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The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition
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Literary Analysis: Hills like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
An analysis of symbolism and direct characterization in Hemingway's story.
The literary respect still accorded Hemingway attaches mainly to the originality and craftsmanship of his short stories. "Hills Like White Elephants" epitomizes his integration of dialog, setting, and symbolism presented with brevity and economy.
Sometime in the late 1920s a young American couple are waiting in a railway station for the train from Barcelona that will take them to Madrid. They order beer to pass the 40-minute wait for the train, then switch to anisette with water.
We hear tension in their conversation. The woman comments that the drink tastes like licorice. 'Yes,' said the girl. 'Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe.
'Oh, cut it out.'
'You started it,' the girl said. 'I was being amused. I was having a fine time.'
'Well, let's try and have a fine time.'
Details of setting and description beome symbolic. The hot weather, the relief sought in beer and cold alcoholic drinks mirror a disagreement between the two people, the nature of which will soon become clear. They are a couple, but there is distance and lack of communication between them, like the railroad tracks that are parallel but will never make contact.
In one direction from the station cafÃ© distant hills are long, white, and without trees. In the opposite direction, toward the River Ebro, there is grass, grain and other vegetation. The man finally addresses the subject of their discontent and disagreement.
'It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig,' the man said. 'It's not really an operation at all.
The woman is pregnant by the man, who wants her to get an abortion. The options are symbolized by the landscape. In one direction is sterility and barrenness; in the other, fruitfulness and fertility. The white hills, the woman says, are "like white elephants." As their conversation continues, we interpret "white elephants" in ways that the woman did not consciously intend when she made her offhand remark.
To the man, the developing infant is a white elephant, a gift that is valuable but unwanted, costly to maintain, and a problem he does not want to handle -- a thing to be gotten rid of. How ingeniously to pursue the symbol is up to the individual. Will the woman become elephantine with engorged breasts and swollen abdomen if she refuses to terminate the pregnancy? Is the author aware of the white elephant in Buddhism and its connection to purity and knowledge? That on the night before she was to give birth to Buddha, his mother's womb was entered by a white elephant.
Eight times in this brief story Hemingway mentions the beaded curtain that hangs across the entrance of the cafÃ© to keep out flies. The curtain has printed on it the brand name of the licorice-tasting drink they try, Anis del Toro. At one point the woman takes hold of two of the curtains beaded strands. Various literary critics have interpreted this curtain in different symbolic ways, from umbilical cords to the door to the uterus.
Similar ingenuity is found in interpretations of the "shadow of a cloud" that moves across the fields of grain near the river. I choose to restrict my remarks to the clear and obvious symbolic elements. The past history of the couple that leads to their present situation is concisely communicated by Hemingway's description of their luggage. "There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights."
The detail I never see mentioned, which I find packed with meaning, is the rare adverb used in the narration of the man's taking the luggage to the other side of the tracks. The man observes the other people drinking in the cafÃ© bar while buying himself another anis. Why does he want this solo drink away from Jig, his girlfriend? I think the answer lies in this sentence: "They were all waiting reasonably for the train."
The duration of the story is 35 minutes. Hemingway never uses the words "abortion" or "baby" but readers become aware of what the "simple operation" is that the woman doesn't want but the man tries to persuade her to undergo. By mentioning the other people waiting "reasonably" for the train, the author establishes that the man thinks the woman he has impregnated is being "unreasonable" to even consider carrying the fetus to birth. His selfishness and irresponsibility are vividly dramatized.
The ending is indeterminate. The woman merely smiles and says she feels fine. Will she consent to the abortion in Madrid? Will she have the baby? Will she shed her boyfriend, or will he dump her? There is no answer.