Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Symbolism in "Hills like White Elephants"

After reading “Hills like White Elephants” by one of the most influential modernist writers of his time, Ernest Hemingway, it is evident that he does not give any extraneous information. Rather, he gives the reader just enough information by using symbols so that the readers can derive a deeper meaning than just what lies in the surface dialogue. Hemingway purposefully wrote this story so that emotion was implied but not overtly seen. Symbols are key in “Hills like White Elephants”; readers can derive a better understanding of what is going on between the two characters by looking at the landscape and setting on either side of the tracks, the train, the consumption of drinks, the number two, and the meaning behind the title.

In “Hills like White Elephants,” the scenery plays a major role in symbolizing the issue that isn’t verbally uncovered for the reader. Hemingway sets up a scene where an American and his girl, “Jig,” are sitting at a bar in a train station, looking at the hills in the distance. After reading the story, obviously the hills that appear like white elephants represent the protruding belly of a pregnant woman. This is symbolic because it brings the main issue to the forefront: abortion. Besides that obvious landscape characteristic, Hemingway describes the setting by narrating: “On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun… the country was brown and dry.” With these images of the scene, the reader can see how barren and dry the landscape is. Later, the other side of the train station is described when “the girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were 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.” This description depicts a very fruitful atmosphere. The two depictions of the scenery give way to the indecision of the woman on whether she will have the abortion or not. In the description of the first side of the train tracks, the atmosphere is dry and unpromising. It describes the state of the couple’s relationship if their unplanned pregnancy results in death. Things can’t go back to the way they were, no matter how much the American says they will; their lives will always be impacted by the decision to carry out the abortion. On the other hand, the other side of the tracks seems plentiful and alive. The fields of grain could depict fertility, just as the Ebro river (or in simpler terms: water) symbolizes life. Jig is allowing her mind to wander to what it would be like to be a mother and have this child. Yet, the shadow that creeps over the peaceful scene could either represent her American boyfriend who is continually intrusive with his opposing opinion on the subject or it could represent how society would frown upon a woman who is pregnant and not married. The scene tells a great deal about the situation and tension between the American and Jig.

The coming of the train is also symbolic. Traditionally, a train goes one way. Once it comes, it goes. Symbolically, the train represents Jig’s choice. Like the coming of the train, if she decides to abort the baby, there is no turning back. The train will keep on going just as her life will keep going; but will she ever be the same? The American tries his best to make his opinion known that he and Jig’s life will be easier and go back the way it was if she just goes through with this “simple operation.” It is also interesting to see how the man reacts to the indecision of his girl when “he picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the barroom, where people waiting for the train were drinking... He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.” As the man takes both of their bags over to the tracks, he is hoping that Jig will go through with the surgery. He is still uncertain as to whether she will in fact go through with the abortion, but lets his opinion be known by taking their luggage and setting it by the tracks to be loaded on the upcoming train. He looks up the tracks, waiting for the train that is supposed to come, but does not see it. Similarly, he anticipates that Jig will listen to his suggestion but is still uncertain whether she will go through with it. When the American comes back into the barroom, he hopes that Jig has made a decision, preferably in favor of the abortion, but when he reaches her she has still not made up her mind.
The drinks that the American and Jig share are another instance of symbolism regarding Jig’s decision about the abortion. Even though it may not have been known that alcohol consumption negatively affects the fetus in the womb, Jig’s consistent drinking gives way to the thinking that she may have thrown in the towel on the possibility of having the child. For instance, the Anis del Toro is a drink that is illegal in many countries because those who gorge themselves on the drink can, and probably will, die of alcohol poisoning. Knowing this, Jig’s drinking the Anis del Toro symbolizes her thinking of the child as a separate entity, perhaps already dead. Jig’s drinking several alcoholic beverages points toward her decision to abort the baby as her American boyfriend wants.

Also, there is a recurring theme of the number “two.” For instance, the train stopped for “two” minutes, the couple drinks “dos” cervezas, they receive “two” glasses of beer, “two” felt pads and the American carries their “two” heavy bags to the other side of the train tracks. This overemphasis of the number two could inspire two different readings. The first could be that the relationship between the couple is the largest the relationship can span; they can’t include a third person into their twosome because three’s a crowd. The other way to read this is that perhaps “two” refers to Jig and her baby. Jig is still weighing the possibility of becoming a mother because she has not yet made a decision as to whether she will abort the baby or not. The overuse of two is definitely symbolic within the story.

Even Hemingway’s title is symbolic which alludes to a deeper meaning in the term “white elephants” than just scratches the surface. Even though the obvious symbol of the title “Hills like White Elephants” depicts the scenery in Spain that represents the issue of terminating the pregnancy (hence the shape of a woman’s protruding stomach), it is interesting to dig into what the title is inferring. The term “white elephants” originally was used in Indian cultures where a white elephant is “a possession unwanted by the owner but difficult to dispose of” (Dictionary). The term originally came about in an apocryphal tale about the King of Siam who would “award a disagreeable courtier a white elephant, the upkeep of which would ruin the courtier” (Dictionary). Even though these elephants were beautifully ornate and were given as great gifts, the upkeep is atrocious. Basically the cost and care for the white elephant would supersede the actual joy of receiving it. In sum, a white elephant is an unwanted gift; much like Jig’s pregnancy seems, especially to the American: like an unwanted thing.

Hemingway uses many symbols in his works. In “Hills like White Elephants,” there are a plethora of images and objects that exude an emotion or a feeling that isn’t explained in words, but rather are left for the reader to filter through and figure out for themselves. By looking at the setting, the train, the drinks, the number two, and the title itself, we as readers can find a little more meaning beyond the dialogue and into the intentions and emotions of the American and his girl.


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