The Symbolism of the Setting in Hills Like White Elephants

The short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is a conversation within a woman named `Jig’ and an American man. Both are waiting for a train at a station in Spain. The author never intitles the topic of their discussion, but as their conversation progresses, it becomes clear that Jig is pregnant. By the way, the man is talking he wants Jig to have an abortion, but she is doubtful and would like to become a mother. Hemingway has carefully developed the story’s dialogue, which “captures the feel of a private conversation while at the same time communicating the necessary narrative background” (O’Brien 19).

At the end of the short story, it is unclear to what decision has been made. However, Hemingway gives the reader several clues regarding what Jig feels about the situation. Jig’s private thoughts are brought out by Hemingway’s description of the character, conflict, and setting. Stanley Renner suggests that, as a result of the couple’s discussion, “Jig has become able to make a more clear-sighted estimation, and perhaps a better choice, of men” Wyche(59).

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The couple’s inability to communicate their real thoughts and emotions effectively makes their dialogue very appealing. The story examines miscommunication and gender differences as they try to develop a solution, whether to abort or not (Smiley). In his book on Hemingway, published in 1999, Carl P. Eby points out that “[f]or the past two decades, Hemingway criticism has been dominated by a reconsideration of the role of gender in his work” (Bauer 125).

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Hemingway’s characters in the short story represent the stereotypical male and female roles and thoughts in the real world, to some extent. The American is the typical ‘masculine’, testosterone dominated male who insists on living without any responsibilities, and tries to manipulate and control his woman. Jig, like an ordinary woman, is governed by her emotions, and how she “feels.” She always tries to please her man, and never takes a firm stand on the issue. She has her thoughts mixed up and couldn’t convey her wants to the man directly. O’Brien suggests that “The male’s rejection of emotional language and his goal-oriented vocabulary, and the woman’s imprecise, emotional, and relational language,” are consistent with the typical male and female (O’Brien 19). Normally, in culture and or history, males are the dominant group, while women have been suppressed through history. Smiley argues that “because women’s language in general, and Jig’s in particular, focuses on emotions rather than facts and objects, it is judged more ambiguous, less direct and more trivial than masculine speech” (Smiley 3). Jig’s language authority, determination, and confidence. The goal of her approach was to have her man’s approval. Smiley aptly quotes that “ever since she could pick up Seventeen, a woman has been told to interest and soothe the ego of a man by asking a lot of questions and allowing him to parade his knowledge”(4). Experts have proposed several ways in which the story could end, some argue that Jig would have had an abortion due to her mans wishes; while others say that she would have left the man after she had the abortion(Hannum 53). There is well enough evidence that she has decided to keep the child and leave the man.

In the opening paragraph of the short story, the author in detail describes the setting of the station, “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” (Hemingway 251). Justice suggests that the two parallel lines of rail represent the tension between Jig’s desire and the man’s will. The two tracks are presumably going in opposite directions, which indicate the way their relationship could end figuring out what to do with the child. Just as the station lies between two lines of rails, the valley lies between two lines of hills, the infertile side, “brown” and “dry,” with “no trees” and, the fertile side with “fields of grain,” the “river” and the “trees.” In the setting, the contrast between “sterility” and “fertility” represents the choice, whether or not to abort the child (Justice 18).

At the station’s bar in the shade the couple sits. The train is intended to arrive in forty minutes. “What should we drink?” the girl asked. […] “The girl is looking off at the line of hills,” and describes them as “White Elephants” (Hemingway 252). The need for drinks expressed by the girl indicates that she has something on her mind. After Jig tries the new drink, Anis del Toro, she complains that it tastes like licorice as she says, “Everything tastes like licorice, especially all the things you’ve waited for so long, like absinthe” which suggests that their relationship has lost its excitement. Weeks quotes that “[…] the belief in absinthe as an aphrodisiac and [a hallucinogen] adds an ironic twist to its mention” (75). She further comments that “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?” indicating that lives together made little sense, and their relationship has become stagnant. Smiley argues that “Jig’s questions are strongly gender-marked. […] She also uses circular and vaguely generalized evaluations of their activities rather than direct statements–“that’s all we do”–the goal of her conversation being the consensus. (5)” Jig’s intense need to continually get the man’s approval and his love demonstrate that she is dependent on him. As the tension mounts between the couple, he tries to calm her down by saying, “Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

She replies, “All right, I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?” (Hemingway 252)
When the man mentions that “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig; […] It’s not really an operation at all […] they just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural,” (Hemingway 253) then for the first time it becomes evident that Jig is pregnant. The man wants her to have an abortion. It’s at this point that the reader can relate to Jig’s description of hills like white elephants, the tension in the couple’s dialogue, and their need for intoxication. The legend of the white elephant began in Southeast Asia, mainly in India and Thailand – the home of the White Elephant. In the story of the Buddha, the white elephant is connected to fertility, spiritual power, and knowledge. The day before giving birth to the ‘Lord’ Buddha, his mother dreams that a white elephant comes to present her with a lotus, a symbol of purity and knowledge. In legend, the Royal White Elephant brought sacred power and fertility.

