Order now

“Hills Like White Elephants” Essay: Summary & Analysis

This essay describes the main points of “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway and the symbolism behind the story. This short story is written in a unique style and symbolism plays a very important role in it, so the literary analysis will mostly focus on symbols used by the author.


This short story mostly consists of a conversation. A woman sits in a cafe with her partner and they talk. At some point, the woman looks out of the window and sees the hills. She says that the hills look like white elephants. Such a strange comparison is just one of many symbols used by Ernest Hemingway in this short story. “Hills Like White Elephants” is overloaded with symbolism.

“Hills Like White Elephants:” Summary

Although the author doesn’t indicate the subject of the conversation, we can quickly understand that the couple talks about getting an abortion. The woman is reluctant to do it but the man wants her to agree to the operation. The story basically consists of dialogue so it has a peculiar structure, and the author needed to approach this story creatively to fill the gaps and make the dialogue more meaningful.

Ernest Hemingway actively used symbols to help readers understand how characters feel and what they think about the situation. At the beginning of the story, we see a description of the surroundings. There are no trees around, so the author uses the surroundings to highlight the topic of fertility and illustrate the path that the woman is about to take.

Although Hemingway doesn’t indicate what the couple is talking about, readers can figure out the subject by reading the man’s words. He says that it’s an “awfully simple operation” so we can see that he wants his partner to get an abortion but he doesn’t insist that she do it directly because he doesn’t want to feel guilty about forcing her. We can see such words as “operation,” “everything is going to be alright,” and so on, so there’s no doubt what the conversation is about.

When the woman sees the hills, she notes that they look like white elephants, and this image can have multiple meanings. The couple doesn’t indicate the subject of their conversation directly but they cannot avoid it. Like an elephant that’s impossible to ignore, the woman’s pregnancy is something they both know about, and yet they try to pretend that they don’t see this elephant in the room and just talk about some “operation,” with no specific details. It’s obvious that the man doesn’t want the woman to keep the baby and that the couple might likely break up if she doesn’t get an abortion.

“Hills Like White Elephants:” Literary Analysis

This short story is packed with various symbols. For instance, the image of a white elephant might resemble the woman’s breasts and abdomen when she’s pregnant. The hills have a pale white shining, which reminds us of an infant’s skin. The main characters of this story have a conversation at a train station, which symbolizes a point in between two realities or possibilities. There is a barren on one side and green trees on the other. The author could use such a background to illustrate the possible consequences of the woman’s choice or to highlight the separation between her and the man.

The phrase “hills like white elephants,” which is the title of the short story, appears in the conversation very frequently. It is mentioned for the first time when the woman looks out of the window and the man replies that he’s never seen a white elephant in his life. The woman replies, “No, you wouldn’t have,” suggesting that the man tends to ignore things that are inconvenient for him. In this case, the white elephant is the responsibility that he wants to avoid. He doesn’t want to take care of a child, and it’s easy to see that the couple has already discussed this issue before. The woman’s sarcasm tells us that she’s not happy with being forced to get an abortion.

The white elephants appear in the dialogue to change its direction, as after the woman mentions them, the couple starts to talk about each other’s attitude towards the possible abortion. The white elephants perform an important verbal function because their conversation is no longer a dispute. The author doesn’t mention white elephants after this dialogue. Not only do white elephants serve as a metaphor for the issues that the man wants to ignore, but they also depict an idea of loneliness that neither the man nor the woman want to think about. Nevertheless, we can see that their relationship has reached a tipping point, and they may not stay together.

The structure of this short story is quite similar to a dramatic text because Hemingway decided to reduce all the descriptions to a bare minimum and put verbal communication between the characters in the spotlight instead. As for non-verbal communication, it only happens twice, when the woman smiles. First, she smiles at the waitress, and then she smiles at the end of the story when the man asks her if she’s fine. She smiles and replies that she feels great. Obviously, there’s no genuine connection between the two anymore.

Another non-verbal aspect of the conversation is a lack of eye contact. The woman looks away and doesn’t look her companion in the eye. During the conversation, she looks at the hills, and the author describes her observations in detail, while the man’s eyes are only mentioned twice throughout the story. The author mentions that his eyes are not communicating confidence, and yet he keeps insisting that he’s right. Eventually, the woman asks him to just stop talking, and then his sight switches to their suitcases. The way he looks at the suitcases suggests that he’s considering a compromise.


“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway is a short story filled with symbolism. Many readers realize that they need to read this short story a few times to understand the hidden meaning behind the symbols and better understand the relationship of the two main characters. The author wanted his readers to read between the lines, and the abundance of symbols makes this short story easy to interpret in different ways, depending on the reader’s perspective.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephant”. Short Fiction: Classic and Contemporary. Ed. Charles Bohner and Lyman Grant. 6th ed. USA: Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.