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Symbolism, Setting, Irony in Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants

Did you know that conflict is an integral part of any romantic relationship, no matter how healthy it may be? Well, the romantic relationship between the American and Jig was no different. “Hills like White Elephants is a symbolic and expressive story that depicts a deteriorating relationship between two characters. The author demonstrates the certainty of the characters’ separation and the weakening of their past romance through literary devices.

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The author creatively developed the story by describing the setting to elaborate on the relationship between the American and Jig. The author blends realistic and figurative elements to create symbolism that emphasizes the mood and tone of the characters as well as the state of the relationship between Jig and the American. Hemingway uses irony to emphasize the main important aspects of the story, including the subject of abortion. In “Hills like White Elephants,” the author utilizes symbolism, setting, and irony to help readers connect with the themes and characters in the story.

The author uses symbolism to attach meaning to the characters and their experiences. The title of the story has a deeper meaning. The term “hills” has been used to refer to the appearance of the female body when pregnant. The “white elephants” are used to symbolize a possession that needs a lot of care and expense but yields little profit. The man is particularly named an American, while the nationality of the girl is left unrevealed. The man is greatly featured throughout the story as an irresponsible, though rational, character. However, the revelation of the man’s citizenship proves significant as he appears to represent the United States of America, in general. The author made an important observation and probably wanted to pass a political message.

Symbolism is used to emphasize the conflict between the two characters. At the beginning of the story, the author depicts brown, dry terrain and scorching, hot weather to symbolize the conflict between the American and Jig. He uses the dry environment to represent their relationship as dry and deteriorating. The author narrates that the man and the girl take a train to do the abortion. The author uses the train to represent movement and change, which seemed necessary considering their conflicts.

The shadow of the building and the bamboo curtain suggest seclusion, boundaries, and “walls” that are figuratively built between the two characters. “Close against the side of the station, there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain” (Hemingway 278). The bamboo curtain is suspended across the entrance into the bar to keep away flies. According to Hashmi (75), Hemingway uses flies to symbolize the problems that the two characters faced. Flies are used to represent disturbing things that need to be kept away. Hence, the curtain keeps the American and Jig away from their problems while also making their lives separate from the people at the bar.

Hemingway uses symbolism to highlight the fact that the two characters are at crossroads. The American and Jig are torn between decisions and locations. While Spain itself does not play a very significant role in the story, the location brings up the issue of the couple being away from home. The language barrier and the translation process emphasize that the couple has communication problems. The elephants and the hills obscure this symbol, but the bamboo curtain still appears dominant. It sets up the reader to think about the thresholds, separations, and boundaries the couple faces. The legal, informational, and social boundaries that the couple faces regarding sex education, birth control, and stigmas associated with having children before marriage serves as curtains limiting the character’s options and conversation.

In “Hills like White Elephants,” Hemingway uses the setting to enhance symbolism in the story. The setting of the story is the Ebro River Valley in Spain. More directly, the setting is a railway station, as illustrated by Hemingway when he states “between two lines of rails in the sun” (Hemingway 275). One side of the station has desolate and arid land. The other side has grain and trees. By splitting the set into two, with one sterile side and another fertile side, Hemingway utilizes the setting to emphasize the boundaries between the two characters (Rankin 234). The setting also represents their current situation. They can either choose fertility by keeping the pregnancy or sterility by undertaking the abortion.

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The author also sets the story at a train station to emphasize the fact that the couple’s relationship is at a crossroads. Positioned in the middle of a sterile valley, the station is not the last destination but simply a terminus between Madrid and Barcelona (Hashmi 83). Hence, the characters must decide where to go, and whether to accompany each other and carry on with their relationship.

The setting informs the reader a lot about the relationship between the American and Jig. The train station implies that the couple does not belong to the area like they do not belong to each other emotionally. They are in an intermediate state, just like they often find themselves in unresolved situations in their relationship (Hashmi 72). Both characters are travelers, transiting by train, and emotionally separated. The physical landscape of the setting, including the hills appearing far away, brings Jig an image of the white elephants (Justice 17). The hills suggest Jig’s recognition that the relationship is worse than she thought.

Furthermore, the distinction between the unfruitful valley and the white hills emphasizes the conflict between sterility and fertility, life and death. It reflects the choice Jig faces between doing the abortion and keeping the baby. She seems stuck between the two terrains. Jig not only mentions the magnificence of the hills but also strolls to the end of the flooring and stares at the brown desolate land around the station (Ranking 237). The hills provide the girl with something to put her mind at ease after the exhausting conversation she had with the American.

The author uses irony throughout the story to prompt the reader to contemplate its meaning. Abortion is a major subject and a very important topic in the narrative. By using irony, Hemingway makes the reader think about abortion (Weeks 82). The irony in the story is evident when the American tells Jig that he is not concerned about whether she decides to do the abortion or not, but he needs her to stay happy. The jig is not comfortable going through the procedure, which implies that she is not happy with the idea of doing an abortion. The American knows that she is not happy but still goes ahead and says that he is not concerned with whatever she does as long as she is contented.

Furthermore, the irony emphasizes the character of the man. Regardless of the many times that Jig repeats herself, the American keeps pressuring her. He refers to abortion as a simple operation, while it is evidently a very hard decision for Jig. The irony further reinforces the unity of effect by prompting the reader to think deeply into the ambiguity presented by the story and become eager to know what the story is exactly talking about and the feelings of the characters (Weeks 75).

The irony creates tension between the characters and those around them. The tension between Jig and the American is almost as blazing as the heat of the sun in Spain. The American, while encouraging Jig to do the abortion operation, repeatedly says that he does not want her to do it if she is not comfortable. Nevertheless, he clearly insists that Jig should do the operation. Jig is trying to be nonchalant and brave but is apparently afraid of devoting herself to doing the operation. Due to this tension, Jig is compelled to make very hard decisions that involve fulfilling expectations and at the same time finding peace with herself.

In conclusion, the author extensively uses literary elements to illustrate the characters and their experiences and key subjects throughout the story. The setting is creatively developed to elaborate on the relationship between the main characters. Symbolism is used to highlight the mood, the tone of the characters and the state of their relationship. The author uses irony to emphasize key subjects within the story, such as abortion, to help readers connect the themes and the characters.

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Works Cited

Hashmi, Nilofer. “Hills Like White Elephants”: The Jilting of Jig.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 23, no. 1, 2003, pp. 72-83.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills like white elephants.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, 1938, pp. 270-278.

Justice, Hilary K. “Well, well, well”: Cross-gendered autobiography and the manuscript of” Hills like White Elephants.” The Hemingway Review vol.18, no.1, 1998, p. 17.

Rankin, Paul. “Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants.” The Explicator, vol. 63, no. 4, 2005, pp. 234-237.

Weeks, Lewis E. “Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in” Hills like White Elephants.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 17, no.1, 1980, pp. 75-82.

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StudyCorgi. "Symbolism, Setting, Irony in Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants." August 29, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/symbolism-setting-irony-in-hemingways-hills-like-white-elephants/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Symbolism, Setting, Irony in Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants." August 29, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/symbolism-setting-irony-in-hemingways-hills-like-white-elephants/.

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