Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" relies on symbolism to carry the theme of either choosing to live selfishly and dealing with the results, or choosing a more difficult and selfless path and reveling in the rewards. The symbolic materials and the symbolic characters aid the reader's understanding of the subtle theme of this story. The hills symbolize two different decisions that the pregnant girl in our story is faced with. Both hills are completely opposite of each other, and each "hill" or decision has a consequence that is just as different as the appearance of the hills.
Hemingway uses drinking, the hillsides, and a railroad track between the two hills to help convey his theme. The beer in this story is used to represent the couple's usual recreational activity to that they do together. Their recreational activity bothers the girl because "that's all [they] do … look at things and try new drinks." This gives the reader some suspicion that the girl has grown tired of doing the same things over and over again and would like to do something different, like getting married and starting a family instead of goofing off all the time. She wants to stop behaving like an adolescent girl and become a woman. These desires and feelings show that the girl is ready and desiring a change, however her male partner doesn't seem at all interested in changing his ways.
Hemingway presents the reader with two contrasting hills. One of the hills is dull, desolate, uninviting and barren, it was very much like a desert; "it had no shade and no trees." The other hill, however, is beautiful, plentiful in nature, and abundant. It had "fields of grain and tress along the banks of the Ebro River." A train track runs between these two hills, and this helps give the reader a sense of impending decision.
Symbolically, the girl can choose one "hill" or the other, and she is in the middle of the "track" weighing her options. The girl must choose what path she wants to take with her life. She can choose to abort her child and risk becoming barren and sterile, or, she can choose to keep her baby and her life will be plentiful and beautiful with the delight that children often bring to their parents. If she chooses to abort her baby, she will become like the barren hill, however, if she chooses to keep ...
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...woman on the train represents the wiser, older and mature person that the girl would like to be. She stands in contrast to the American and appeals to the girl's secret desires to grow up, and cease with the same old routines. The girl often talks about "having a fine time" and "trying new drinks." The woman is displayed as a mature, and older person who works instead of "having a fine time" and "trying new drinks." By her work she is contributing to the world more than she is taking from it. She is no longer attracted to the leisurely and selfish lifestyle. She is in an indirect supporting role to the girl because she is the opposite of what the American is and she represents someone that the girl would like to be.
In closing, the theme of this story is conveyed through the symbolism that Hemingway chose. Because of the symbolism in this story, the reader is able to understand the girl's inner conflict. Through the contrast of the hills and the American and the woman, we are able to see that the girl is neither like the American nor like the woman. She is like the railroad track sitting between the two hills trying to make up her mind, and follow a trail of her own choosing.
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