illustration of train tracks with low hills in the background and one of the hills has the outline of an elephant within it

Hills Like White Elephants

by Ernest Hemingway

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Why is Hemingway's short story titled "Hills Like White Elephants"?

Quick answer:

The title of "Hills Like White Elephants" uses the symbol of the sacred white elephant to refer to something which might be seen as a valuable gift or an expensive burden, like the child to which the couple in the story obliquely refer.

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To understand the title of the short story "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway, it is important to isolate the central conflict in the story. A man and a woman are waiting for a train at an isolated station in the Ebro Valley in Spain. They have a series of drinks and talk together, and it soon becomes obvious that they are arguing.

This story is told in Hemingway's sparse style. He referred to it as the "iceberg" method of writing, which posited that a story would be strengthened if only a small portion is above the surface, and much that is important is implied but unstated. In "Hills Like White Elephants," the couple is on their way to Madrid so that the woman can get an abortion. She remains unsure about whether it is the right thing to do, and the man is trying to convince her to go through with it. Despite this being the central conflict of the story, Hemingway never mentions the word "abortion" and alludes to it only indirectly.

The man argues that the abortion is a simple procedure "just to let the air in," although in those days it was illegal and not at all as simple as he claims. It is obvious that he is making light of it so that the woman will agree to go through with it. The woman, on the other hand, is unsure about what she wants to do. She is concerned that things will not go back to normal for them afterwards either way. Her remark about the hills being like white elephants is a reflection of this.

She first alludes to the hills being like white elephants as a simple comparison while they are sipping their drinks, but even this remark stirs up a disagreement between them about whether or not the man has ever seen an elephant. As they continue to talk, their argument becomes more heated, and it becomes obvious that it is about the proposed abortion. When she says, "If I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it," what she is doing is asking for a confirmation that if she goes through with the abortion, then things will return to the way they were between them. The "hills like white elephants," of the title, then, stands for the fanciful life that they had before she got pregnant, that she hopes that they can go back to but somehow realizes that they probably never will.

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"Hills Like White Elephants" is a striking and memorable title, which contains a double-edged symbol. The rare white elephant was a sacred animal in South and Southeast Asian cultures, and the King of Siam, in particular, used to give them to courtiers who had earned his special favor. However, because these white elephants were so prized, the rituals surrounding their care and maintenance were exacting and consequently expensive. Unless the courtier was fantastically rich, he might well be ruined by such a gift. It was said that, when this became apparent to the king, he began to give white elephants only to those he disliked, as a punishment and a burden. The phrase "white elephant" in English now refers to something useless, expensive, and burdensome.

The man and the girl in Hemingway's story have different views about parenthood. The girl sees a child as a gift of something sacred, corresponding to the original meaning of the white elephant in the culture of Siam. However, the man views the prospect of having a child as being burdened with a white elephant in the modern sense, an encumbrance which will only make his life worse. The title, therefore, contains a symbol which manages to encapsulate the opposing viewpoints of both main characters.

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This is an interesting question that has more than one answer. The best and most accurate way to understand Hemingway's title is as a double symbol that also represents the overarching theme of the story. First: The title represents Jig's interior references to "hills like white elephants," thus pointing out the main meaning and overarching theme. In other words, that Jig speaks of "white elephants" is a central motif and a central theme of the story that is pointed to and emphasized by the title; thus "white elephants" is the key titular phrase that unlocks the deepest meaning of the story.

Second: "Hills like white elephants" is a double symbol: it symbolizes two things, one of which also symbolizes the other thing. You might think of this double-compound symbol as one umbrella with two people sharing it.

To begin with, "white elephants" are a symbol for that which is holy and sacred. White elephants are a rare kind of elephant, which are not Albinos, that are held sacred in some countries, like India, and in some religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism. Thus the "hills like white elephants" represent a natural monument (hills) that is sacred and powerfully good.

To go one step further into the second symbol, the "hills like white elephants"--now tagged symbolically as sacred and good--symbolize Jig's pregnancy, the natural monumental event that is also an obstacle to advancing along life's path, just as hills can be obstacles on journeys. Now we have two closely related symbols underneath the representative "umbrella" of the title.

Therefore, Hemingway uses the title "Hills Like White Elephants" to point out the deepest meaning of the story; to symbolize the sacred nature of propagating children; to symbolize the pregnancy that is being debated by the American man and Jig. 

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Is the title "Hills Like White Elephants" symbolism or a metaphor?

