Hills Like White Elephants: Theme, Symbolism & Literary Analysis

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  • 0:47 Symbolism in Hills…
  • 2:47 Ladies' Choice:…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

'To be or not to be?' You might think that just Hamlet posed that question, but Hemingway's 'Hills like White Elephants' asks the same thing. In this lesson, learn how the theme of this 1927 short story is still a hot-button issue today!

Introduction to 'Hills Like White Elephants'

Have you ever been to a 'white elephant' gift exchange, or heard someone talk about avoiding 'the elephant in the room?' In both expressions, the world's largest land mammal is used as a symbol of its size, but with different meanings. In 'Hills Like White Elephants,' Ernest Hemingway uses both meanings as a way of symbolizing the magnitude of the decision 'the girl' has to make - does she keep the baby or not?

Of course, to some of us, the answer to this question might seem simple and straightforward, but the underlying theme of Hemingway's short story deals with the heavy and complex emotions involved when a relationship faces an unexpected pregnancy, particularly in the early 20th century. Let's take a look at the symbols used by Hemingway to illustrate this theme.

Symbolism in 'Hills Like White Elephants'

The first symbol we have in the story is the white elephant. White elephant parties at the office are a relatively new tradition, but the expression itself has been around for some time. Historically, a white elephant is a gift that has no usefulness to the recipient, especially when any utility in the item is overshadowed by the cost of its upkeep. For example, say someone gave you a mansion, but you couldn't pay the property taxes for it.

'The American,' presumably the girl's husband or lover, sees the pregnancy as a white elephant gift, as we can tell from his frequent and falsely supportive nudges to get her to have the procedure, or abortion.

The second symbol is the elephant in the room. The English expression 'avoiding the elephant in the room' colorfully indicates a situation in which someone refuses to address a typically weighty, important, or just obvious topic.

For the girl, her pregnancy is not a gift that she's unwilling to receive. However, when it comes to talking about the situation with the American, she'd rather avoid the discussion altogether, even begging at one point, 'Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?'

The next symbol is the railway station. The lonely rail station that serves as the backdrop for Hemingway's story represents an important decision to be made - much like a crossroads in other stories. Its isolation also reflects the girl's own desperate loneliness she feels in facing this situation, despite the American's constant interference.

The last symbol we will talk about is the landscape. Landscapes, especially rugged ones, were a favorite thematic element for Hemingway and no less so in 'Hills Like White Elephants.'

On one side of the tracks, 'there was no shade and no trees;' however, on the opposite side 'were fields of grain and trees along the bank of the Ebro.' This contrast between barren and fertile land on either side of the tracks symbolizes the ultimate outcomes of the decision the girl faces.

Ladies' Choice: Literary Analysis

Even in the United States today, the issue of abortion is still a touchy subject for a lot of people. In current debates, pro-life supporters usually find the procedure to be unethical in some way, i.e., religious, medical, etc. However, those in favor of a woman's right to choose argue very different moral points in support of legalized abortion, not the least of which is a woman's inherent right to make decisions concerning her own body.

In 'Hills Like White Elephants,' Ernest Hemingway addresses this same concern. Instead of arguing for letting a woman have an abortion if she desires one, though, Hemingway looks at the issue from a different perspective. What if she wanted to keep the baby but was being pressured into an abortive procedure?

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