English 102 (Winter)
December 20, 2017
Final Essay 1
Symbolic Contributions to Identity
The story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, was written by Ernest Hemingway and contains a lot of interesting symbolism, which contributes to the meaning of this short story. Symbols like the white elephants, the curtain, as well as the train station contribute to the theme of changing identity into parents for the two characters. The richness of this meaning dives deeper and goes into the differences of morals, ethics, opinions, and ways of life between the two. Hemingway shows these differences and transitions in their life in order to connect back to the theme of one’s own identity. Throughout the short story the symbols give the reader facts to help debate the situation between the couple, which is having a baby or getting a an abortion. One of the identities is more in transition than the other, which is pulling back from being a parent and resisting. The man and the woman are generic terms to represent the differences between men and women; no specific persons because the lack of names. He wants to force the meaning of identity change between men and women when they have a baby together, which plays out beautifully with his use of symbolism.
As the reader can already infer just from the title, one of the big symbols throughout the short story are the white elephants. This symbol is very powerful because it is associated with the phrase the “elephant in the room” or the topic that the man and woman are scared to be discussing as well as indifferent about (Shmoop). This is where the identity meaning comes into play because the woman goes back and forth with the idea of the hills looking like white elephants, which is comparable for her decision to get an abortion or not (Loveboat). Her feelings are real and the indecisiveness makes the reader think that the woman is contemplating keeping the baby or fixing their relationship by getting rid of it. That is why she is transitioning the hills back and forth saying they look like white elephants like her identity, which implies she is willing to abort, but then again she contracts her statement saying “the hills are actually quite beautiful” (Draney). This makes the reader think they her identity is sincere and she cares for this child inside her, thus she is ready to take the identity of a parent. The magic and beauty of childbirth can easily be compared to the pretty scenery, while the unborn child can also be compared to the white elephants color or something that nobody wants (Shmoop). This puts the identity in a crossroads. Should she keep the baby and be a parent or not? What does this tell us about her characteristics as a human being and is the relationship right for both people?
The woman begins the conversation after they receive their drinks by explaining, “they look like white elephants” as the couple notices they were “white in the sun and the country was brown and dry” (Draney). This sparks the argument between the two, but this phase is deeper than just the hills looking like elephants. They are actually, under the curtain, fighting about more personal issues. Their attitudes are all out of ordinary so they bicker about small things like the hills and then they go into the taste of the liquor. Everything sets them off due to the deeper issues at hand with their relationship and pregnancy. The woman changes her mind, which speaks to her identity and opinion of their relationship. She says “the hills are actually quit beautiful”, which is a change of heart and sends a message to the man that she actually wants to keep the baby and wants them to be parents (Loveboat). This is a crucial part in the story because we see the identity of the man stay the same and he becomes a little forceful with his emotions and adds pressure for her to get an abortion by saying “it’s a simple operation” (Draney). The man doesn’t want his identity to change at all. Overall this symbolism of the hills speaks to the reader and motions towards the changing emotions between the couple and their decisions about the abortion like they are deciding about the white elephant hills. Its painfully obvious that no one wants to discuss the baby so they inside debate about other things.
Another huge symbol in the store is the beaded curtain between the inside of the bar and the outside of the bar, which also connects to the station being in-between two lines of railroads. These objects are so crucial to the story and they speak to the different identities or the division of characteristics of the man and woman. The man is very overbearing and pressuring because he doesn’t want to be a parent, while on the other hand the woman is more skeptical about the whole issue and is divided between her emotions. She is very indecisive and actually annoyed a little with the man’s harboring opinions. The story immediately starts off foreshadowing a division with the setting and how the station is set in-between two railroads (Draney). This gives the reader a thought that there might be a divide in the story or indifference in opinions. In that same paragraph they talk about the beads that are “hanging in the doorway of the bar to keep the flies from getting in” (Draney). Here we see another symbol of division. One person is embracing identity change into a parent and the other pushing away. This is so crucial to the story due to the fact that the characters have condescending opinions of what they want. They have this love connection, but it might not last due to this huge division on certain issues in their relationship, mainly the baby, but their struggles ignite more arguments between random events or opinions that aren’t even important (Shmoop). Separation is so huge to identity because it proves the change between Jig and the man. One identity wants to keep the baby, while the other thinks it would be best for their relationship to get rid of it. These are the opinions hanging between the two of them just like the station and just like the curtain that hangs in the bar’s doorway (Fowler). The literally curtain symbolizes the figurative curtain that hangs between the couples relationship and is basically in the way of them being happy.
