Every moment is essential in a short story; every action, every word, even every object mentioned. These objects carry with them deeper significance than their physical existence. They are called symbols. Ernest Hemingway fills his story, “Hills Like White Elephants” with an assortment of symbols that help portray the overall theme of the story. Through this symbolism Ernest Hemingway creates the world around the couple waiting for the train and further develops the seemingly petty squabble between them in to a fight against the human condition.
Symbols in Hemingway’s story vary from the grandeur to the seemingly miniscule. However, all the symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” present the shaky relationship between the American and the girl, and their conflict regarding their current lifestyle and the ominous “operation” they mention.
From the beginning the reader is thrown in to the theme through the setting, speaking of the desolate landscape, “On this side there was no shade or trees” and settles quickly with another symbol, “between two lines of rails in the sun” (Hemmingway 539). The lack of shade and two separate tracks represents the couples dilemma and the choices or routes they can take; two tracks means two choices, and they must choose between the dry heat and the “other side ...fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro” (Hemingway 541).
The American and the girl are fighting over what is never made entirely clear, but through the symbols one will gather a deeper understanding of their dilemma. Alcohol plays a significant role in this story, representing their idleness and lubricated relationship with one another. It also represents the longing for an alternative lifestyle the woman has, as portrayed in her exasperations: “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe” (Hemingway 540).
The way they live, the constant traveling, has become tiresome, at least to the woman, and alcohol has become the perfect symbol of this tedium: “That’s all we do isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks” (Hemingway 540). There relationship and way of living has become something of a paradoxical, sacred nothingness.
Through all the symbolism Ernest Hemingway presents in this story, the setting and environment is the most significant symbol, as can be witnessed early in to the work: “The girl was looking off at the lines of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.” She then spoke in her purest form the most significant symbol of the whole story, “They look like white elephants” (Hemingway 539). This is a symbol of their lives, of their relationship, and of the choices that must be made. The white elephant is something that is both rare and sacred, as it is also essentially useless. It is a symbol of their lives spent traveling, something so cherished, but ultimately has only surface value. They are those hills like white elephants.
The symbolism Ernest Hemingway creates does not come sparingly in “Hills Like White Elephants.” This excess of multilayered images helps create the world and situation that the American and the girl find themselves in. What was not directly said was brought to life through these symbols, elevating the text beyond superficial and surface meaning, bringing an ultimate meaning commingling with the human condition; “‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine’” (Hemingway 542).
Hemingway, Ernest. "Hills Like White Elephants." The Story and its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters.
8th. Boston: Bedford/st Martins, 2011. 539-42. Print.