The short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway, is about a young couple and the polemic issue of abortion. Though the word ‘abortion’ is nowhere in the story, it is doubtlessly understood through Hemheingway’s powerful use of two literary elements: setting and symbolism.
From the first paragraph the setting immediately introduces the tense atmosphere that will surround the rest of the story. The story takes place in Spain in the late 1920’s. The setting is described as follows:
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. […] 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 to Madrid.
The couple is in the middle of making a drastic decision where there are only two choices, two directions, just like the two rail lines that pass by the station. The openness and loneliness around the railroad station imply that there is no way to back out of the problem at hand and that the man and the girl must address it now. The heat turns the scene into a virtual teakettle, boiling and screaming under pressure. The landscape that encompasses the station plays a fundamental role in the conflict of the story through its extensive symbolism.
When the girl sees the long and white hills she says that “they look like white elephants.” As she observes the white hills she foresees elatedly the birth of her baby – something unique like the uncommon white elephant. The color white symbolizes the innocence and purity of her unborn child. She also admires the rest of the scenery:
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were the fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees..
The fields of grain and trees represent fertility and fruitfulness, which symbolize her current pregnant state and the life in her womb. The Ebro River also represents life, as it germinates the fields. Just as the girl appreciates the panorama and its connection to her unborn child the “shadow of a cloud,” which represents the abortion of the fetus, overcomes her happiness. After an exchange of words with the man she again looks at the scenery, but this time in a different way, as the following sentence illustrates: “They sat down at the table and the girl looked across the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.” The man is obviously in favor of the abortion, and everything he says is an effort to persuade her into it. As she considers his point of view she looks at the dry side of the valley, which is barren and sterile, symbolizing her body after the abortion. The man and woman continue arguing and stop for a little when she says, “Would you please please please please please please please please stop talking?”
He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.
The American apparently wants this abortion because he wants to keep his current lifestyle. The bags with all the hotel labels on them are symbolic of his vivacious spirit. If the woman goes ahead with the pregnancy, he would have to settle down and raise a family, which would mean forgoing his youthful desires of seeing the world.
The story ends with the couple expecting their train’s arrival in five minutes. There is no resolution and there is no decision stated regarding the abortion. Hemingway’s interweaving of setting and symbolism helps him juice each sentence to provide maximum detail. This story was not only intended for the pleasures of reading, but also though provocation. Hemingway has intentionally left the readers to conclude for themselves what will happen next.
**Note: 9/25/12 – I am still amazed that so many people (literally 200 to 400 a week steadily every semester since I posted it) visit this particular paper. Seriously, if you have any questions, go ahead and send a comment. I will try and help any way I can – same goes for any of my other papers on this blog.**
**Note: 3/14/17 – Still 50 – 100 visits to this essay come each day during spring and fall semesters. I check in for comments and questions three to four times a week, so if you have a question or something you want to bounce off of me, please know that I will respond and try to help. I also would appreciate if anyone has done well with their research papers that they send me a link or the text in an email so I can see how ya’ll did. Some of you have some really good premises you’re working on per the comments section at the end.**
Besides the symbolism in the story which has been gone over ad nauseum, I wanted to approach my analysis from a different direction. Keep in mind that in a literary analysis, you need to be focused on just the point you are trying to make and it can be difficult not to go off on tangents, like symbolism. We beat the symbolism to death in the discussion board section of the class, and I found I disagreed with most of the other online analyses I had read on this story that declared that the story’s outcome was that the girl was going to abort the baby and that the couple would part ways. She got lighter at the end – not many people noticed that – kind of like she was going to get her way. I won’t give it away. Here’s my analysis. I got a 98. The link to Hemingway’s story is at the end under the “Works Cited” section. I was never a big Hemmy fan, but I do appreciate and applaud his presentation of this particular story.
