The story “Hills like White Elephants,” written by Ernest Hemingway, opens by establishing the setting. An American and a girl sit at a train station bar outside, sitting at a table while staring at the River Ebro in Spain. The couple decides to get two beers. The girl begins to compare the mountains in the background to white elephants. The man proceeds to say that he’s never seen one. They order more drinks, despite just ordering beers. The American then tells the girl, who he begins to call Jig, about this so called ‘operation’ that Jig is on the fence about getting. He tells her that it isn’t that big of a deal. She remains quiet for a while, and then begins to argue with him about whether she should get the operation done or not. It is never mentioned specifically what this operation is. By the end, the girl has asked her lover to stop talking to her about it and has yet to make up her mind on it. They put their bags up and get ready to go back on the train.
The reason that I decided to track the symbolism used throughout the piece is because it is such an important and prevalent element. There are many parts of the plot that Hemingway decides to keep open to interpretation, leaving us readers relying upon the symbols used to point us towards understanding of these sections. For example, the hills that resemble white elephants symbolize the elephant in the room. Both the male and female skirt around the topic of conversation that they need to discuss, which is the outcome of this pregnancy. Every time the American wishes to talk about it, the girl avoids responding, to the point where she says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” A white elephant is also a gift that is usually either useless or troublesome, especially when the utility of the gift is outweighed by the price of maintaining it. It becomes obvious that this unexpected pregnancy is a white elephant in the American’s eyes, as he urges the girl to get the abortion. The beaded curtain is also another manifestation of the pregnancy and any other obstacles that weigh the couple down at this point in time. These things act as ‘curtains’ that force boundaries between them, pushing them further away from each other. There were so many other smaller symbols in this that you couldn’t even tell were there, yet they definitely made a difference.
I also decided to track places where there were purely descriptions of the setting and scenery. I decided to do this because a majority of the story that wasn’t dialogue consisted of basic exposition about the setting. I felt that due to this, there had to be some significance in their location. For example, the author decided to jump right into the story by describing the setting, something that proves that the scene is going to be detrimental to understanding/aiding the plot. In fact, the whole first paragraph consisted of pure description of the setting:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.
I think that symbolism is a very good technique that I would like to use in my own writing, because, as you can tell, it can reveal the deeper meanings in a piece of work. Smaller, seemingly ‘meaningless’ symbols enhance the story by creating additional imagery, as well as a multitude of connotations. These are some things that I would hope to have in my work, as they keep the reader interested and give the story more depth. Setting is another technique I would like to implement into my pieces, because setting is such an important thing, as it helps the reader visualize what exactly is going on. Not only that, but it gives context clues that could help the person reading understand what is going on. I also think that the use of dialogue was very distinct and left the ends open enough that allowed us to interpret their conversation as we wanted to. This, again, helped support the symbolism in this piece. Overall, there were many great elements that were used in this that I could put into my own writing that would help me very much.
- What do the trains and train station symbolize?
- Why do scenery and symbolism tend to overlap throughout the story?
- Why was alcohol referenced so often?