In order for something to be a symbol, it must be have both literal meaning and figurative meaning. Therefore, there would actually have to be white elephants present in some literal way, and then they'd have to carry some figurative meaning on top of that (such as referring to something that is generally unwanted, or a burden, as other educators have said), in order to function as a symbol. Since there is no literal white elephant, it is not a symbol.

That being said, a simile is, technically speaking, literal, because a simile only says that something is like or as something else, not that it is something else (as a metaphor does). If the title of the story were "The Hills Are White Elephants," this would be a clear-cut metaphor). At the same time, however, I have sometimes seen the simile, as a figure of speech, lumped in under the broader category of "metaphor" because similes are similar to, though less powerful than, strict metaphors. Therefore, if you are only given two options—either symbolic or metaphorical—I would place the title in the metaphorical category.

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Is the title "Hills Like White Elephants" symbolism or a metaphor?

Because this title contains the word "like," it is technically a simile. Any comparison using like or as qualifies as a simile. On a deeper level, however, the "white elephants" within the title are actually symbols.

They represent anything that is not wanted, be that a pregnancy, a child, or something else entirely. Inasmuch as the white elephants represent an abstract concept, they qualify as symbols: one concrete thing standing for something less tangible.


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Is the title "Hills Like White Elephants" symbolism or a metaphor?

The expression itself, "hills like white elephants," is actually a simile, not a metaphor, since it uses "like." White elephants are used to refer to something unwanted or undesired. In this context, they are also symbolic in the story of her undesired pregnancy. The story also develops the relationship between the man and the woman. She isn't convinced that she wants to have the abortion, and he wants her to have it, and pressures her to have it, all the while he says that the choice is hers.

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Why does Hemingway use "Hills Like White Elephants" for his title?

The hills represent objectification and symbolize permanency while simultaneously symbolizing illusion, specifically, the illusion of how one thing can be reminiscent of another wholly dissimilar thing.

Hemingway chose this representation and symbol for the story title because the story's themes include

  • objective point of view and objectification of an issue.
  • the question of permanency in seemingly impermanent post-World War life.
  • illusion and illusionary relationships.

It is "the girl," Jig, who sits gazing at the hills and seeing in them reminiscence of other unrelated things. First, however, the narrator introduces the hills as the first and foremost part of the setting:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees ....

Then Jig is shown by Hemingway as being preoccupied with the hills: "The girl was looking off at the line of hills." In her distancing preoccupation, she identifies the hills with something whimsical and far-fetched: "They look like white elephants." Jig's preoccupation is in part escapism and in part distancing and in part, perhaps, also yearning, too.

She escapes the saddening conversation about the unstated topic by submerging herself in daydreams about the hills as one might submerge oneself in daydreams about clouds. She distances herself from the topic and conversation and from "the American" by gazing at, thinking about, and talking idly about the distant, illusionary hills.

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

Permanency and illusion represent the relationship Jig has with the American man. The longest exchange of dialogue in the story begins with a repetition of whether or not they can "have everything," with Jig quietly insisting that they cannot have because it is taken away. Jig insists their happiness has no permanency.

Illusion applies to the hills--their illusion of being like "white elephants"--and to the relationship between Jig and the man. The illusion of their relationship is revealed to Jig and to us when he slips and says "if it means anything to you." Jig, noticing, asks, "Doesn’t it mean anything to you?" His reply continues the illusion, "Of course it does," then shatters it again, "And I know it's perfectly simple."

In summary, Hemingway chose the title for all that it represents and symbolizes, especially as it symbolizes the illusionary and impermanent nature of the man's relationship with Jig and the opportunity created in which they "could get along."

As an aside, the issue of abortion is pinpointed as the man describes the "procedure," a description that fits abortion as performed in that era. Also, Jig is drinking beer and absinthe because it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that significant attention was given to whether pregnant women should or should not drink. This story is set in the post-World War I era as it was first published in 1926.

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Why is the title "Hills Like White Elephants"?

There are several reasons Hemingway selected this title for this story. The less important ones are the functional (maybe the hills really looked like this), and some of the lesser symbolism of the elephant (it is really big, and doesn't forget, and the thing they are talking about is very important and they'll never forget it).

The main reason, though, is the meaning of the phrase "white elephant." A white elephant is a possession, often a gift, that is expensive and hard to get rid of, but not something the recipient wants. Since the couple is talking about abortion, the title refers to that.


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