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Symbolism in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is a very short tale, but rich in symbolism. In the opening paragraph, which is a little long, Hawthorne manages to lay the foundation for all the symbols that manifest in the story.

In those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen’s reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life, two persons met together at an appointed hour and place. One was a lady, graceful in form and fair of feature, though pale and troubled, and smitten with an untimely blight in what should have been the fullest bloom of her years; the other was an ancient and meanly-dressed woman, of ill-favored aspect, and so withered, shrunken, and decrepit, that even the space since she began to decay must have exceeded the ordinary term of human existence. In the spot where they encountered, no mortal could observe them. Three little hills stood near each other, and down in the midst of them sunk a hollow basin, almost mathematically circular, two or three hundred feet in breadth, and of such depth that a stately cedar might but just be visible above the sides. Dwarf pines were numerous upon the hills, and partly fringed the outer verge of the intermediate hollow, within which there was nothing but the brown grass of October, and here and there a tree trunk that had fallen long ago, and lay mouldering with no green successor from its roots. One of these masses of decaying wood, formerly a majestic oak, rested close beside a pool of green and sluggish water at the bottom of the basin. Such scenes as this (so gray tradition tells) were once the resort of the Power of Evil and his plighted subjects; and here, at midnight or on the dim verge of evening, they were said to stand round the mantling pool, disturbing its putrid waters in the performance of an impious baptismal rite. The chill beauty of an autumnal sunset was now gilding the three hill-tops, whence a paler tint stole down their sides into the hollow.

So let’s go through the paragraph and look at the various symbols that will come into play during this story.

First are the two women, one young and one old. They represent the maid and crone aspects of the triple goddess. But also, they represent the past and present for the older woman. The younger woman symbolizes the memories of the older. The choices that were made when the woman was young led her to her place now. So when the crone conjures dark memories of the young woman’s past, she is essentially reliving her own memories, which will lead to her liberation from the bonds of guilt and shame.

The next symbol we encounter is the three hills. The three hills represent the three memories which the crone conjures for the young woman. Each of the hills is a painful memory and represents separation, symbolic death (think grave mound). The young woman severed connections with parents, then with husband, and finally with child. In Hawthorne’s time, the only way a woman could be free was to shake off all bonds to family.

Next, we see that the setting of the story is in October. This represents the time of reaping. We all must reap what we sow, and the young woman must face up to the decisions that she made.

Finally, we have the symbol of the fallen tree. This represents the woman’s lineage, or family tree. When Hawthorne writes that there is “no green successor from its roots,” it is a metaphor for the fact that the woman no longer has any family or children to carry on her bloodline. Like the tree, she will just get old and decay.

While this is not a horror story, per se, it is certainly dark and eerie, and a great short read for an October evening.

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Thoughts on “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

This book has been in the pile beside my bed for a while. My wife had read it and thought I would enjoy it, and I did (she knows me well). I read most of it while traveling, and then stalled upon return (work and responsibilities took precedence), but I finally finished it.

Essentially, this is a work of historical fiction, telling the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, from the wife’s perspective. The writing is great and the story moves along nicely. And some of the dialog from the book reminded me of Hemingway’s style, which I thought was a nice touch.

During the part of the story where Hadley tells Ernest she is pregnant, the dialog is very similar to Hills Like White Elephants, which is especially poignant since that short story also deals with a discussion about pregnancy.

“You’re a strange one today.”

“You’re not in love with any actress in Paris, are you?”

“God, no.” He laughed.

“Violinist?”

“No one.”

“And you’ll stay with me always?”

“What is it, Kitty? Tell me.”

I met his eyes then. “I’m going to have a baby.”

“Now?” The alarm registered immediately.

“In the fall.”

“Please tell me it’s not true.”

“But it is. Be happy, Tiny. I want this.”

He sighed. “How long have you known?”

“Not long. A week maybe.”

“I’m not ready for this, not nearly.”

“You might be then. You might even be glad for it.”

“It’s been a hell of a few months.”

“You’ll work again. I know it’s coming.”

“Something’s coming,” he said darkly.

(pp. 146 – 7)

McLain does a great job of using metaphors in her tale. One that particularly resonated with me was the description of a false spring, symbolizing the false hope of renewed love.

Outside, the gray rain fell and fell. Where had spring gone? When I’d left for the Loire Valley, the leaves had been out on the trees, and the flowers were beginning to bloom, but now everything was drenched and drowned. It had been a false spring, a lie like all the other lies, and I found myself wondering if it would ever really come.

(p. 259)

Overall, Hemingway comes across as a fairly despicable character, which does not surprise me. He’s misogynistic and driven by ego, and just kind of a jerk. He did write some great books, though. I’m thinking that it might be time to go back and re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of my favorite Hemingway books that I read in my teens.

What about you? Do you have a favorite Hemingway novel?

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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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