Although the white elephant brought sacred power and knowledge, it required a lot of care. It is believed that with high power comes great responsibility; therefore, it became a burden on its owner. By the context of the story, the white elephant is the unborn child. The unborn child has given Jig, the power to make her own decision, and rise above the influence of the man’s bullying attitude. The American insists that she has an abortion and tries to convince her that things would return to the way they were before she was pregnant. Jig is not persuaded and replies, “what will we do afterward?” (Hemingway 253), demonstrating that she does not want to have an abortion. She knows that they would be faced with the same situation again at some point in their lives, and they can’t run from commitment and responsibilities their whole lives. Jig wants to move on, settle down, and raise a family now that she presented with the opportunity to do so. The man does not want any responsibility in his life and wants to restore their unhampered life-style. She is unconvinced and wants to become a mother. When the American says that her pregnancy “is the only thing that bothers us […] the only thing that’s made us unhappy,” this represents the desperation with which the man tries to sell the idea of abortion to Jig (Hemingway 253). Jig questions his reason behind the comment and insists that they would not be satisfied with their relationship even if she aborted the baby. Jig cares about herself and her unborn child, yet she says that she will have the operation because “I don’t care about me”; this shows that she is being sarcastic and trying to manipulate the man.

In her book, Burroway addresses a […] “subversive current in the dialogue-one in which Jig […] outwits and manipulates the conversation, [in an attempt] to control the shared destiny of her and her unborn child (Rankin 234). Jig is doubtful about their future and doesn’t believe that things would return to the way they were before she was pregnant. She stands up and walks to the end of the station, indicating her disapproval with the man, and tries to get her thoughts straight. Smiley quotes, “As she stands next to the tracks, “Jig turns her back on the sterile, burnt hills and the American and looks out onto the fertile fields. He calls her back into the shadows with him where there is both the anesthesia and the sterility of his choice: “`Come on back in the shade,’ he said. `You mustn’t feel that way (8).'” She later comments that “We could have everything; we can have the whole world,” demonstrating that she wants to move on. The man then says that “I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you” indicates that he is trying to manipulate Jig; however, the whole issue means little to him. Jig becomes irritated with the man’s attitude and tries to shut him up. The man looks at the tags from several hotels where the couple spent the night, which indicates that the man was thinking about the fun nights they spent there. For the man, those were the best moments of their relationship; the sex, he never really loved Jig. As the man moved the bags to the other side of the station, she sits there, contemplating what she wants to do. Rankin aptly suggests that as the story progresses, “Jig’s superiority in terms of her […] intelligence, her contemptuous wit, and her facility with ironic sarcasm, all of which conclude in the complete sincerity of the last line, a line that incidentally coincides with Jig’s own dramatic epiphany: `There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine (234).'” Jig has decided that being pregnant is a life change to be cherished and built upon. She no longer sees pregnancy as something wrong or unwanted. Jig’s outlook changes as the story progresses, and her dependency on the man diminishes.

In conclusion, Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills like White Elephants” is about a man and a woman struggling to deal with an unwanted child. Hemmingway’s use of the white elephant as a symbol throughout the story makes the dialogue extremely colorful; and forces the reader to think about the entire issue. When reading the story for the first time, readers don’t pay enough attention to the symbolic value of the white elephant; however, reading the story several times over makes the readers realize how precisely it carries the theme of the story. Hemingway never explicitly tells us what the girl decides to do about the baby, but he does give the reader enough clues to figure out what she has decided by the end of the story. Jig’s private thoughts are illuminated by the author’s description of the setting and the conflict.

Weeks quotes, “It’s a particularly significant story for our times when radical changes in traditional sexual morality and the issue of legalized abortion seem to emphasize the age-old problem presented in `Hills Like White Elephants'” (77). The choice of whether or not to abort the unborn child is mainly a woman’s decision. If the woman wants to give birth to a child, there is nothing that the man could say that can make her think otherwise. After all, it’s the woman who gives birth to the child and develops strength through pregnancy. Through Jig, Hemingway concludes that life has choices that should be made with the intention of one’s better future.

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The Symbolism of the Setting in Hills Like White Elephants. (2020, Sep 28). Retrieved from

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