Symbolism in the Hands of a Master
A Critical Analysis of
Earnest Hemmingway’s Short Story
Hills Like White Elephants
( read the story )
by Thomas Jay Rush
The story Hills Like White Elephants is an amazing piece of writing. Starting with a short descriptive paragraph and ending with a five sentence concluding paragraph, the bulk of the story is told through dialog between the two main characters, a pair of lovers vacationing in Spain. The action takes place at a train station in a small river valley between Barcelona and Madrid.
The story is carried by the words of the two main characters; a man (called the American) and a women (called the girl). They are talking and having drinks while waiting for a train. Their conversation, when not about what they’re drinking, is about the girl’s pregnancy.
It is possible to understand this story through the dialog alone, however I think the piece shines when one considers the underlying symbolism. The symbolism carries the story in a much more forceful way than the actual word-by-word sentences.
The two protagonists, and I think there are two – they form a couple and we care about them equally – are ‘discussing’ her pregnancy. The man supports the idea of having an abortion saying things like ‘It’s really an awfully simple operation’ and calling the operation a way to ‘let the air in’. The women is conflicted. When the man first mentions the operation she looks to the ground. She is agitated in their conversation. The story never actually says how the issue is resolved, but I believe that through a careful study of the symbols employed the reader may come to understand exactly what happened. I explain my interpretation of the author’s use of symbolism in the remainder of this essay.
There are many symbols employed in this story; among them are the hills, a perceived white elephant, the river valley, a beaded curtain, the train, a smile, some baggage and, finally, the train station. Each of these symbols serves to expose aspects of the story not directly stated.
I believe the hills represent the pregnancy of the young woman. Consider the shape of a hill; it reflects the shape of a pregnant woman’s stomach. Note also that the author chose not to call them mountains which might be more accurate given the locale.
In popular culture a white elephant frequently represents an unwanted gift, something difficult to get rid of. A white elephant is something one would not wish to have. It is important, I think, that the girl is the first one to mention the elephant.
I find it interesting that these first two symbols, the hills and the white elephant, are made so obvious by being used in the title of the piece. I wondered as I read the story why the author chose to do this. I take a stab at explaining this below.
The river valley represents a separation or chasm between the two characters. One side of the valley is described as being dry and barren. The other side of the valley has grain fields and a tree lined river, the River Ebro, one of the largest rivers in Spain. Near the end of the story the couple sits at a table, looking out onto the scenery. The woman, initially not in support of the idea of an abortion, looks out on the dry side of the valley. The man, who supports the idea, looks out onto the more pleasant side of the valley. I believe the valley represents the two possible outcomes of their conversation; the two sides of the issue.
The river is an interesting, if minor, symbol. In antiquity the River Ebro served as a boundary between the northern, Roman occupied, areas of Spain and the southern, Carthaginian occupied areas. It would be interesting to analyze what these two societies thought about the issue of unwanted, out of wedlock childbirth.
The idea of a border or boundary is reinforced by the fourth symbol used in the story, the beaded curtain, however I think it may more literally represent the actual act of abortion. At one point the women reaches out and puts her hands on the hanging strings of beads – this just a few seconds after she first considers the possibility of going forward with the abortion. She holds the string of beads in her hand as if she is considering them; and by implication as if she’s considering the idea of going forward with the abortion. More deeply, the abortion itself may be interpreted as a boundary (as can the baby if they where to decide to go forward with the birth), dividing the couple’s life into a before and an after.
I find another symbol in the train. I believe it symbolizes the baby. The waitress, at one point, says ‘The train comes in five minutes’. When the train comes, the couple must get on, there will be no going back. Their lives will be changed forever.
After the waitress says the comment about the train the girl ‘smiled brightly…to thank her’. I think this smile represents a resignation. The girl has come to conclude that she cannot get on the train – or, put another way, she will get on the train but to a destination different than the one she may have hoped for.
Throughout the conversation the girl has been looking to the American to make the decision for her. She says things like ‘And you really want to?’ or ‘If I do it you’ll be happy….’. She’s trying to elicit the decision from him. She wants him to tell her what to do, but he never does. I think she does this to try to alleviate her own guilt. I think she‘s known, since before the beginning of the story, that she must go through with the abortion – she is the one that first mentions the white elephant after all. I think her smile, at this point in the story, is a smile of resignation, the point where she resigns herself to moving forward.
The final two symbols I find, the baggage and the train station, confirm my conclusions.
Near the end of the story the couple sits staring at each other across a table. The man notices their baggage, over the girl’s shoulder, sitting next to the wall. Immediately after the girl’s smile of resignation he gets up from the table and moves their baggage to the other side of the station. Like the river valley or the table, the train station, a place of departure, a place where people make irrevocable decisions about the future of their lives, represents the decision that the couple must make. The baggage represents the actual decision. When the man moves the baggage the author is saying that the woman’s decision has been made. The American moves the baggage to his side of the station.
There are many other minor symbols. The table, where they sit across from each other, again, represents the pending decision. The felt pads, used to protect the table from water damage, may represent the small talk about the drinks, which shields them from having to talk about the real issue. The fact that they are outside of the bar may represent the fact that they are foreigners. These minor symbols add depth to the story and support general themes.
As the story concludes a longer descriptive paragraph appears where the author reinforces the ideas I’ve identified. In this paragraph the author says the man picks up the bags (the decision) and moves them to the other side of the station (the side that he had been sitting on – the side from which one can see a more beautiful view). The author says the man looks down the tracks and cannot see the train coming (that is, he cannot see the baby coming). The man goes into the bar where he looks at the people who are ‘reasonably waiting for the train’. Why did the author use the word ‘reasonably’? The word ‘reasonably’ in this sentence makes no sense, unless perhaps the author is saying that he thinks its reasonable to wait to have a baby – that an abortion is not an unreasonable thing for them to do. Finally the man comes back to the table where he finds the girl and she smiles (another sign of resignation) and says ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’
Obviously Hemmingway is a master, but I wondered why he used the two early symbols – the hills and the white elephant – so prominently and so obviously; going so far as to use them for the title. I think the reason for this has everything to do with his mastery.
I can imagine that Hemmingway built this story, from the bottom up, starting with the symbols. I imagine him saying to himself ‘I am going to write a story that consists entirely of dialog – no description – but the dialog will not carry the story. The story will be carried by the symbols I interpose.’
So he set out to write his story; given a situation – a couple trying to come to terms with an unwanted pregnancy – and a long list of symbols; the train, the station, the valley, a smile; given these tools I imagine him building his story out from there.
I think Hemmingway used the two symbols (the hills and the white elephant) in the title and made them so obvious as a further display of his mastery. It’s as if he had such a wealth of symbolism that he could afford to waste some. He made these two symbols so obvious to divert our attention from the deeper symbols in the story.
A first level analysis may conclude that the story is about an unwanted pregnancy, however a deeper analysis concludes that its about a couple making a decision. About how hard decisions are. About how two people, if they’re in love, can come together and, through effort, continue their journey together, even if they are sometimes stuck in dry, unpleasant places.