"More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read"

- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The White Elephant in the Room

Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants is essentially a short story about an American man and a pregnant girl from Spain named Jig. The two are sitting in a rail station waiting for the train to Madrid. Whilst they wait, an intense, ongoing discussion about whether or not Jig should get an abortion ensues. At the end, the train is about to arrive and the man carries the baggage to the tracks as they prepare to depart. The ending leaves us unclear about the outcome of her decision. She says, “I feel fine”—her happiness is a central theme of the story, but we are left to wonder about the decision she has made. Of the many symbols, I believe the three most important are the hills, white elephants, and the railroad station. Hemingway uses these elements to develop the theme of the story.  The theme is about how Jig sees the possibility of keeping her child and having a happy life, while the man fails to see the possibilities and works to persuade her to go through with the operation.
Jig looked at the hills and said, “They look like white elephants.”  The man replied, “I've never seen one,” then she concludes, “No, you wouldn’t have.” The hills symbolize big obstacles that we must climb, but they are not enormous mountains; a newborn is a major obstacle in her life, but also one that she can overcome. Hills are also vantage points, but consequently block the view for those who dwell in the valley. This can be representative of how Jig can look at the hills and see opportunity, while the man looks at the hills and sees only a landscape—perhaps he dwells in the valley and his vision for her of a successful and happy future is obscured. Hills are also beautiful, natural, and completely stationary. This shows how settling down is a necessity with a baby. It also shows that being pregnant is no small task.  Regardless of the girl’s decision, it is not something that she will soon forget. Hemingway may have chosen to use hills because a pregnant mother’s belly is comparable to a hill; also, being pregnant restricts a mother in many ways—it limits her mobility and makes her more complacent. At one point, Jig looks at the scenery and says, “And we could have all this” (640).  Jig says this because hills represent the challenge, new life, and possibility. While Jig sits down and looks at the hills, she sees opportunity and is considering the possibility of her first newborn. 
The element of white elephants is symbolic of the baby.  A “white elephant” is an item that has a cost of maintaining that usually surpasses its usefulness. For example, a person may give a “white elephant” gift to someone as a joke; a gravy boat for a bachelor, a fur coat for someone who lives in Florida, a leash and collar for someone who hates dogs, or a ketchup popsicle for someone wearing white gloves. The gift is not of much use to the recipient. This is the reality of what Jig is going through. She has received a gift which is, in her youth, unexpected and frightening. It is also a gift, though, that could be priceless to another.  Hemingway uses this play of words to develop the idea of Jig’s choice to have the child. The man said that he had never seen a white elephant before. This is because he is not open to considering the possibility of keeping the child and he wants the girl to have the abortion. 
The element of the railroad station is symbolic of being at the crossroads of life during a time of crisis. The American man and the girl cannot stay at the station forever. They are traveling and there will be change. There must be a decision of where to go next. All of this is symbolic of the decision of whether or not to keep the child. Traveling has a cost and so does the outcome of this decision. Either keeping or aborting the child is detrimental to her psyche and her pocket-book. Toward the end, when the man picks up their baggage and carries it out to the railroad tracks, the tension of the story begins to become relieved. The girl claims to be fine and we meet our open-ending.
To conclude, Hills Like White Elephants is a story about crisis and growing up, and how the two are synonymous with each other. The American man offers a solution and Jig has to weigh each decision with a heavy heart. The idea that there is no easy way out is a big part of becoming an adult.  Even deciding not to decide is a decision, and most of us can easily relate to being in that type of situation.