Story Symbolism: White Hills Like Elephants

Ernest Hemingway - Literative

Ernest Hemingway is known for a lot of things: daiquiris, traveling, Paris, his tumultuous love life, his simple style of writing, etc. He’s known for The Old Man and The Sea and For Whom The Bell TollsHe’s known for his iconic image, his persona, and his demons. But there is one singular story that outshines much of his work, and which often goes unnoticed by comparison: “White Hills Like Elephants.”

A story about abortion and a dysfunctional relationship, “White Hills Like Elephants,” looks to analyze the subtle hints that lead to an inevitable demise. More than just a simple story about a couple waiting to board a train, it is about the problems that arise when two people simply aren’t meant to be. An American man, and his girlfriend, known as “Jig,” sit by a bar, drinking beer, trying their hardest to avoid talking about their problems. The white hills in the distance remind Jig of elephants, bringing in the euphemism “elephant in the room,” which in this case, is their unborn child. They have a conversation about this, with the American man downplaying the “operation,” but Jig is in a world of her own. Soon, the train is five minutes away, and Jig claims to be fine.

Perhaps, these painful relationships were Hemingway’s specialty. Perhaps, they’re everyone’s at one time or another. What is for certain, is that this short, simple story is packed with symbolism. Let’s dive in:

  1. As soon as they arrive at the train station, they begin drinking beer, almost as if they are desperately looking for something to do rather than sit there and talk about the topic at hand. When the conversation begins, Jig immediately requests that they order more drinks as if to put it off.
  2. The white elephants that Jig mentions aren’t meant to reflect the baby, not at first. What was intended as a casual, off-handed comment, turns into an opening for their abortion conversation.
  3. There’s a real difference between actual communication and two people who are talking at each other. Jig and the American man talk, but they never fully understand each other’s point of view, let alone truly listen to each other.
  4. At one point, Jig retracts her comment about the hills reminding her of elephants, claiming they’re lovely as if to say she wants to keep the baby, but the American man misses this hint.
  5. The American man himself is symbolic of Hemingway’s idea of rigid masculinity. He feigns indifference over the abortion, but he can’t bring himself to call it what it is. Instead he downplays it, while still pushing Jig to have the abortion.
  6. They both mention how they want things to go back to normal, to live happily, once the operation is done. The American man claims that once Jig has the abortion, their problems will be solved. This implies that their relationship is dysfunctional, filled with problems only made worse by the pregnancy. Once Jig has the abortion, it is clear there will be nothing left for them to do but go their separate ways. At this point, they barely have anything left to say to each other, both jaded and conflicted, holding onto the shreds of what once was.
  7. It becomes clear that Jig doesn’t speak Spanish, but the American man does. All she can do is smile to the bartender, and ask her boyfriend what was said. This shows a sense of dependency on the American man, perhaps an unhealthy one.
  8. Later, Jig asks, basically pleading her boyfriend, to be quiet. They’ve been talking at each other this whole time, and clearly she’s had enough. There’s nothing more to say because they don’t listen to each other.
  9. By the end of their talk, the American man goes to the bar, and Jig stays at the table. It is clear that inevitably, they will go their separate ways.
  10. Once the train is five minutes away, Jig claims to be fine, which everyone knows is just code for “I’m not doing well, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

Hemingway may have been an inspiring writer, showcasing a simple style that is surprisingly difficult to replicate, but he was also a troubled man. “White Hills Like Elephants,” is very much a culmination of all his loves gone wrong, oversimplified into a short story. It is a story that everyone can relate to at one time or another, in one way or another, and teaches us that holding onto what we no longer have doesn’t solve anything. There comes a time when nothing can be salvaged anymore.

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