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Linda E. Newman

English 101

Shelton State Community College

July 18, 2005

Seeing White Elephants: Hemingway’s Symbolism Within The Setting

“One ship drives east, and another west,


With the self-same winds that blow;
Tis’ the set of sails, and not the gales,
Which decides the way we go…”
-Julie Marcum, Relationships Alive

Relationships are, most will agree, the main ingredient to procreation. To date, scientific

research has indicated time and time again that love, affection, and the emotional attachments

that surround a man and a woman are exclusive to human beings alone. It is these very

relationships that keep the planet populated. But the uncertainty and doubt that comes pre-

packaged with the gift of emotional awareness can sometimes lead to trouble within this “master

plan.” In his short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” author Ernest Hemingway examines the

effect such variables have on both relationships and major life decisions. Using symbolic

elements within the setting of his work, Hemingway subtly but effectively emphasizes the clear

separation of thought in a tension-filled, life or death situation facing an older American man and

his pregnant young lover, Jig.

The symbolism begins as the story does. Located in the valley of the Ebro between Madrid

and Barcelona, the train station at which the lovers wait is in full view of hills that are “long and

white,” as described in the opening sentence. Later, when Jig comments that “[t]hey look like

white elephants,” her statement becomes the initial precipitator of the conflict that separates

them. Miriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the term “white elephant” as “something of little of
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no value to its owner.” When her American lover responds that he has never seen a white

elephant, Jig automatically retorts “[n]o, you wouldn’t have.” Thus, the white hills serve their

purpose by instigating dialogue that shows a clear separation of the two characters’ differing

viewpoints on the impending abortion. While her nameless companion sees the unborn child as

an inconsequential burden, Jig’s position seems to be that life itself, and the promise of certain

things it brings, has much potential value indeed. Her repetitive commentary on the hills

appearance reveals the inner struggle she faces, waging the value of the life inside of her against

the value of her relationship with her lover.

Secondly, the curtain “made of strings and bamboo beads” that hangs across the door to the

bar serves a symbolic purpose in the story by representing both the division between them, as

well as the uncertain future of their relationship. The curtain plays the symbolic role of barrier—

representing the protective wall that Jig has put up to protect both her and her unborn child. As

the conversation begins to localize on the topic of her abortion, Jig “put[s] her hand out and

[takes] hold of two of the strings of beads,” as she is conversing with her companion. This sets

up the barrier itself. More importantly, the two individual strands themselves represent the

relationship between the two, while the beads that encircle them represent the baby. Without the

beads, the strands would be barren, worthless—merely dangling strings. Jig’s focus on them

betrays the instability of their relationship, as well as the unknown consequences of either route

on their future as a couple.

Even more effective than the emphasis on the white hills and beaded curtain, however, is the

way Hemingway draws attention to the two contrasting sides of the valley in which the train

station sits, and the tracks that run through the middle. Once again, this symbolic aspect of the

setting helps to reinforce the central conflict between the two travelers surrounding the decision
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that must be made. One side of the valley is bleak and barren with “no shade and no trees.” It is

a desert landscape, lacking life or any hint of animation. This side represents the American

man’s position, and symbolizes the deadly consequences of abortion. The opposite side, where

there are “fields of grain and trees,” a “river,” and “mountains,” is lush with vegetation and

vitality. Marking Jig’s position, this side symbolizes life and stability, betraying Jig’s desire to

have the child and settle down in a permanent, loving relationship—as solid, one might say, as

the mountains in the distance. The train tracks that divide them clearly symbolize Jig and her

companion as conjoined but with stark differences. Running parallel, but each in an opposite

direction, one track is closer to the emptiness of death, while the other borders the fullness of

life.

Although Hemingway does not overemphasize the setting of his story, his references to it are

nearly always symbolic when examining the clear separation between the two characters within

the conflict they both face. The hills, the curtain, and the mere geography of the location all

contribute powerfully to the story’s impact and effectiveness. Hemingway is famous for his

crisp, bare-bones style, and well-known for his refusal simply to tell the reader how to react to

his stories’ characters and events. Nevertheless, as his use of the setting in “Hills Like White

Elephants” indicates, he was fully capable of exploiting the symbolic dimensions of language to

make his stories richer and full of deeper meaning. And it is in examining his use of such literary

devices that helps one appreciate one more aspect of a great man’s brilliant artistry.
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Like many of Dickinson’s other poems, “I Felt a Funeral in my Brain” explores the workings

of the human mind under stress and attempts to metaphorically replicate the stages of a mental

breakdown through the uses of a funeral, mourners, and a wooden plank. The author uses the

common rituals of a funeral to mark the stages of the speaker’s mental collapse until she faces a

destruction that no words can articulate. The event that this funeral is used to describe, however,

does not necessarily have to be a mental breakdown—it could be the mind’s inability to cope

with pressures from the outside world, or a situation in which one is assaulted by an idea that

threatens to destroy all of his or her dearly held assumptions. The poem’s ambiguity allows for

multiple interpretations, all of which, however, converge on the idea that the speaker’s mind is

ceremoniously laid to rest by the poem’s conclusion.


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Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and

Sense, Seventh Edition. Ed. Michael Rosenberg. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College

Publishers, 1998. 612.

“On 280—I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Modern American Poetry 1.1-10 (2002). 23 February

2005 <http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickinson/280.htm>.