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This short story is filled with symbolism, some of which the reader may never find. The title itself can be analyzed a lot deeper. The “hills” refers to the shape of the female body during pregnancy and the “white elephants” symbolize a property requiring much care and expense and yielding little profit (merriam-webster.com). The story is about a man and a woman taking a train to get an abortion. The train is supposed to show change and movement, something this couple appears to need because their life is very routine.
The reader is told that there is a curtain made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The bamboo beads not only keep them from their problems (known as flies) but it also keeps their lives separate from all of the other people at the bar. Hemingway then tells the reader that the train will stop at this junction for two minutes and then go to Madrid. The train only stopping for two minutes is to show the importance of the girl’s decision to have the abortion. It is a big decision and there is not that much time for her to sit around and think about it.
The guy and the girl are now sitting at a bar deciding what they should drink. The girl takes off her hat and puts it on the table. This action symbolizes her putting her feelings on the table to talk about them with the man. Instead of coming straight out and talking about the problems the couple decides to drink beer. The act of consuming alcohol is another way for them to run away from their problems. Later on, the man and the woman are talking and the woman says, “They look like white elephants.” He replies to her comment by saying, “I’ve never seen one.
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The couple continues to drink throughout the story. At one point the girl shows that she has some faith in what the man thinks by asking him what way they should drink their drinks, with or without water. The couple then orders two Anis del Toro. This is a new drink to the woman, so like any curious drinker she wonders what it will taste like. She hopes that the drink will taste different than others she has tried but finds that it tastes like licorice. The girl then says, “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” When she says this it refers to how she thought that this relationship would be different than others, but once she got into it she realized that he is just like all the other guys she has dated in the past. Later in the story she adds to this feeling of repetition by saying, “That’s all we do, isn’t it- look at things and try new drinks.” She really seems to be bored with the same things this relationship continues to produce.
Alcohol continues to be a factor in this story. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Hemingway seemed to deal with a lot of his problems by drinking. The couple orders more drinks and continues to try and discuss the issue of the abortion. “It is really an awfully simple operation, Jig. It’s not really an operation at all.” These are the unfelt words from the man to the girl. He looks at the abortion as a simple operation, not as taking a future persons life. It is also reveled at this point that the girl’s name is Jig, a name meaning to move with rapid jerky motions. This name might revel something to her actions with males. The man says that for the operation “They just let the air in,” basically inferring that it is as easy as opening a window. He also seems to refer to the pregnancy as a problem; “We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before. That’s the only thing that bothers us.”
It is assumed by both parties in this relationship that there are only supposed to be two people in this relationship. “The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.” There are only two beads in her hand; this doesn’t include room for another person in this relationship. She later shows that she doesn’t really know if she wants to go through with this operation, perhaps she does want the baby to enter the relationship. “And once they take it away, you never get it back.”
At the end of the story the man reveals that he doesn’t want to have the kid because it will prohibit their current lifestyle of carefree travel. “There were labels on them [the bags] from all the hotels where they had spent nights.” The man is happy with his lifestyle, and having this child would inhibit him from continuing. He feels that if they have the child that he will be locked into their relationship and will never be able to enjoy his light-hearted life again.
It isn’t really easy to understand this story because it is only told in a small amount of time. Hemingway doesn’t tell you about the characters pasts or futures, the story is all about the present. Even at the end of the story he doesn’t tell you how the couple decides to deal with this issue, instead he leaves that up to the reader. The main description in the story is his symbolism, once again inferring that Hemingway leaves the stories plot to the reader. These stories require more effort from the reader, but seem to turn out differently for ever reader making them a bit more interesting.