Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” allows the reader to work through a difficult scenario alongside with the characters without having to project a specific stand on the issue. This is achieved through the use of numerous literary elements whereas the author never specifically tells the reader how to feel, what is happening, or how the characters choose to react. This leaves room for interpretation and personal assessment much like the topic at hand, abortion, is most often considered to be left for personal consideration. In other words, by not assigning directness to the story, Hemingway encouraged the readers to think for themselves even though the characters were struggling with their ability to do the same. Hemingway was able to discuss and encourage further discussion on the topic of abortion through the use of the literary elements of setting, characterization, and symbolism throughout the short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”
The first literary element that Hemingway uses to explore the cultural questions of abortion is the setting. Immediately, the reader is told that the characters are sitting at a train station and that “the station was between two lines of rails” (311). Hemingway points out that this is a junction point. By using a train station, Hemingway allows the reader to see the setting as somewhere that would represent movement or change. People make choices in life that also represent change and can easily recognize the setting as a place that would indicate that this is happening. The setting further explained that the choices were widely different and that walking to either end of the station would send the characters into an entirely different world. This was shown as the girl looked and saw that “across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the bank of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains” (313). This shows that, no matter where the characters look, they can see something different much like whatever decision they make will send them on a different path. There is no option sitting still or not making a decision. They cannot simply stay put in a train station and they cannot avoid making a decision regarding the unborn child. The train station, as a setting, shows that some form of decision must be made in order for life to keep moving.
The second literary element that Hemingway uses to bring out the topic of abortion is characterization. In this, the author is able to show both sides of the controversy as well as explore how an individual may come to alter their own perspective given a personal involvement. Additionally, Hemingway is able to show the varying view points from different cultures in relation to abortion when he refers to the female character as “the American girl” (311). This shows that it could be any girl with a Western view of the world and that the specific scenario was not as important as was the topic of conversation. The male character, however, is characterized by his focus on drinking, being young, and having “a fine time” (312). This is used to give the reader a place to lay the blame for the decision that is being made should they disagree with the outcome. However, both characters go through a transformation throughout the story that as they each try to determine what the other wants and if they can actually go through with the operation and “be all right and be happy” (313). By allowing the characters to have a recognizable starting point and go through acceptable conversation that leads to their final decision, the reader is given the opportunity to change as well.
The final literary element that will be discussed in relation to Hemingway’s handling of abortion is symbolism. This element is used strongly throughout the story as it allows the reader to interpret what is being said rather than being told directly by the author. This offers the ability for the individual to “see” the story through their own understanding of the symbols and prevents the author from having to take a direct stand on a controversial topic. For example, the first symbol that is brought to the reader’s attention is a curtain when the male character asks for beer “into the curtain” (311). A curtain can symbolize the fact that the conversation about the abortion should be private and that the decision is simply between the parents of the unborn child. It can also be viewed as a place to hide if the conversation is shameful and against the social acceptance. Another topic that was symbolized was change. This represents the female character as she changes her perspective on the abortion. Hemingway achieves this in two symbols. The first is when the “wind blew the bead curtain against the table” (312). Wind is often used to symbolize change. The second is when “the girl stood up and walked to the end of the station” (313). This simple movement across the station symbolized her change in direction and in her decision. Such symbols, in literature, are used to allow the reader to determine what that change means to them.
Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” discusses two individuals who are at a crossroad in life. This crossroad will determine whether they are parents or if they will attempt to go back to their normal life before the conception. As the characters go through this transformation, Hemingway uses the setting, characterization, and symbolism to allow the readers to personally experience the controversy alongside the characters. Each of these literary elements represent the author’s desire to present the topic without making a solid stand on either side of the controversy. The goal, then, becomes to make the readers connect with the characters in a way that could not happen without the use of these literary elements.
- Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” 1927. (Insert Book Name Here). 311-314. Print.