University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants
Difficulty and dealing with difficulty are part of the balance that makes up the human experience. Forced to deal on one side with the selfishness of other people and on the other side by a terrible fear of what they do not know, there are two characters in Ernest Hemmingway’s 1927 story, Hills Like White Elephants. Here, the story shows us a man and woman who are overcome by the personal things they are dealing with. In order to deal with them, though, these characters are behaving in a very detached way that seems somewhat defensive against these things.
In the female character, named Jig, Hemmingway shows a woman who is ripe for experiences with symbolic meaning. Implied throughout the story is the unspoken idea of a pregnancy. The man aggressively tries to manipulate Jig into having an abortion without ever saying it out loud. This is the issue that beings to become more clear to the reader as the couple talks. They speak with anger and bitterness, and the reader can feel that there is a sense of something bad coming in the future.
This is the feeling which is shown through Jig, who makes a statement with importance at the start of the story. She looks at the two white hills showing in the distance with a barren brown piece of land in front of the them. She says that “they look like white elephants. ” (1) The angry conversation that comes afterwards between the two characters shows how they both respond differently to the simile. The woman seems to view the hills with some kind of wonder and even with the consideration that they are of a fantastic nature.
This is especially true by the way they were so different looking from the brown earth around them. For the man, the hills and the simile that his partner states make the man a little hostile. He is defensive in a way that says he is afraid or resentful. To him, the objects in the distances look like a challenge. This shows how he views the unknown. Another symbolic way to look at the hills is to see them as symbolic of motherhood or of pregnancy.
This pair of hills can be seen as the swollen breasts of a pregnant woman. And with the brown land in front of them, they look fertile in a place that mostly cannot support life. This is a metaphor for the life of the woman in the company of this selfish man. The dry and unforgiving way that the man talks to Jig helps to show why her life has this negative quality. In a very difficult discussion where the couple speaks with sarcasm and dislike, the are detached and argumentative.
This shows the unhappiness of the human condition and how they try to hide from themselves and each other. The conversation they have seems like it’s supposed to help them be distracted from their pain the consequences of their lives. Specifically, when the woman says that “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks,” she shows how directionless she feels her life has become. (1) Even in the middle of a horrible decision like that of having an abortion, the woman tries to dismiss the importance of her own existence.
The symbolic relationship between the hills, the matter of the woman’s pregnancy and the overall unhappiness felt over it make a short story that doesn’t state much deeply meaningful anyway. If on the surface the characters battle with each other in a way to hide from their own feelings, they still share the fear of the unknown that is now in their careless lives. Shadowing all of this exchange is the image of the hills and the negative promise which they seem to promise is waiting on the horizon for the tired and unhappy couple.