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The short story by Ernest Hemingway “Hills Like White Elephants” can be regarded as one of the best examples of the use of the iceberg principle and the role of landscape symbolism. The author manages to reveal the development of the woman’s character without revealing her ideas and thoughts. All the reader has is the landscape and the dialogue. The author depicts a short episode from a couple’s life.
The man (the American) is trying to persuade the woman named Jig to undergo an operation. The woman hesitates as she wants to start a new life which is meaningful and complete. The woman soon becomes reluctant to continue the conversation. She focuses on the landscape to avoid talking about the matter.
The author does not reveal the decision made by the two. The conversation stops abruptly. However, it is rather clear that the woman makes up her mind. The author makes it clear that the woman undergoes some important changes during this short conversation.
The Iceberg Principle and the Landscape Symbolism
The iceberg principle makes the story really expressive. The author manages to say about the two people’s conflict without mentioning the exact reason of the argument. Likewise, the author never explicitly depicts the woman’s thoughts. He does not even describe her actions. There is a kind of motion picture which enables the reader to see the facts. Ironically, this specific incompleteness makes the reader clearly see the change that takes place in the woman’s head.
First, the woman tries to discuss the situation and she keeps asking: “Then what will we do afterwards?” (Hemingway, 1927, p. 230). However, soon the woman stops arguing: “Can’t we maybe stop talking?” (Hemingway, 1927, p. 231) These words signal that the girl needs to think.
She is focused on her own thoughts and she does not want to let the man in her world. She simply gazes at the hills thinking over the issue. The author does not depict her face. He does not reveal her thoughts. However, it is clear that the woman manages to make up her mind. Her nervousness is gone as she knows the right answer to her questions. Her smiling at the end of the story suggests that she has made the decision, which has nothing to do with the man’s arguments or his desires. She is calm and content.
Apart from intensity achieved with the help of the famous principle, the author makes use of landscape symbolism to reveal the change in the woman. Thus, she looks at the “line of the hills”, and the hills are “white in the sun” (Hemingway, 1927, p. 229). The hills perform several roles.
However, in the first place, the hills can be seen as the symbol of pregnancy. Thus, the pregnant woman who is trying to make up her mind looks at the hills and sees white elephants as her mind returns to the issue over and over again: “They look like white elephants” (Hemingway, 1927, p. 229).
On the other hand, the white elephants can be regarded as the woman’s own world. They can be seen as her way to escape from the necessity to make the difficult decision or even the necessity to talk about it. In fact, Jig starts speaking about the white elephants to start some kind of talk. She knows that the conversation is inevitable, but she wants to postpone it making the man think of other things. She starts their conversation with a rather bewildering phrase: “They look like white elephants” (Hemingway, 1927, p.229).
She continues referring to the hills throughout their entire conversation. The woman is trying to avoid speaking about the matter: “The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station” (Hemingway, 1927, p. 231). The woman tries to plunge into the world of calmness and beauty. She admires the majestic hills which make her feel better. Whenever she looks at the hills, she becomes more confident and she starts seeing things clearer.
Furthermore, the white hills can be regarded as a sign that helps the woman to make the right decision. The landscape is so right. It is so calm and easy. There is nothing more natural than the view of the beautiful hills. The woman “looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley” and this is the moment she understands everything (Hemingway, 1927, p. 231).
This is the moment when the woman gets enchanted by the calm beauty of the hills. This is the moment when she changes. She becomes confident and she understands that she does not want to listen to the man. She wants to feel what is really important. She wants to take in the power of the majestic hills.
Thus, the landscape plays rather essential role in the short story as it inspires the woman to make the right decision. The reader can also follow the changes taking place in the woman’s character. Obviously, the landscape is the symbol of nature and natural things like having a baby.
The pure beauty of the hills makes the woman feel better. She finally understands: “There is nothing wrong with me” (Hemingway, 1927, p. 231). The landscape makes the woman solve the issue. The woman accepts her mission in this world. She is ready to make her choice and make her life meaningful.
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Remarkably, the author enhances this idea of the rightness contrasting two pictures. The woman inevitably compares her present life which is nothing more but looking “at things” and trying “new drinks” and her possible future life filled with meaning (Hemingway, 1927, p. 230).
The bags symbolize her present and hills symbolize her possible future. The girl makes up her mind and her decision is clear. The man is preoccupied with the bags taking them “over to the other side of the station” (Hemingway, 1927, p. 232). However, the woman keeps looking at the hills. She definitely chooses the meaningful life. She is going to let the man go if necessary. She is committed to start a new better life which is as majestic as the hills resembling white elephants.
To sum up, the short story is one of the finest examples of the role of landscape symbolism and Hemingway’s iceberg principle. The author does not say explicitly what the problem is. This makes the story more expressive. The reader is free to make any conclusions and evaluate the problem in any way. This freedom makes the short story so strong.
More importantly, the author uses really expressive symbols. The hills (the nature itself) make the woman change. Thus, a carefree girl having a meaningless life turns into the mature woman who is ready to make the right decision and to feel her life with meaning. The reader can trace the change which is taking place in the woman’s character. The hills which are calm and pure make the woman strong and committed.
Hemingway, E. (1927). Hills like white elephants. Retrieved from Hamilton Elementary Web site: https://www.hamiltoncps.org/