“Hills like White Elephants”: A Symbolic Interpretation

In the beginning of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills like White Elephants”, he gives a short introduction about where the story takes place. I got to know that a man and woman are in Spain at a railway

station, waiting for a train that comes from Barcelona to Madrid. No other detailed information was given, only the conversation between the couple. The narrator doesn’t give names to them. The man is referred to as the ‘American’ and the woman is called ‘the girl’. Their names are not important; they may be symbols for lots of couples. However later in the story the name of the girl once appears, that is Jig, but the emphasis is not on the names, rather on the characters and how they behave. Through their interaction I could see the characteristics of their relationship. I didn’t know exactly what they are talking about. Only after several allusions I found out that the theme of their conversation was about abortion which, Jig does not want to have. In spite of this feeling, in the end Jig will not proceed with an abortion, due to her intelligence and wants, an interpretation which arises through a study of the symbols of the environment around the station, the landscape, and the actual station that are definitely observed by Jig.

First, the environment surrounding the station is bare and unfriendly. The ground is dry and there are no trees, so the land is full of emptiness. The description of the place symbolizes the woman’s soul and body after the intervention. She feels awful that the American mentioned abortion. Jig states, “And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy” (402). In contrast with the roughness of the place, the woman recognizes the hills in the distance which are white. As she watches the hills she compares them to white elephants, animals that could only exist in a dream. The white color is used here to symbolize innocence, hence the life in her body that hasn’t been born yet, and it isn’t so doubtful whether it will be born. Even though white elephants are hard to find in reality, we can conclude that Jig can make anything possible with the young one growing in her stomach and make her dreams come true. She isn’t going to tolerate herself feeling like the description of that place. According to Arthur Sharon K. Hall, “Why despite his image as a hairy chested writer, he was fully capable of viewing things from a female point of view, as he does in such a story like Hills like White Elephants” (415).

Second, one of the most powerful symbols in the story is the landscape. As she watches the ground that is rough and sees the whiteness of the hills her doubts of having an abortion decrease. Although the man keeps telling her that abortion is a very simple intervention, she realizes that it is not so easy. Jig states, “I don’t feel anyway, I just know things” (402). It is the woman who would have to face the complications of the operation. Not only would her body bear the traces of abortion, but also her psyche and it could happen that she would never be able have another baby again. Critic Myriah states, “After the comment the man made, this could mean that she is imaging a life with her and her child, instead of the life she has been living with this man” (par.7). Her non-doubtful feelings of having a baby can be explained of a soon-to-be mother’s feelings.

Finally the station serves as an indicator of what the couple will do. The station is located between two separate railways, leading to different points. The American would like to take the train to Madrid, where probably the operation would be done. Jig states, “And we can have all this. And, we could have everything and everyday we make it more impossible” (402). The couple is exactly in the middle of the route. This expresses their uncertainty about which way to go. The train that would take them to the destination is therefore symbolic. Getting on this train would mean the operation, so I can regard it as the train of life. They have very little time to make up their minds, as the train stops and waits at the station only for two minutes. It symbolizes change, but they are scared of making a step towards it, as they don’t know exactly whether this change will be positive or negative for their relationship. Through their communication it turns out, that whether to keep the baby or not is the woman’s decision, and only hers. She knows that if she keeps the baby, her relationship with the man would change entirely in a negative sense. On the other hand, she is also aware of the fact that getting rid of the baby would highly influence her feelings, because it is very difficult mentally to work up an abortion and it would also make their relationship go bad. At this point we can see that she realizes that her relationship with the man is not the one she is longing for. If he really loved her, they would keep the baby and be able to give up their present lifestyle, but the man does not want to do so. Keeping the baby would mean settling down and starting a family life and the girl knows that this man is not suitable for taking up responsibilities. The two possibilities mean the failure of their relationship.

Clearly then, Jig knows her relationship and the American’s is not a good one. Because of this, she will keep the baby since the relationship would be blown away anyways. She does what she wants! As she views the environment around the station, the station points to the future she wants and will receive. Due to her intelligence and wants, the American’s wishes won’t come true. She will be happy.