What role does setting play in William Faulkner's “A Rose for Emily” and Ernest Hemingway's “Hills Like White Elephants"? How does it affect the plot and characters? What quotes support this?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," the setting/environment of the South plays an intricate cultural and existential role in the life of the main character, Miss Emily Grierson. But in Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," the setting of the story takes on a symbolic role for the main characters.

  • "A Rose for Emily"

The renowned British writer W. Somerset Maugham wrote, 

It is very difficult to know people. For men and women are not only themselves, they are also the region in which they are born, [where] they learned to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives' tales they overheard...the schools they attended...the poets they read, and the God they believed in. 

This insight of Maugham's is certainly applicable to the character of Miss Emily Grierson of "A Rose for Emily." It is difficult for some of the townspeople to understand Miss Emily. Time has passed her by; she is a relic of the region and culture of the Old South, a culture controlled by patriarchy and Jim Crow. Using an example of this perception of Emily Grierson as a product of her culture, the narrator reflects that after she dies, she is "a fallen monument."

...only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay.... Miss Emily had gone to join the representatives of those august names where they lay in in the cedar-bemused cemetery among the ranked and anonymous graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who fell at the battle of Jefferson. 

That Emily is so much a "monument" of the post–Civil War culture is further demonstrated by her attitude toward the aldermen as they approach her for payment of her taxes. Still dwelling in the Old South in her mind, she tells them, "I have no taxes," because her father had made an arrangement with Colonel Sartoris, who was then the mayor.
That she lived under the patriarchy of her father is further demonstrated by Miss Emily's not having married; her stern patriarch "vanquished" any suitors because he felt they were not suitable. Indeed, the portrait of Emily and her father when she was a girl reveals their relationship: she is in the background and her father a looming figure in the foreground, "his back to her and clutching a horse whip."

When Emily's father dies, the ladies of town come to her house to offer condolences. However, Emily meets them at the door and tells them that her father is not dead. After three days of ministers and doctors visiting her, Miss Emily finally breaks down, and her father, under whose shadow she lived, is quickly buried.

With the death of her father, Emily begins to be seen with a Northerner, a Mr. Homer Barron. As she continues to see Mr. Barron, the townspeople gossip. Finally, the Baptist minister "calls upon" Emily because some of the citizens find Emily's behavior disturbing. Even relatives from Alabama are sent for in order to dissuade Miss Emily from being seen with the likes of Barron--an action "unbecoming" to a Southern lady. 
Further, after "the old Negro servant" admits Homer at the back entrance one evening, Barron is seen no more and Miss Emily becomes very reclusive. Then, a strange odor emanates from the house. However, when the neighbors complain, a younger alderman suggests that word be sent to Miss Emily to get rid of the smell. One old Southerner is angered at this affront to Miss Emily Grierson:

"Dammit, sir," Judge Stevens said, "will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?"

Again, Emily retreats into her Old South environment as she gives China painting lessons. But when these girls who have been her students grow up, no one else comes to the old Grierson home. Not long afterwards, Emily dies. In attendance at her funeral are very old men--

...some in their brushed Confederate uniforms...talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her, perhaps....

Miss Emily, an anachronism, the narrator notes, has passed from generation to generation in a setting that has been impervious to time.

  • "Hills Like White Elephants"

Symbolism is intrinsic to the narrative of Hemingway's short story. Certainly the dialogue is minimal and the characters limited. In fact, one of the characters is not even given a name.

The narrative revolves around a conversation between lovers, the American and a girl named Jig, as they sit at a table outside the railroad station building. The train tracks that go between Barcelona and Madrid, Spain, create a separation of the terrain. On one side "there was no shade and no trees"; on the other "were fields of grain and trees along the bank of the Ebro." The contrast between barren land and that which is fertile on the two sides of the tracks are symbolic of the outcome of the decision the girl faces. She and the man discuss her having an abortion.

Because the young man does not want to be a father, he tells his lover, "We can have the whole world." However, she disagrees, "No, we can't." She contends that the world is not theirs any more because "once they take it away, you never get it back." She, of course, contemplates having a baby or not having a baby as well as the selfishness of her lover, while the man thinks only of a procedure. Truly, they are divided, just as the land around them is divided.

The division between the fertile land and the barren white hills symbolizes the dichotomy of death and life that the girl's choice involves. Interestingly, while the man remains at the table on the side with the hills that are like white elephants, a term used at times for objects no one wants, the girl named Jig walks around so that she can view the scenery on the other side where there are fields of grain and trees. Significantly, "a shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain..." as she looks out.

This shadow signifies to the girl that whether or not she has the "operation," everything will not be fine, although the man says it will. She "looks across at the hills on the dry side of the valley..." knowing that the relationship is over. Thus the setting has taken on a symbolic role in this narrative.

Read the study guide:
Hills Like White Elephants

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