Exploring Symbolism in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"

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About this sample


Words: 630 |

Page: 1|

4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Words: 630|Page: 1|4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024


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Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" is a masterclass in subtlety and the use of symbolism to convey complex themes. Hemingway's minimalist style, characterized by its sparse prose and heavy reliance on dialogue, leaves much unsaid, inviting readers to delve beneath the surface to uncover the story's deeper meanings. Central to this narrative is the use of symbolism, which serves to highlight the underlying tensions between the characters and the broader themes of choice, communication, and the nature of relationships. This essay seeks to explore the various symbols in "Hills Like White Elephants" and analyze their significance in contributing to the story's rich, multi-layered narrative.

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One of the most prominent symbols in the story is the setting itself, particularly the contrasting landscapes on either side of the train station. The story unfolds at a station between two lines, with one side offering fertile fields and the Ebro River, and the other side presenting a barren, dry landscape. This dichotomy mirrors the central conflict faced by the characters, the American and the girl named Jig, who are grappling with a decision about whether to proceed with an abortion. The fertile side symbolizes life, growth, and potential, while the barren side represents sterility, desolation, and the consequences of their potential choice. This landscape serves as a metaphor for the possible futures that lie before them, depending on the decision they make.

Another key symbol is the white elephant, referenced in the title and indirectly through the dialogue. The phrase "white elephant" traditionally refers to something that is more trouble than it is worth, often an unwanted gift. In the context of the story, the white elephant symbolizes the unborn child and the burden it represents to the couple. For the American, the pregnancy is an inconvenience, a hindrance to their carefree lifestyle, while for Jig, it is a source of profound internal conflict. The white elephant thus encapsulates the crux of their dilemma and the differing perspectives each character holds regarding the pregnancy and their future together.

The drinks ordered by the characters also carry symbolic weight. Throughout the story, they consume alcohol, which serves as a means to avoid confronting their issues directly. The act of drinking becomes a symbol of their escapism and reluctance to face the gravity of their situation. The anise liquor, in particular, is described as having a taste that is not quite right, mirroring the discomfort and unease that pervades their conversation. This subtle detail underscores the dissonance between their superficial attempts to maintain normalcy and the underlying tension that threatens their relationship.

Symbolism is further reinforced through the language and interactions between the characters. The repetitive and often circular nature of their dialogue highlights their inability to communicate effectively. Jig's observation that the hills "look like white elephants" is a moment of candid expression, yet it is met with dismissal by the American, reflecting his tendency to trivialize her feelings. This dynamic illustrates the broader theme of miscommunication and the struggle for mutual understanding. The hills themselves, with their ambiguous shape and form, symbolize the uncertainty and complexity of their situation, as well as the looming presence of their unresolved conflict.


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In "Hills Like White Elephants," Hemingway employs symbolism with remarkable subtlety and precision, creating a narrative that is rich with meaning despite its brevity. The contrasting landscapes, the white elephant, the act of drinking, and the nature of the characters' dialogue all serve to illuminate the central themes of choice, communication, and the complexities of relationships. Through these symbols, Hemingway captures the profound, often unspoken tensions that define human interactions and the difficult decisions that shape our lives. By inviting readers to uncover these deeper layers of meaning, Hemingway's story remains a powerful exploration of the human condition and the intricate dance of communication and understanding.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Exploring Symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. (2024, Jun 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 22, 2024, from
“Exploring Symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”.” GradesFixer, 12 Jun. 2024,
Exploring Symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Jul. 2024].
Exploring Symbolism in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Jun 12 [cited 2024 Jul 22]. Available from:
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