Literary Essay on Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is about a young woman and an American man having a discussion about issue of abortion and their struggling relationship. However, it is commonly misunderstood and leaves many readers confused since the word “abortion” is never mentioned anywhere. We were left with a dialogue between the two characters with little portions explaining the details of the setting to grasp the main context of the story and draw our own feelings about the characters. Although, the four page story takes place in a very short period of time, it tells a much bigger story disguised underneath. “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 story opens with a description of a train station located in Spain’s Ebro valley where the landscape is shadeless, barren, and hot. Into this landscape appear a young woman, called “Jig” and an American man, who are waiting for an express train. They entered and seat themselves at a bar in the shadow of the station and begin to discuss what they should drink.
Hemingway immediately emphasis in the opening of the story the harsh nature of the setting while the girl and American man escape into the only shade accessible temporary reassurance through alcohol. The dialogue between the two characters that begin with a discussion of what to drink, suggest how central alcohol has become to avoid a real communication with each other. The descriptions of the landscape as infertile and barren hint at the idea of pregnancy and emphasis on the harshness of the sun suggest an obvious tension between the couple which they try to avoid by staying in the building’s shadow and not communicating. This shows that Hemingway’s writing is sparse with his language and does not give away any real plot points; however, the most every detail in his writing actually displays the struggle between the two characters’ minds about wether or not have an abortion. The white hills across the Ebro hills is the probably the first theme direct setting that readers will notice since Hemingway refers to them in the title.
“They look like white elephants,” the girl makes a seemingly innocent remark, to which the man responds that he may or may not have seen one. White elephant signifies a possesion that is useless and burdensome, they are typically unwanted as they bring shame and trouble to their owners more than it’s worth, and the fact that the girl so quickly sees white elephants in the most random surroundings implies that she is thinking a lot about the impending abortion. Shortly afterwards she added: “They are lovely hills… They don’t really look like white elephants.” This may be display that she is having second thoughts about going through with the operation because her baby might not be the white elephant she may once to be. This change of perception regarding the hill could instead be her denial. She may feel guilty about the procedure already, and once she starts seeing the pervasive symbol in the hills, she chooses to use logic to see that they, in fact, her unborn baby does not resemble white elephants, thus conquering her guilt on the issue.
Though the hills may be the first symbolic piece of scenery the reader notices, the train station is actually the first that the reader comes across in the story and only noticed upon re-reading it. The train station is described in the first paragraph as “between two lines of rails,” then later as a junction between Madrid and Barcelona. The meaning seems to be that since the trains run in both directions, at this particular train station, one direction leads to the place where the girl is to have her abortion, and the others do not. This symbolizes the choice they both are trying to make. Though they are at the train station and ready to travel, it is obvious from the dialogue the decision is far from made in their minds and this has been discussed repeatedly as revealed by the girl’s tone as she cuts the man off and finishes his sentences. Hemingway engages a variation of the old fork in the road scenario to symbolize the two possible paths for the characters and the verdict they must come to of which to follow. In this story, Hemmingway separates himself with traditional narrative execution where author gives vivid imagination of the characters and guide the reader through the story.
Rather, he completely removes himself and the readers were left unaware of his voice underneath. He simply referred to the woman as a “girl” and the man as “American man” which suggest that the man is somewhat older and the two are clearly not married. We are uncertain of the man’s true affection towards “Jig” but he never shows any fear for supporting a child or being ashamed of having a bastard child. He also expresses that he does not want any addition into their relationship which suggests that he’s not ready to settle and let go of lifestyle. This short story of Hemingway exemplifies the Iceberg Theory we learned in class. The words written on the page which is known as the “tip of the iceberg” is merely a small part of a much larger story that resides below the surface. We are uncertain on how the characters actually feel, yet the conversation between them convey everything that we can conclude about them.
Hemingway’s writing gives a reflection of the real world: unfair, hazy and utterly mysterious despite seemingly straightforward. His narration might seem detached and a bit cold, but still full of emotions hidden below the surface. Ernest Hemingway had made sure to use every line to demonstrate something of importance in the story and did not waste a word. His dialogue was straight forward and cleanly executed, without any fluffy adjectives or fancy description. I have to admit that it is very easy to miss the symbolism in the story as I am used to it coming slowly throughout a story and often easier to point out. But with only four, Hemingway makes his point clear without the need for explanation, as the actions of the characters and symbolic setting do the work for him. Finally, though it was not clearly addressed whether the two characters went through with the abortion, the symbolism and setting allows the reader to realize they are contemplating having an abortion.
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