Conflict and Symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

Subject: Literature
Pages: 4
Words: 1227
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: School

Hills Like White Elephants is a short story written by Ernest Hemingway, published first in 1927, which later became a part of his storybook Men Without Women in 1955. The story focuses on a couple that travels from the valley of the Ebro to Madrid. The author does not provide much information about the couple; thus, they are called the man or the American, and the girl, or Jig. One could assert that the couple maintains a hedonistic lifestyle with constant traveling as the girl states that all they do is ‘look at things and try new drinks’ (Hemingway, 36). However, later the author reveals that the couple and girl, in particular, are on the way to an operation that the girl seemingly does not want to have. Although the reader is left uninformed about what kind of operation the characters are talking about, the reader witnesses their argument in which the characters portray their outlook on life, changes, and love. The author concludes the text in a way that leaves the reader wondering if the girl eventually decided to proceed with the operation or rejected the thought of it.

The story presents a significant value of interest as it could be viewed and perceived from different angles and thus, open for an interpretation. Moreover, the story is filled with symbolism and references in a manner typical of Hemingway’s works. This paper will investigate how the author maintains a deep and personal connection with a reader through symbolism, subtle details of the story and dialogue, without providing extra information about the characters.

It is necessary to restate and uncover some of the story’s main points to reveal the author’s claim. The writer claims that the couple is facing a disagreement about an operation that is needed to keep their relationship. The man even states that the cause of the operation is the only thing that made them unhappy, and everything would be fine afterward. However, the girl is bewildered and doubts her partner, her previous lifestyle, and thinks that the operation would not make her happy. Although the writer keeps the purpose of the operation hidden, it is heavily implied in the character’s dialogue that the operation they are talking about is abortion. Moreover, the story centers on the relevant problem of forced intervention in the woman’s body and explores the idea of implicit manipulation from the male partner’s side.

To support the claim of the man manipulating the girl’s decision, the author draws minor details in the text that let the reader sympathize with the girl and convey the text’s main idea. Hemingway starts the story by depicting the hills in the valley of the Ebro that were long and white and had no shade and trees. The hills represent the girl’s mind and the desolation that she feels on the way to an operation because the man forces her decision. When the man proceeds to convince her to agree to the operation, emphasizing the fact the procedure is natural and simple, she states that she is ready to do it if that would make the man happy. The man’s manipulation of the girl reaches the point of saying that he is fine with her leaving the baby, but he does not want anyone but her, including the baby.

In the last five minutes before the train’s arrival, the man leaves the girl to go and pick up their bags, emphasizing that she has no other choice. The bags with ‘labels from all the hotels where they have had spent nights’ represent the burdens of the couple’s past (Hemingway, 38). The man is willing to possess those burdens, but the girl does not care about them. The man spends the last five minutes in the bar-room with other people, sure of the girl’s positive decision about the abortion.

I agree with the author’s negative perception of abortion in this case. When the girl claims that all the couple does is travel, drink, and look at things, the reader becomes aware of her concerns about the hedonistic lifestyle and meaning of such existence. The pregnancy made the girl rethink her life, and now she acknowledges that the man forced herself to live in a cage of selfish pleasures. The girl points that taking away the baby would close her way to freedom. Women are free to make a choice in terms of abortion, and it is evident that the girl decided to keep the baby, so manipulating her decision was wrong. To make the reader sympathize with the girl, Hemingway centers on representing her views without considering the man’s perspective. However, the author willingly overlooks the baby’s safety, ignoring the fact that there is a significant risk for the baby’s health due to the mother’s past lifestyle.

Although there is no explicit statement of the writer’s message, the text implies that one should listen to the other individual’s opinion and reconsider his outlook on life for the partner’s sake. The author communicates the message through the character’s dialogue about the hills and the analogy with the White Elephant. The girl notes multiple times that she and her baby are like White Elephant sale objects to the man, but he ignores her observation. It is evident to the reader that the girl loves the man to the point of sacrificing her freedom and future, but he uses her as a part of his lifestyle. To support this message, Hemingway leaves the story with an open ending to emphasize that the outcome plays no role in the tragedy where the partner refuses to give up life filled with empty pleasures.

The dialogue-centered design of the story conveys the characters’ emotions to the reader without interruptions. The notable repetitions in the girl’s statements contribute to the text’s overall emotional tone and realness of the situation, emphasizing the girl’s genuine confusion and frustration about the situation. For the reader, the character’s dialogue does not feel fictional, and the lack of context adds an impression that he overheard the conversation himself.

Considering my reaction to the text, the story affected me personally in a way that I felt sad for those women who were forced to give up their future to the pressure from their partners. The detail that caught my attention was the author’s allusion to the girl’s unhealthy alcohol use and specifically absinthe. The author mentions the absinthe to note the girl’s dependence on the man and his poisonous control. The text provoked an emotional reaction in me and made me uneasy because of the depiction of hot air and warm wind that accompanied the confusing and frustrating decision-making process. It makes me interested in why the author decided to proceed with hot and bright weather instead of a more suitable rainy, gloomy setting.

Aside from the emotional response, the text brought to my mind experiences from the past where I unintentionally overheard stranger’s dialogues about unfortunate events from their lives. Remarkably, a simple form of dialogue possesses much emotional weight and emphasizes a lack of connection between partners without any context. To me, unintentionally overheard conversations are like open windows to other people’s lives, and this story supports my belief. The reading of the text gave me an idea that both partners should listen to their partners’ opinions to avoid the suffering of one of the partners in relationships.

Work Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women, edited by Penguin Books Pty Ltd, Hunt, Barnard & Co, Ltd, 1955, pp. 35-38.