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Symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

Over the years, I’ve read Hemingway’s classic short story several times, each time in awe of how he masterfully uses conversation to drive the narrative. The subtlety of the text allows the man and woman to dance around the topic of abortion, without ever mentioning the proverbial elephant in the room.

For years, I have seen the hills like white elephants as a symbol for a pregnant woman’s body, while also representing that elephant in the room which the couple does not want to mention out loud. But recently, I realized there is a third level of symbolism that I had not been aware of.

During the past holiday season, I went to a holiday gathering that has a white elephant gift exchange. This prompted me to wonder why these gift exchange events were named after white elephants. A quick online search provided the answer.

The term white elephant refers to an extravagant but ineffectual gift that cannot be easily disposed of, based on the legend of the King of Siam giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs. While the first use of this term remains a matter of contention among historians, one theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into the popular lexicon through his frequent social gatherings as early as 1828.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of Hemingway’s story. The pregnancy is a gift, albeit one that was not actually wanted and one that “cannot be easily disposed of.” Despite the talk of it just being a simple operation, it really was not that simple. In addition to the emotional and psychological considerations, the procedure was risky in 1927 when the story was written.

I love uncovering new layers of symbolism in literature. It is why I reread certain pieces, because each time I do, I bring more knowledge and life experience to the story. And who knows, maybe next time I read this masterpiece in short fiction, I will discover yet another layer of meaning.


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“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

HemingwayAlthough I’ve read Hills Like White Elephants several times, I decided to read it again, just because it’s short and it is such a great story. As I’m sure you know, the story is about a man and a woman discussing the possibility of getting an abortion, which is never overtly stated in the text, but only referred to as a “simple operation.”

The most fascinating aspect of this story for me is how the story unfolds through the dialog, which is extremely difficult to do. When I took Creative Writing in school, I struggled with dialog. Hemingway, though, really captures the feelings of the characters through what is said, and what is not said.

What caught my attention on this reading is the way that each character tries to figure out what the other wants and tries to demonstrate the willingness to go along with the others wishes. It creates a powerful back-and-forth tension, but in the end, nothing is resolved. They are left with the proverbial elephant in the room, which like the hills, obscures what lays ahead beyond the horizon.

There is a great passage where the couple discusses what might happen afterwards:

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
‘Then what will we do afterwards?’
‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’
‘What makes you think so?’
‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’

I get the impression here that the two are both desperately trying to lie to themselves, to make each other believe that if they go through with the abortion that things will be the same as they were before. Yet they both know that would not be the case. Whatever decision they make, whether to have the child or to get the “simple operation,” they both know that their lives and their relationship will never be the same.

This is a perfect “slice of life” short story and one I never tire of reading. If it’s been a while since you read it, or if you’ve never read it before, I encourage you to take 5 or 10 minutes to do so.

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