Study Guide

Hills Like White Elephants Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Ernest Hemingway

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

White Elephants, Married Life, Babies, and Wildlife

In "What’s Up with the Title?" we break down the literal meaning of the components of what is for many the story’s key symbol – the "hills like white elephants." In "Setting" we talk about how this symbol can be used to interpret the story. Here, we’ll go with that while playing with the idea of wildlife.

Elephants are wildlife. Jig and the man have been living the wild life, but now it could all come to come to a halt – like it has for the white mountains. But are mountains happy in their stability?

Who knows, but the man doesn’t want to be a mountain, be married and settle down (and he thinks that Jig having the baby will mean he must). Jig, on the other hand, thinks they can only remain in motion, wild and free, is if they do have the baby and get married.

The Bamboo Bead Curtain

This symbol is overshadowed by the hills and elephants, but the bamboo curtain is still powerful. It sets us up to think about boundaries, thresholds, and separations – all the issues the couple is facing.

As we emphasize throughout this guide, the social, legal, and informational boundaries the couple faces in terms of birth control, sex education, and stigmas about having children without being married, act as curtains that help limit the couple’s options, and their conversation.

And because Jig wants the baby and the man doesn’t, the pregnancy itself acts as a curtain between them, through which only simple things (like what they want to drink) can be communicated clearly. By the end of the story the "curtain" between the man and Jig seems to have turned into a wall.

But let’s backtrack a little and look at some passages where the curtain appears. The curtain is first mentioned in the opening paragraph of the story:

Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. (1)

At this moment we anticipate going through the curtain to the inside of the bar, but the narrator pulls us back to the table outside the bar. Right away we have this feeling of being kept out, stuck outside with the flies.

On top of that, you could write an entire paper just on bamboo as a symbol in "Hills Like White Elephants." Some very old accounts claim that human life was born from a bamboo stem, among other interesting things. That could connect to Jig’s pregnancy for sure. If you want to dig deeper.

Hemingway, a real humorist, is also using the curtain as a comedic prop. We see it in the first paragraph one, with the remark about the flies. His humor is even more evident here: "Dos cervezas," the man said into the curtain" (5).

There is something subtly funny about the man talking into the curtain because we don’t know (though the man obviously does) that someone is waiting on the other side. This through-the-curtain conversation is a little uncomfortable, so much so that we almost miss the humor. Maybe because, although they are communicating well through the curtain, this moment still foreshadows the figurative curtain between Jig and the man when they try to communicate.

The curtain is also a comment on advertisement and communication, and an homage to the sport of bullfighting, which so fascinated Hemingway. It can also be seen as an homage to the other pastime that so fascinated him – drinking. Anis del Toro (booze of the bull) is painted on the curtain, layering on a bit more symbolism.

As we know from Hemingway’s A Sun Also Rises, Americans are often in Spain for the bullfighting. It’s a major industry and part of Spain’s draw as a tourist destination. It’s only natural that a train station bar would advertise a drink that advertises bullfighting and appeals to people attracted to the sport.

That said, it’s doubtful that an observant person like Jig could have avoided knowing that toro means bull. Like she does with the hills in the distance, Jig draws this symbol into their personal story by pointing it out. As we know from The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway's male characters who were in Spain for the bullfights weren't exactly inclined to get married and have children. If the man is anything like these other Hemingway characters, it seems unlikely that he would give Jig the kind of life she seems to want. If the man is a bullfighting aficionado, then for Jig the bull might represent a major obstacle to her wishes.

The Train Station and the Luggage

These are symbols of bodies in motion, of travel and maybe even transience. Since the man and Jig's suitcases have stickers that give a record of their travels, the luggage can be seen as a map of the journey that brought them to this point. The train station is a midpoint between that time and the future time that they will move toward on the train. Train stations, airports, bus stations, and ports, when found in stories, give us the sense of transition, of being between worlds, between experiences.

Sometimes a Cigar is Just A Cigar

As we note in our discussion of "Setting," some critics and readers resist or reject the symbolic approach to this story. All this talk of symbolism can seem overly fancy, at odds with the clean, smooth lines of the story. If you are one of those readers, go with that. It’s OK to just let a mountain be a mountain, a river a river, and pregnancy a pregnancy, etc.

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