The Story “Hills Like White Elephants”


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“Hills Like White Elephant” is a story whose plot is set at a train station in Spain against the dry and hot hilly background. The two characters, American and his girlfriend Jig, engage in a seemingly controversial conversation as they drink beer in a nearby pub before they catch a train heading to Madrid. During the conversation, the content of their dialogue and motives are not clear though. The actual meanings of the expressions “hills like white elephants” and “operation” used by Jig in their ensuing dialogue could not be readily established by readers. This paper therefore attempts to analyze the true meaning of “hills like big white elephants” and the content of the characters’ conversation in the context of the whole story.

It is a common observation that “hills like white elephants” is literally misplaced in the story because it cannot be adequately used to describe the distant hills beyond the Spanish Ebro Valley with high precision. In reality, the white elephant is a rare species of animal which does not exist in Spain but Africa and Latin America. Similarly, the moving animal cannot perfectly represent the static yet far-reaching geographical features that the distant hills were. This incongruity leaves readers with a multimillion question begging for an answer: “What is the true meaning of the big white elephant, as used by the female character Jig, in the story?”

According to Ranner Sylverdo in her 1995 journal “Moving to the Girl’s Side of ‘Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway Ernest, the author of this story, is best known for his elaborate use of symbolism. In the preliminary chapter of the journal, she asserts that, “If you are such a reader who do not go in between the lines to get the hidden meanings of figurative language and symbolism f the playwright then you are bound to miss the story” (p. 2). This is a clear indication that there are further possible meanings of the big white elephants within the story and the context of its usage.

Considering that Hemingway narrates his story in an interrupted manner, the varying meanings of symbolism could not be extracted from the sub-context. Ranner (1995) is categorical that the usage of the “hill like white elephant” is symbolic hence should not be taken in the literal sense if at all substantial meaning is to be accrued from the story. Having shed much light on the possible meanings of the figurative term following an imminent lack of communication in main characters’ subsequent dialogue, it is apparent that Jig the controversial term “hill like white elephants” to refer to herself given that she was pregnant with American’s baby although her pregnancy does not come out directly from the story.

In support of Ranner’s interpretation of the symbolic “the big white elephant” and the “hill”, Smiley Peters (2007) associates the resultant image of a big white elephant to swollen abdomen and enlarged breasts of a pregnant white woman. Furthermore, Smiley refers back to the Indian literature where white elephants are symbolic of fertility, prestige and unlimited privileges of the royals in a stratified society. For this reason, it could be deduced that the white elephant is definitely a figurative language used by Jig to communicate her bodily status in a clever manner to her lover American. Additionally, Smiley also believes that Jig compared her pregnancy with the hill because of the discontentment that came with it; the two no longer enjoy their mundane life of an endless travelling and irresponsible drinking to its fullness. In their own eyes, pregnancy is a hill which will deprive them of a roving entertainment.

Another thing that vexed the mind of the readers most in this story is their sheer inability to get the content of the dialogue between American and her girlfriend Jig despite their constant dialogue throughout the story. The two seems not to fully communicate with each other hence readers cannot get to know the content of their dialogue. In his explanation to this effect, Smiley (2007) reiterates that Hemingway employs an elaborate use of iceberg theory, also known as theory of omission, in the narration of story in all sections of the book. Under this writing style, the author simply presents incomplete bits of message of the story within the subtext intermittently thus no one can get the unfolding events before reading the story to its full length.

Based on the general context of book and the corresponding background of pregnancy, the widely talked about operation by the two characters (American and Jig) in the dialogue implies an abortion which is otherwise not mentioned anywhere in the story. Smiley therefore asserts that readers need an inner eye in order to understand the content of the conversation between the main characters in the story. Without reading of the entire book, accurate interpretation of symbolism, and relating different scenes of the book, not a single reader can understand the true meaning of the book as intended by the playwright Hemingway.

In conclusion, “the hills like the big white elephants” symbolize the pregnant Jig in the book while the muffling dialogue between American and Jig at the train station revolved around their plans to conduct abortion otherwise referred to as an operation. So the book is written in a figurative and symbolic language that readers must analyze to understand as illustrated in two scholarly works of Smiley Peters and Ranner Sylverdo.

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