“Hills Like White Elephant” by Ernest Hemingway is told mainly in the form of a conversation between the couple and even though the words are not actually said, it becomes obvious that the girl in the story is about to get an abortion. The main theme of the story centers on the girl’s reluctance to go through with operation and the man’s indirect pressure on her to agree for the procedure. Since almost the entire story is in the form of a dialogue between the couple, Hemingway makes ample use of symbols to tell the readers about the mental state of the lead characters and how both of them look at the situation.
The story starts by describing the station and its surroundings which are barren and without trees. The barren landscape symbolizes the path that the girl is about to take. A child and pregnancy is associated with fertility and happiness. The reference to the barren fields even though Jig is pregnant is one of the first reference to Jig’s decision to get an abortion, which would render her barren, at least for the time being.
Judging from her inexperience with drinks, it is obvious that Jig’s is very young while the man is much older than she to her. The only way that such a young girl would be allowed to travel with someone who is obviously not her husband is if the girl does not have any parents. This is symbolized by the sentence that “the station was between two lines of rail in the sun” (Hemingway, 552 line 2). Just as the lack of trees leaves the station unprotected from the sun, similarly, the absence of her parents leaves Jig completely at the mercy of her American friend.
Later in the story, Hemingway mentions that on the other side of the station, there were “fields of grain and trees” (554,line 72) while the country on this side was “brown and dry” (553 line 8). This comparison is a reflection on Jig’s choices. If she chooses her present condition and remains with the American, she would have to get an abortion and live a barren life. However, if she chose to abandon the American and chose her other option, she would be blessed with a full life. Since Jig has chosen to remain with the American, despite all the hardships, she finds herself on the barren side of life with little hope of a better future.
Perhaps the most important symbol in the story is the comparison of the hills with “white elephants” (553, line 9). This is important because a white elephant is supposed to signify something that is very expensive to maintain but has little use and hence no one wants. The child that the couple is planning to abort is like a white elephant that they do not want because it could mean an end to their current lifestyle. For the American, the responsibility of a child would mean that he could no longer continue with his drifting lifestyle, while for Jig, the child’s birth could mean losing her boyfriend, who seemed to be her only support in life. Thus the child proved to be the white elephant in their life.
In the next sentence, the American mentions that he had never seen a white elephant to which Jig responds “No, you wouldn’t have” (553, line 11). Since a white elephant signifies an unwanted responsibility, the line tries to point towards the American’s life in which he has consciously avoided taking any unwanted responsibilities and hence would have never “seen” a white elephant. The obvious sarcasm in Jig’s voice means that the two have discussed the subject several times and that Jig is not happy at being forced to opt for an abortion.
A few lines later, Jigs says that the hills “don’t really look like elephants” (553, line 36). This line symbolizes that even though initially the child might seem like a white elephant, in reality it is not and casts a light on Jigs real mental status. Even though superfluously she thinks of the child as a white elephant because that is how the American sees it, deep down inside she really wants it and is not happy that she has to abort the baby. By referring to the hills as white elephant at first and then refuting the statement, Hemingway is trying to show Jig’s confused state of mind as far as her thoughts about the impending abortion is concerned.
Yet another symbol that signifies Jig’s impending life as a result of the planned abortion is the line “the shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain” (554, line 72). Here grain signifies fertility and Jig’s pregnancy. However, just as the shadow of the clouds had covered the field of grain, similarly, the discussion about the abortion was casting a shadow on the pregnancy and the coming child. This is a very clear symbol to show the looming shadow on Jig’s baby.
When the American says that after the abortion they can have anything, Jigs remarks that they cannot because it is no longer theirs and “once they take it away, you never get it back” (554, line 81). The sentence is an indirect indication to the fact that once she has the abortion, they can never have the baby back even if they want. Even though she may be able to get pregnant again she would have lost this child for ever. The line thus signifies the fact that once the decision to abort the child is taken, it cannot be reversed.
The above line also has another significance regarding the trust between the two main characters. The relationship between the American and the girl was that of trust. The acceptable social morals of the time when the story was written meant that the girl would need to trust the American completely in order to get pregnant. But by insisting that Jig get an abortion, the American had broken that trust. A relationship based on trust is a very delicate relationship and once this trust is broken it cannot be gained again.
Another symbol used by Hemingway is the comparison of absinthe with licorice. Absinthe is a liqueur with a bitter taste but its flavor is like licorice a sweet plant used to make confectionaries. The sweet licorice flavor coats the real bitter taste of absinthe, just as the Americans insistence that he did not really care whether Jig had abortion or not was only a sweet front for the fact that he really wanted her to get the abortion. In trying to be supportive, the American was actually trying to hide his real nature just as absinthe hides its true taste in the sweet flavor of licorice.
Towards the end of the story, when the American takes the “bags over to the other side of the station” (555, line105), he looks down the track but cannot see the train. The train represents the future and even though the American is trying very hard to avoid getting tied down, he cannot really see the future. When he returns to the bar, Jig insists that she is fine and that there is nothing wrong with her. This could mean that while the American was away, Jig had taken the decision and decided to keep the baby because if there was nothing wrong with her, she would not need the operation. So the American not seeing the train could signify his not knowing the future and hence not knowing if Jig would go ahead with abortion or not.
Thus we see that the entire story is full of a number of symbols that indirectly point to the real nature of the journey the couple is undertaking. Since the abortion is not mentioned directly, all these symbols become extremely important since the story moves forward only with the help of these symbols and the dialogue between the two main characters. This makes the symbols extremely important for interpreting the story. In conclusion, the various symbols in this short story are extremely important since they take the story forward while providing an insight in to the main character’s minds.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephant”. Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary. Ed. Charles Bohner and Lyman Grant. 6th ed. USA: Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.