Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants


“Hills Like White Elephants” was written in 1927 by one of America’s most famous writers, Ernest Hemingway. It was published in a larger work called “Men Without Women.”

Synopsis. The story focuses on a conversation between an American man and a girl at a Spanish train station while waiting for a train to Madrid. The girl compares the nearby hills to white elephants. The pair obliquely discuss an “operation” that the man wants the woman to have, which is implied to be an abortion.


Symbolism in Hills Like White Elephants

Hills Like White Elephants is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The basis of the story is a conversation between a man and his girlfriend, who are also the main characters in the story. The man prods the girl to get an abortion, claiming it is a simple procedure, but she is adamant to do so. In this case, the man is the antagonist, while the girl is the protagonist. As the story progresses, it becomes evident of the strong rift between the two. None of them seems to understand the other; and the girl becomes visibly angry to the point of requesting that the man cease to talk to her. The story by Hemingway is rich in symbolism, with the most conscious one being the ‘white elephant’. This paper is an evaluation of the symbolism in the story and the critical role it plays in helping the readers develop deeper insights about the characters in the story.

A major symbolism that also forms the title of the story is “hills” that looked “like white elephants” (Hemingway 1). The phrase ‘white elephant’ literary refers to a possession that is troublesome and one that may be costly to maintain. On the other hand, the phrase ‘white elephant’ in the story could also refer to an actual white elephant. In this case, it is important to note, “The actual white elephant is a rarity in nature” (Becnel 1). Being rare in nature, individuals have high reverence of the white elephant. As such, the white elephant receives a lot of guarding or protection. The phrase ‘white elephant’ can also apply in a metaphorical sense, being like the elephant in the room that they should address.

Both definitions of the term ‘white elephant’ are applicable to this story since they describe how the man and the girl feel about the unborn baby, respectively. The man perceives the unborn baby as a burden or something that will deny him of the ability to enjoy life. The man insists that both can live good lives by having the whole world to themselves and touring everywhere. He says to her, “We can have the whole world.” “We can go everywhere.” (Hemingway 3). On the other hand, the unborn baby is like a rare white elephant to the girl. She feels that the baby will be a blessing to them, and thus no need for the operation.

The mention of hills is symbolic in the story. In the beginning of the story, Hemingway describes the hills as “long and white” (1). As the American and the girl settle for drinks, there is a direct comparison between the hills and the country. The comparison says, “They [hills] were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry” (1). This comparison is suggestive of the constraint in the relationship between the American and the girl (Weeks 1). The contrast between the hills and the countryside was akin to the nature of the relationship between the American and the girl, which was different in every aspect. While the American preferred they go ahead with the procedure, the girl was quite reluctant.


The bead curtain is also symbolic in the story. The bead curtain separates the American and the girl from the main bar where other travelers are waiting for the train. The bead curtain is symbolic of the separation between the American and the girl. In the first few lines of the story, Hemingway describes the station and the bar, whereby the curtain “hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies” (1). The American man and the girl have sharp divisions over what to do with the unborn baby as well as their future. This is similar to a beaded curtain hanging between them. The pregnancy is also like a curtain between the American and the girl. As the curtain blocks the flies from going into the bar, the pregnancy is also becoming a hindrance between the American and the girl.

The curtain is also symbolic of the communication challenges between the American and the girl. No one seems to understand the other in a perfect way. As soon as they settle down for drinks, the girl remarks that the line of hills in the distant “look like white elephants” to which the American responds, “I’ve never seen one” (Hemingway 1). This represents the serious rift in communication between the two. When the girl looks at the words written on the curtain, she is unable to tell the meaning and has to ask the American. She says, “They’ve painted something on it, … , what does it say?” (1). She has no idea that the writings or drawings on the curtain as she says represent a beer. The two seem to be from different worlds.

The side of the station where the characters are sitting is symbolic in nature.  The description of this side of the station is as follows: “On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun” (Hemingway 1). In addition, flies had to be kept out of the bar using bead curtain. According to Becnel, “such a setting represents barrenness and decay” (2). With regard to barrenness, there are always fears that an abortion may lead to barrenness or infertility in the future. The decay or rot indicates that their relationship is dead. Even if she agrees to have the abortion, there is little chance that things will be the same again between them. Their relationship is already in a state of decay and nothing can save it.

The opposite side of the station is symbolic. Hemingway presents the opposite side of the station as quite different from where the characters sit. Rather than being dry and lacking in vegetation, the opposite side seems full of life. The reader learns that on the opposite side there were “fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro” (Hemingway 3). It was possible to see the river from the station and the lively landscape of grain and trees. According to Evans, the sides of the station where the characters are sitting symbolize “blank sterility” while the opposite side of the station represents “teeming fertility and life” (2). The girl keeps on taking glances at the opposite side of the station where there is grain, trees, and a river. This is symbolic of the direction she needs to take – to either abort the fetus or choose fertility.

The time of arrival of the express train is also symbolically important. There are two major references to time in the story. The first one is at the beginning of the story whereby the author says, “the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes” (Hemingway 1). The second reference to time is where the barwoman informs them that the train is about to arrive, “The train comes in five minutes” (3). The time of arrival of the train symbolizes the quick decision that the American and the girl must make concerning the unborn baby (Eric 2). As the time remaining reduces from forty minutes to five minutes, the couple feels increasing pressure to make a decision. With the added pressure, the couple is yet to make a decision on what next.

There is also the contention that the heavy drinking they engage in is typical of the sensual life they led. According to Evans, he heavy drinking signifies “the life of random sensual pleasure they have been leading up till now” (3). Alcohol abuse is a key theme in the story. The lesson learnt here is that alcohol abuse may lead to early pregnancy and other problems. The last symbolism is the shadow that moves across the fertile field. The story narrator notes, “The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain” (3). This represents foreshadowing of bad events to come. According to Wyche, the cloud shadow is “foreshadowing the death of her unborn child” (2).

In summary, Hills Like White Elephants is a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The author integrates rich symbolism in the story to help the readers think deeper about its meaning. The most prominent symbols are “hills” and “white elephants”. The hills represents the differences between the man and the girl, while the white elephant represents the baby with regard to the man’s and the girl’s perceptions. The man views the baby as a burden, while to the woman the baby is a blessing.

Works Cited

Becnel, Kim E. “How to Write about “Hills Like White Elephants”” Bloom’s How to Write about             Ernest Hemingway, Chelsea House, 2017. Bloom’s Literature,    Like White Elephants     symbolism. Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Weeks, Lewis E. “Hemingway Hills: Symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants”.” Studies in      Short Fiction, vol. 17, no. 1, 1980, pp. 75.

Evans, Robert C. “”Hills Like White Elephants”” Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American        Writers, Volume 3, Facts On File, 2010. Bloom’s Literature, in the story Hills Like White Elephants. Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

Wyche, David. “Letting the Air into a Relationship: Metaphorical Abortion in `Hills Like White             Elephants.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 22, no. 1, 2002, pp. 56.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Mindtap Literature. 2nd ed. N.p.: Cengage,    2016. Web. Video Requirement


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