Hills Like White Elephants is an expressive and symbolic short by Hemingway, which portrays a failing relationship, caused by a mysterious “operation”. The author illustrates the inevitability of the characters’ separation and the deterioration of their past romance through the use of multiple symbols, images, and other literary devices. This story was creatively composed by Hemingway through his description of setting, as he skillfully applies it to the theme. Overall, the author created a very symbolic and meaningful piece, especially because of the blending of realistic and allegorical elements. Hemingway’s work Hills Like White Elephants communicates several political viewpoints―such as abortion and nationalistic inferiority―and conveys conflict through the use of imagery, symbolism, point-of-view, and setting.
In the beginning of the short passage, Hemingway presents multiple images to set the mood. First, he describes a brown and dry landscape, as well as blazing, hot weather and annoying flies. These images all reinforce the implied conflict between the two main characters and even figuratively represents their relationship: dry and dying. Even the bamboo curtain and the shadow of the building provide a sense of boundaries, seclusion, and “walls” that have been metaphorically put up between the couple. “Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain…It was very hot…” (page 278).
Another literary device utilized by Hemingway is symbolism. In the story, the man is specifically called an American, however, the girl’s nationality is left unknown. This seems to be an intentional and significant observation by the narrator. The man is thoroughly characterized throughout this piece as an irresponsible, yet perhaps rational, person. Nevertheless, the mentioning of the man’s nationality proves important as he seems to represent America, or the United States in general. This may have been a political message by Hemingway, to show his dissatisfaction with the States. One of the most important symbols the author presents, however, is the “white elephants”. This phrase represents the couple’s discontent and awkwardness toward each other, as they begin to drift apart the more the story progresses. However, these “white elephants” do not only stand as the embodiment of the couple’s dissensions, but also as a metaphor of a fetus. The mountains are being described this way intentionally, as it is significant to the “operation”. “White elephants” are connoted as being a useless possession, or something not wanted. Also, the word “elephant” could refer to the phrase, “elephant in the room”. This points toward abortion―and the couple’s avoidance of the topic―which is the implied operation.
An interesting technique Hemingway demonstrated was point of view. Point of view can be exceptionally significant, as it can reveal the thoughts and feelings of characters, if the story is written in first-person or third-person limited. Hills Like White Elephants, however, is written in third-person objective, which does not reveal the thoughts of any character. The narrator can only express the characters’ actions and speech. Writing this short story in third-person objective has a purpose, nonetheless. This type of point of view does not reveal the emotions and opinions of the characters, which, first of all, supports the theme of misunderstanding. This also means that the dialogue between the characters cannot be superficial―although it may seem that way―and have to be deeper than normal in order to express their thoughts. Hemingway accomplishes this as it is understood that the dialogue represents the couple’s quarrels and disagreements. For instance, the following excerpt indicates the character’s opposing opinions and conflicts that pertain to the “operation”,
“‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.
‘I’ve never seen one,’ the man drank his beer.
‘No, you wouldn’t have.’
‘I might have,’ the man said. ‘Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.’” (page 278).
Setting is yet another literary element evident in the short story. The two main characters are situated at a train station, in between two major cities: Barcelona and Madrid. This can signify a moment of decision-making, in which a person can choose one direction or another. This ties in with the theme of the story as Jig must decide whether or not to have the baby. The train station being in between two cities can also represent being torn between two choices, or to be in a dilemma, mostly like what Jig is in.
Ultimately, it can be said that the short story Hills Like White Elephants indeed has literary merit, considering the fact that the author brilliantly combined realistic and symbolic elements, while also expressing his personal and political viewpoints. Hemingway proficiently uses setting to reinforce the theme, as well as his use of point of view to establish a sense of deep, but silent, thought. His work Hills Like White Elephants reveals portrayals of conflict and political philosophy through the use of symbolism, imagery, setting, and point of view, which, overall, contributes to make the story so creative and insightful.
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