.” Most elephants are gray so to find a white albino elephant is rare, but they do exist. To have a white elephant they are costly and burdensome and these words could be referring to the unborn child. Terminating would be the solution to avoid the results of a white elephant.

The short story has several elements to the tone. The author uses dialogue between the man and Jig to show it can be tough to talk about a difficult situation. Much of the dialogue in the story is a trading of questions; Jig asks a total of seventeen questions (Link). The man just wants to have fun, and he doesn’t want the responsibility of a child. His tone is sincere but stern. He makes it very clear he does not want this child. The whole situation produces a tense mood which leads us to wonder about deeper issues in the relationship.

The narrator creates tone by imparting the attitude of sympathetic understanding. There is also a tone of irony in the shirt story. There is an ironic gap between appearance and reality. The seemingly petty conversation here about hills and drinks and an unspecified operation is actually a serious deep conversation about the future and the decision between life and death (Holladay).

The story Hills like White Elephants has many different elements making the shorty story mysterious and leaves much to the imagination. There is tension and despair and there is the inner battle in Jig’s mind on what she wants for her future. The fate of Jig’s baby is unknown we will never know what her final decision was. The story’s conclusion leads us to believe the relationship between Jig and the American has been effectively destroyed (Wyche). We can only hope Jig made a good decision for herself and what was best for her and not for the American man.

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Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants. (2022, Dec 16). Retrieved from

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