Symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Aug 31st, 2020


A young woman was discussing an operation with her companion at a cafe. Suddenly, she looked out of the window and said that the hills were like white elephants. What did Hemingway want to say by that? Is it a social or philosophical dilemma? The text of The Hills like White Elephants by Hemingway is overwhelmed with symbolism, which indicates hard decision characters have to make due to their careless life and unwillingness to become parents.


Kenneth Johnston wrote one of the fascinating reviews of the novel by Hemingway. Therefore, all the following conclusions correspond to his opinion and statements. The only thing that was discovered is the meaning of the idiom “the hills like white elephants,” which refers to something precious, but useless (Robertson 40). Hence, these people were discussing an abortion that the woman was about to make.

Although Hemingway did not provide a single word or a hint to describe the subject of these people’s conversation, every reader intuitively understood the subject of the characters’ conversation. “It is really an awfully simple operation, Jig. It is not really an operation at all” – these words made the topic somewhat clear because the man wanted his girlfriend to make an abortion, but he did not want to push on her in order not to be guilty (Johnston 234). A person is able to see the hidden message due to such words and phrases as “operation,” “injection,” “everything is going to be all right,” and so on.

Some people were able to see symbolism in the text of The Hills like White Elephants by Hemingway (Bausch 7). For instance, an image of a white elephant and hills prefigures the female’s breasts and abdomen during her pregnancy. The pale white color of the shining hills is associated with an infant’s skin. Moreover, the main characters were having their conversation at the train station, which was situated on the edge of a barren on one side and flourishing trees on the other. “Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro” (Hemingway 1). Hemingway was using the landscape in order to depict a separation between the young people or to demonstrate the possible consequences of the forthcoming operation.

The phrase “the hills like white elephants” is very frequent in young people’s conversation. It appeared for the first time when the young lady looked out of the window, and her companion replied that he had never seen white elephants in his life.

This dialogue emphasizes that the white elephants were only the tip of the iceberg (Johnston 234). Meanwhile, the subject of this conflict was changed – the couple started to discuss their attitudes towards the operation question. Hence, this could be considered as a primary verbal type of a quarrel between two people – it was not a dispute anymore. The white elephants were not mentioned after this dialogue. Furthermore, it remains a metonymic concept of the novel, which depicts an idea of loneliness.

The further context of The Hills like White Elephants by Hemingway, was formed with pretermission figure, which caused many controversies between people who analyzed this novel. Some say that the railroad, along with the dramatic situation, refers to some tragedy or any other deplorable epilog (Tyler 134). “And we could have everything, and every day we make it more possible” (Hemingway 2).

The main characters of Hemingway’s novel were very tempted to commit suicide, but they had enough volition to hold themselves from this unreasonable action. The general picture of this dialogue implied that Jig’s agreement for the operation would change the plot because she was lible to go into hysteria due to her companion’s persistence. Nevertheless, Jig did not get emotional and remained confident with a forced smile on her face.

Jig only smiled at the waitress at the local cafe and at her companion who asked her if she was fine at the end of the story. She replied that nothing concerned her and that she felt great. Hemingway’s novel has a structure of a dramatic text because all the descriptions were reduced to a minimum. A sudden smile on the character’s face was considered as a non-verbal communication gesture, which implied a lighter flow of this conversation (Gale Cengage Learning 5).

Jig’s gesture of looking away had the same purpose. The last two episodes were taken into account because the young lady did not have an eye contact with her companion, as she was looking at the hills. Jig’s observations were described a lot, whereas the American man’s sight was mentioned only twice in the novel. His eyes said that he was not very confident, but he continued insisting on his viewpoint. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (Hemingway 3). Finally, Jig asked the young man to stop talking, which made him staring at their suitcases. This gesture could emphasize that the man agreed to a compromise.

Writing Process Summation

There are several reasons why I chose this story. The first argument is a genius writer of this novel, Ernest Hemingway – his creations are always extremely interesting to read. Besides, the novel The Hills like White Elephants is somewhat mysterious because people usually read it over multiple times in order to understand the message of the story. In fact, it was complicated for me understand the message at the first time, so I discussed this question with people online.

I arrived at my understanding and assertion about this poem due to the conclusions of people who analyzed it before. I watched a few screen adaptations online, which gave me a better image of the scene at the railroad station. The main point that I reflected in this essay was about Hemingway’s “iceberg principle” of writing. It means that he did not describe every detail of the scene – he just provided one-eighth of the picture, so other seven eights were left to be discovered by a reader. Another point is that the constant conflict identifies the whole perspective of the plot because there is no logical conclusion or epilog along with a destructive final.

My revision of this novel was accomplished by consulting various online sources that discussed this story. There were many interesting thoughts expressed on different websites and articles, but I considered only accredited authorities’ works. The only thing I want a reader to see from my essay is a desire to read the original version of this novel. In my opinion, every person has to see an authentic material at the first time because then a reader will have many questions in his or her mind.


The Hills like White Elephants by Hemingway is a symbolical novel, which has to be read several times in order to understand the main point and the meaning of all the words said by the main characters. The author wants a reader to read between the lines to see the situation as it is. The message of this novel can be understood in various ways by different people. The story is supposed to address a reader’s mind because it does not provide any details, which makes all people imagine the situation differently and to draw a parallel between this novel and one’s life.

Works Cited

Bausch, Richard. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. W.W. Norton and Company, 2015.

Gale Cengage Learning. A Study Guide for Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. The Gale Group. 2016.

Robertson, Deborah. Semantic Congruence and Simile Construction in three Ernest Hemingway Short Stories. California State University, 2014.

Tyler, Lisa. “Hemingway Lives!: Why Reading Ernest Hemingway Matters Today by Clancy Sigal.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 34, no. 2, 2015, pp. 132–135.

Annotated Bibliography

Hemingway, Ernest. Hills like White Elephants. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927.

This book is a primary source for this paper.

Johnston, Kenneth. “Hills Like White Elephants’: Lean, Vintage Hemingway.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 10, no. 2, 1982, pp. 233–238.

This article contains analysis and description almost of every detail in the Hemingway’s novel. The analysis is very deep and followed by various theories about nature and characters of the story’s young people. “The man, identified only as an American, is the villain of the piece. He is a selfish, insensitive, emotional bully, the eternal adolescent who refuses to put down roots or to shoulder the responsibilities which are rightfully his” (Johnston). The article is very useful for analysis of the novel because it enlightens the situation at the railroad café from different perspectives, which helps to have a full image of the scene. This article is a trustworthy academically source because it was used by the majority of scholars for their academic papers. Besides, it was written not so long after the novel’s publication. Therefore, this is one of the first secondary sources and reviews on this story.

This essay on Symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

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