The “Elephant” in the Room: Hemingway’s Word Not Spoken
Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” uses dialogue almost exclusively to portray a serious conversation in which a major life decision is about to be made by a young female. Whereas other authors would carefully set the stage and provide backstory including insertion of motive and emotion cues of the characters as they interact, Hemingway puts the reader in the role of eavesdropper to the couple’s conversation beginning as they are seated at a table outside the train station bar. Like any eavesdropper who finds him- or herself tuning in to another’s conversation, the reader is left to discern the topic merely by listening and the occasional “peek” over at the adjacent table as to what action may actually be transpiring. Like the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone sees, but no one wants to acknowledge, not once does the couple’s actual dialogue specifically disclose the very serious and particular subject matter that the couple is discussing: abortion.
Although a sore topic for centuries and prior to the 1920s especially, birth control was a hotly contested issue in America, with proponent Margaret Sanger even living in exile in England for several years to avoid imprisonment, eventually returning to the United States to continue her social reform work promoting a woman’s right to access birth control methods and the right to safe abortions. Although as early as 1920, Communist leader Lenin legalized abortion in the Soviet Union, Hemingway’s story takes place in mid-1920s Spain, a staunchly Catholic country where abortion was still a criminal act until 2009 (“History”). The illegality of the procedure was likely the reason the word “abortion” was never injected into their public conversation. However, in any day and age, enough money seems to be able to buy anything, including the desired medical service of an abortion and with the story’s reference to many hotel stickers on their suitcases, money is apparently not an issue for the American. He was most likely aware of Margaret Sanger’s successful and legal opening in 1923 of the first birth control clinic in the United States and the progressiveness it represented.
It is also possible that he would have been aware of one of Sanger’s mantras, “Every child should be a wanted child,” and used it to persuade the young woman to arrive at this point on their journey (“Biography”). As to the American’s references to the “awfully simple operation” that was “not really an operation at all” and “it’s just to let the air in,” the man was avoiding acknowledging that the child that the girl was carrying – his child – was a human being (Hemingway). In fact, his references to her pregnancy were the same as his references to the procedure, both of which he simply called “it.” In fact, his lame attempt at patronizing her was a statement that he would “be perfectly willing to go through with it [having the baby] if it means anything to you” didn’t set well with the girl. Her sharp retort of, “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” tells the reader (or listener in the case of eavesdropping) that the man clearly does not want a baby in his immediate future as confirmed by his reply, “But I don’t want anybody but you” (Hemingway).
Whereas the interchange reveals the selfishness of the American, it also reveals the reflectiveness of the girl. Her various statements such as referring to the hills as looking similar to white elephants, her gazing across the fertile side of the train station and musing that “we could have all this,” and “once they take it away, you never get it back” reveal that she is thinking much more deeply about the issue at hand than is the man, who seems to take everything superficially (Hemingway).
If dialogue alone is not enough to surmise the topic of the conversation, Hemingway gives plenty of clues in the symbolism of his setting. The story opens indicating that the couple is seated facing the dry, barren side of the train station whereas when the girl gets up to look around, she sees that the opposite side of the station has wide open, fertile grain fields and a river. Despite the clouding of judgment one might expect from all of the alcohol the couple consumed in their time of waiting, it’s not the girl who vacillates, but the man. At the end of the story, the man takes the couple’s bags around to the other side of the station to wait for the train – the fertile side. The girl’s response was to smile at him. After his stopping at the bar for a second drink of the bittersweet Anis, he rejoined the girl who smiled again at him. After asking her, “Do you feel better?” her response that she felt fine indicates that she seems to know she has won him over from his preference to proceed with the abortion, although the conclusion is left to the judgment of the reader.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1927. Online reprint. Scribd.com, 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/94569/Hills-Like-White-Elephants>
“History of Abortion.” Wikipedia.com. 11 April 2011. Web. 15 April 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_abortion#1920s_to_1960s>
“Margaret Sanger Biography.” Biography.com. 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <http://www.biography.com/articles/Margaret-Sanger-9471186?part=1>