The woman’s identity will change because she will be a parent, but the man wants his identity to stay the same and thinks this will help their relationship. The woman seems to have a more responsible identity compared to the man who is careless and keeps ordering drinks instead of stepping up to become a father (O’Brien). The curtain also blocks the communication between the two, which obvious leads to indifferent identities due to the fact that the couple is on two different pages and not willing to compromise or discuss. It is made clear that their communicating is out of sorts because the woman, Jig, explains that she is having trouble reading or interpreting what the curtain says (Draney). This is huge to the story and shows that they cannot understand one another’s feelings. This distinction is hard to come across because just like the characters in the story are on the outside of the bar, we as the reader are on the outside of their identity. We don’t know their feelings or emotions, but we just can infer by what they are talking about as well as these important symbols throughout. The man’s identity is pressuring and the woman has already heard his opinions, thus she complains that she doesn’t feel like discussing anymore and kind of avoids the drama (Fowler). His pressuring is making her negative about the relationship even more (Shmoop).
Lastly, the short Hemingway story uses the station more as well as the luggage to add even more richness to his meaning. This idea of the train station and luggage might actually take a bright turn at the end of the story and symbolize a little transition for the two into parents (O’Brien). Maybe their identities really will change and they will decide to have a baby instead of aborting. The transition into parenthood is very intense and honestly takes a long time. Famous stories have been known to have symbols like busses, trains, airports, or even luggage to show the changing tides or indicate a new start (Shmoop). The author indicates this transitioning of attitudes by saying, “He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights”, which indicates that the couple is in the midst of transitioning (Draney). The luggage is a map of all the things that they have done, which bring them to this point in their life and has lead them to this identity change and the middle of the railroads. They are about to decide their future.
Overall the symbols in this short story by Hemingway give a lot of encouragement to the theme of identity change into parents and hints at what kind of person the characters really are. The white elephants, curtain, and luggage all give great insight to the challenges between the relationship as well as the opinions of the couple, that the reader can’t understand due to the fact that the story is told in the 3rd person. The symbols give tons of additional evidence toward the changing identity theme of the story. Overall, the meaning of the story is identity change throughout life and the decisions one makes to accept or abort this change.
“An Analysis of Hemingway’s.” A WORD FITLY SPOKEN, 11 July 2016, nealabbott.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/an-analysis-of-hemingways-hills-like-white-elephants-from-a-storytelling-perspective/.
Draney, Clark L. “Hills like White Elephants .” PDF, lirroaringtwenties.weebly.com/uploads/1/4/5/3/14539476/hemingway-hills-like-white-elephants.pdf.
Fowler, Ryan. dc.cod.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1204&context=essai.
“Hemingway’s Short Stories.” Hills Like White Elephants, www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/h/hemingways-short-stories/summary-and-analysis/hills-like-white-elephants.
Loveboat , H. P., and Lesson 6B. “The Setting of ‘Hills Like White Elephants.'” The
Setting of “Hills Like White Elephants.”
O’Brien , Tim. “Allusion, Word Play, and the Central Conflict in Hemingway’s `Hills Like White Elephants’.” Allusion, Word Play, and the Central Conflict in Hemingway’s `Hills Like White Elephants’.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Bamboo Bead Curtain in Hills Like White Elephants.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, www.shmoop.com/hills-like-white-elephants/bamboo-bead-curtain-symbol.html.