Step into the Light With each reading of Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," the simple story becomes more complicated. Hemingway layers symbolism throughout the entire short story. The symbols used in the setting are especially vital to the reader's interpretation of the story. Many of the obvious symbols, the hills, the white elephant, and the terrain, allow the reader to interpret the story in different ways. Following the first reading, one assumes the couple continued their trip to Madrid for the abortion and soon after separated; however, after many readings a reader may not believe that to be the case.
Hemingway begins the story by describing the surrounding landscape of the train station, where the American and the girl have just arrived. "They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry" (Perrine and Arp 171). Later in the reading, Hemingway writes, "Ã¢ÂÂ¦on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro"(Perrine and Arp 173). The strong contrasting landscapes indicate the opposing options available to Jig, the girl. The station is also located "between two lines of rails in the sun" (Perrine and Arp 171). The two rails represent the two different paths that the couple can take. First, they may choose to have the abortion, and continue with their responsibility-free lives, or they can choose to keep the baby and allow their relationship to travel down another rail. "The landscape around them reflects both possible futures" (Henningfeld 2).
The girl makes her first comment on the landscape as the couple sits in the shade of the train station drinking beer. From the shade of the station, Jig sees only the sterile and barren side associated with the abortion. "They look like white elephants" (Perrine and Arp 171). Webster's Dictionary states that a "white elephant is an Indian elephant of a pale color that is sometimes venerated in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar, a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit, an object no longer of value to its owner but of value to others," or "something of little or no value" (Merriam and Webster). Perhaps Jig realizes that the American sees the unborn child and the pregnant Jig as "white elephants". Neither is of any value to him since traveling the world with a pregnant woman or a small child will hinder his carefree lifestyle. On the other hand, the hills have a distinct beauty to her; "They're lovely hillsÃ¢ÂÂ¦. They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin though the trees" (Perrine and Arp 172). She views pregnancy in the same way, referring to the hills as having skin and obvious shape of an expecting mothers belly. Hemingway twice writes "though the trees," once when speaking of the coloring of the hills and next when speaking of viewing the river. These few words make one think of the saying "You can't see the forest for the trees," which infers that Jig's answer is right in front of her, but she cannot yet see it.
Renner asserts "readers must pay attention not only to what is said but also to where the characters are when they say itÃ¢ÂÂ¦. This side of the station, facing out toward the hills on the same side of valley, where 'there was no shade and no trees,' has been widely associated with the barrenness and sterilityÃ¢ÂÂ¦ of going through with an abortion" (Renner 5). Since Jig views this from the shade, the reader can infer that she is not satisfied with this option. On the other side of the valley are fertile hills with life and fresh new growth, representing the birth of the baby. To view this land, Jig walks across to the other side of the train station, where she leaves the shade. She enters the light, and "distances herself from the influence of the American and enables herself, for the first time, to realize what is in her own mind" (Renner 5). As she looks out beyond the river, she comments, "And we could have all this" (Perrine and Arp 173). At this point, Jig considers the possibility of having the child. The man asks her to "come on back in the shadeÃ¢ÂÂ¦. You mustn't feel that way" (Perrine and Arp 173). The American reiterates his objection to the birth and is encouraging Jig to step back into the shaded darkness of the abortion.
Jig's sadness and sarcasm infer that she believes that regardless of her choice she will lose someone. If she chooses the sunlit baby, the fertile fields on the banks of the Ebro River, she will lose the American. If she chooses the shaded American and abortion, the dry, barren side of the station, she will lose the unborn baby that grows inside her. However, at the end of the story, the American takes "the bags over to the other side of the station" (Perrine and Arp 174). Justice suggests that once the man steps out of the shade and into the light, he accepts the fact that Jig wants to give birth to the child.
"As the man moves the bags to the 'other' side (and, incidentally, into the light)Ã¢ÂÂ¦. This underscores his distance from the people who will, unlike himself, reasonably board the train for which they have been waiting rather than some later train, which will take them into an uncertain future. As he sits in the interior space, Ã¢ÂÂ¦ one wonders why he is there unless he needs to steady his nerves and let the concept of impeding fatherhood begin to sink in" (Justice 8).
While Jig indicates the truth about her relationship with the American and about her feelings for her unborn baby by talking about the landscapes, the American is forced to see the situation in new light, and finally concedes to Jig's choice.
Works Cited Henningfeld, Diane Andrews. "Hills Like White Elephants." Short Stories for Students. 1999: The Gale Group. 10 Mar. 2002 http://www.galenet.com.
Justice, Hilary K. "'Well, Well, Well': Cross-gendered Autobiography and the Manuscript of 'Hills Like White Elephants.'" Hemingway Review.
Fall 98: EBSCOHost. Academic Search Elite Database. 19 Mar. 2002 http://www.epnet.com/ehost/magnolia/login.html Perrine, Laurence, and Thomas R. Arp. Literature Structure, Sound, and Sense. Ed.
Stephen T. Jorden, Helen Triller and Steve Welch. NY: HBJ, 1993. 171-174.
Renner, Stanley. "Moving to the girl's side of 'Hills Like White Elephants.'" Hemingway Review. Fall 95: EBSCOHost. Academic Search Elite Database. 19 Mar. 2002 http://www.epnet.com/ehost/magnolia/login.html.
"White Elephant." Merriam-Webster's on-line Language Center. 10 Mar. 2002 http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary