The short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway[pic], is about a young couple and the polemic issue of abortion. Though the word “abortion” is nowhere in the story, it is doubtlessly understood through Hemingway’s powerful use of two literary elements: setting and symbolism.
From the first paragraph the setting immediately introduces the tense atmosphere that will surround therest of the story. The story takes place in Spain in the late 1920’s. The setting is described as follows:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. […] The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express fromBarcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
The couple is in the middle of making a drastic decision where there are only two choices, two directions, just like the two rail lines that pass by the station. The openness and loneliness around the railroad station imply that there is no way to back out of the problem at hand and that theman and the girl must address it now. The heat turns the scene into a virtual teakettle, boiling and screaming under pressure. The landscape that encompasses the station plays a fundamental role in the conflict of the story through its extensive symbolism.
When the girl sees the long and white hills she says that “they look like white elephants.” As she observes the white hills she foreseeselatedly the birth of her baby – something unique like the uncommon white elephant. The color white symbolizes the innocence and purity of her unborn child. She also admires the rest of the scenery:
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were the fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of acloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees..
The fields of grain and trees represent fertility and fruitfulness, which symbolize her current pregnant state and the life in her womb. The Ebro River also represents life, as it germinates the fields. Just as the girl appreciates the panorama and its connection to her unborn child the “shadow of a cloud,” whichrepresents the abortion of the fetus, overcomes her happiness. After an exchange of words with the man she again looks at the scenery, but this time in a different way, as the following sentence illustrates: “They sat down at the table and the girl looked across the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.” The man is obviously in favor of the abortion, andeverything he says is an effort to persuade her into it. As she considers his point of view she looks at the dry side of the valley, which is barren and sterile, symbolizing her body after the abortion. The man and woman continue arguing and stop for a little when she says, “Would you please please please please please please please please stop talking?”
He did not say anything but looked at thebags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.
The American apparently wants this abortion because he wants to keep his current lifestyle. The bags with all the hotel labels on them are symbolic of his vivacious spirit. If the woman goes ahead with the pregnancy, he would have to settle down and raise a family, which would meanforgoing his youthful desires of seeing the world.
The story ends with the couple expecting their train’s arrival in five minutes. There is no resolution and there is no decision stated regarding the abortion. Hemingway’s interweaving of setting and symbolism helps him juice each sentence to provide maximum detail. This story was not only intended for the pleasures of reading, but also though...
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