Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants

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"Hills like white elephants" symbolizes difference in perspectives

Rife with symbolism, Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” focuses on men and women’s view on abortion. Though only implied, the flow of the conversation, body language, tension, indifference of the exchange undeniably point to abortion and their conflicting views. 

The term white elephant is a known euphemism for possessions that are purposeless, impractical, yet hard to maintain and throw away. A white elephant gift exchange pertains to a party where people exchange “gifts” they deem unneeded and impractical. In the story, white elephants represent the couple’s unborn child, due to the father not wanting it, seeing it as impediment to his continuous pursuit of pleasure. “The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.” The wind is clear symbolism for the nature of the operation, discernible in the man saying “It’s really not anything. It’s just to let air in.” The wind also embodies the changes that have taken place in the relationship – a sweet, pleasurable past and an uncertain future. Jig’s pointless stare through the bead curtain represents her uncertainty and state of being torn about the man’s recommendation, as well her contemplating on what the future holds for the two of them after she reaches a decision. 

The drinks the couple tries implies the stark contrast between their viewpoints. The man simply refers to the drinks as “drink” and says, “That’s the way with everything” in response to Jig saying that absinthe tastes like liquorice. The man’s perspective is so rational that he fails to consider Jig’s perspective. Her ability to distinguish the tastes of drinks symbolizes her nuanced view. To her, drinks are not merely drinks but also reflective of her mixed emotions – faced with possibly losing her unborn child and regaining the affection of the man as a result, losing them both, or the remote possibility of having a family with him. Jig quips “all the things you have waited for so long, like absinthe.” Her words imply the subdued excitement and anticipation that she has for the baby.              

It is not implied who the owners of the “two heavy bags” are. Hemingway uses the two heavy bags as symbolism for both Jig and the unborn child and the potential burden that they pose to the man while he anxiously waits for Jig’s decision whether or not to undergo abortion.   “I care about you.” The man pretends to care about Jig’s consent but is visibly bothered by her indecision. His repeated emphasis on the supposed simplicity of the operation, “it’s an awfully simple operation” betrays his words of assurance. “I don’t care about me” signifies Jig’s concern for the baby and lack of regard for herself even if the man leaves, thereby insinuating that she does not wish to get an abortion. 


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