Symbolism of Colors and Places, an essay on “Hills Like White Elephants” by Tomasz Renkiel

Hills Like White Elephants” is one of these stories by Ernest Hemingway in which, among other, significant role, for the whole plot, is skillfully performed by colors and places. Like the majority of short stories written by Ernest Hemingway, it seems to be extracted from wider context, though comprehensible and – to some extent – clear. It has many things hidden inside the plot, which the potential reader has to guess and find its meaning reading between the lines. Young couple sits at the small railway station somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid waiting for their train which is to take them to the latter. Landscape surrounding them appears to be the resemblance of their characters, although on the other hand, it is rather the picture of their interpersonal relationship and attitude they show towards each other. Their conversation at some point seems to chaotic, what as well may be the reflection of their personalities. Their talks and ways they express themselves are poles apart to some extent, although they are probably a couple. And the colors of the environment surrounding this small station, as if lost within the Spanish landscape, the bareness and roughness of the ground burned by the sun beams is like a battlefield on which the whole story takes place.

The building of the station, as it is shown at the very beginning of the story, stands between two separate railways, as if two detached and isolated roads leading to different points

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler ( … )

(Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’)

The train pulls in this crossing, waits for a couple of minutes and goes on. The crossing may once again symbolize the diversity of characters within these people and, the state of being uncertain which way they should go. The lady watches the landscape, especially the hills that are colored white, what shows the contrast of the landscape. The ground is bare and dry, no trees around and one could feel the emptiness of this place, lacking any traces of life, as if deprived of it. She sees the hills and compare it to white elephants, animals that have never existed. White color of the hills can be read as the allegory of innocence, as a personification of live that has not been born yet and probably would never be born. White elephants, nothing but the creature of language or rather the product of her mind may stand out for the unborn baby, for the figure so unparalleled that hardly anyone could believe in its existence. The man says to her about the simplicity of ”that operation”, what we, readers can decipher as talking about abortion. And he says about it as if it was nothing but the piece of cake for her, the fact that she is going to get rid of something that she has not been given a birth to. When she compares the hills to white elephants his response is that he has never seen her. He could not, as she says later. He could not see since probably she did not want him to see. Their talk about ”white elephants” seems like blaming each other for the operation, and first of all blaming for whose decision it was. The innocence would be terminated in here, but for him it will not change anything between them. The only thing that troubles their mind, that takes all the joy of life and happiness away from them is the operation, and after it is done ( how simple it seems, once again ! ), their life together would be full of delight, satisfaction and pleasure.

However, the woman seems to have some doubts about what is going to happen, maybe because she is afraid of herself and of the metamorphosis that could take place ‘inside’ her. And here it comes, once again, the role played by the landscape in the story. This time it is the landscape as the counterpart of her doubts she has as for the operation. On one hand there is the whiteness of the hills but on the other the void and scarcity, the bareness and dryness of the ground. As well as the whiteness is a token of innocence that is to be assassinated, we could read the vision of the ground as her mind and body just after the intervention. The bare and scarce womb that has just been disposed of a fetus, the mind that has lost the part of its identity through the lost, unborn child. She does not know what to chose – either keeping the baby and probably suffer from some serious complications during pregnancy or undergoing an abortion which could possibly leave irremoveable traces and scars in her psyche , could make her body dry and void, and absolutely incapable of bearing children. She is in two minds, stands in the middle of nowhere ,as well as this railway station is placed in the middle of the territory resembling a desert, a place where hardly any life exists.

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken“)

Hills Like White Elephants

This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.

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There are 11 comments on this post

  1. Great essay man, after reading the short story a few times I also picked these symbolisms up. Except for the innocence represented by the color white, which she admires so much.

  2. “colors”+”hemingway”

  3. Hello, where can I get a copy of this short story? I really need it tomorrow and i just can’t find it in the internet. please help me.

  4. Hello, this was such a help!!

  5. What a great essay. Thanks for throwing Robert Frost in.

  6. Thank-you for this! We are studying this story in class now and your essay is a tremendous help.

  7. Weirdest thing: In 2002 I surfed onto this sight looking for guidance on this story and your post helped a ton…

    I think Hemmingway is a genius in using symbolism…it all depends on the reader’s level of insight and imagination. I’ve been scouring the net hoping to find an official statement by Hemmingway that confirms our interpretations of his poem.

    Click on my website link for my own literary analysis on the topic.

  8. it is a helpful analysis thenk you!

  9. Nice interpretation.

  10. You wrote: When she compares the hills to white elephants his response is that he has never seen her. He could not, as she says later. He could not see since probably she did not want him to see.

    I can’t agree. He is not refering to her, but to a white elephant. He clearly says, “I have never seen ONE,” after she says, “They look like white elephants.”
    I believe this is more of an allusion to the fact that they do not see the natural world the same. He doesn’t get her. She is maturing out of their relationship and seeing beyond the fun and alcohol. She sees, she “knows things.” He does not “see.”

  11. White elephants do exist though rare. And the other symobol of the white elephant is 1. a white elephant represented fertility in Buddhism 2. ever heard of a white elephant sale? Basically everything in the sale is useless. In India and Thailand the king would give farmer’s a white elephant as punishment becuase they could not use it for work (useless), and because it was a gift of the king they must care for it like they were caring for the king which drive someone the the “poor house” trying to care for.

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