Communication in Hills Like White Elephants By Hemmingway

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Communication is an essential skill in all facets of life, from personal to professional. When people do not communicate clearly it can lead to misunderstandings on many fronts. In personal life, not communicating feelings and opinions can become the fatal downfall of a relationship. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” Ernest Hemmingway uses symbolism to illustrate that the American and the girl are talking but are avoiding communicating their feelings and opinions on the operation in order to highlight the importance of clear communication. The symbol of elephants is used within the story to describe the unborn baby without mentioning it by name. This shows that the girl is uncomfortable honestly communicating their opinions on the subject and instead uses an elephant as a way to express her emotions. In the story, the American and the girl are discussing whether or not the girl should have a procedure (presumably an abortion) while waiting on a train to Barcelona. The girl initially brings up the procedure by saying that the hills “look like white elephants” (Hemmingway 202).

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Although she is not specific as to what she is discussing the American understands because the term white elephant is used to refer to a useless or troublesome possession especially one that is expensive to maintain. The American initially ignores her remark so she continues stating that they “don’t really look like white elephants,” meaning that she wants to keep the baby (203). However, the American does not understand what she is trying to express to him by redacting her previous statement, instead, he expresses how “simple” the operation is and that they will be “fine” afterward (203). The symbol of the elephant also serves a second purpose coming from the term “the elephant in the room,” both characters know what they are discussing but neither feel comfortable explicitly stating how they feel about the situation. In either instance, the elephant illustrates that the couple is not clearly communicating their feelings on the procedure and instead relying on one another to understand the cryptic messages that they are trying to share.

The use of alcohol as a symbol within the story helps to further illustrate the awkwardness the couple feels with the conversation. Many people drink alcohol to ease their mind or feel less awkward in social situations, similarly, the couple is utilizing alcohol to try and ease the tension of the conversation. Right after the girl states that the hills look like white elephants the American recommends that they get another drink in a way of avoiding the conversation. However, the girl refuses to back down and further attempting to express her feelings by comparing the alcohol to licorice saying that everything tastes like licorice “especially all the things you’ve waited so long for” (203). The girl does this as an underhand way to highlight that this decision is bittersweet because no matter what she will be sacrificing something for another. This comment upsets the man leading the girl to insist that it was just a joke, once again causing confusion between the couple. Additionally, the girl states that all they ever do is “look at things and try new drinks,” which helps the reader understand the couple has a rather simplistic relationship and that this is the first real challenge they have faced together and helps underline that without clear communication they may not last (203).

The separation between the bar and the table by the bamboo beads mirrors how the abortion is creating a separation between the American and the girl. This curtain is symbolically creating a blockage between the communication of the two characters. Curtains are normally barriers, however, these barriers are normally temporary and can easily be moved. The bamboo beads are hard and rigid, which shows that although this barrier isn’t permanent without proper care that the curtain can become more of an issue if they don’t clearly communicate their feelings on the procedure. The girl notices that the curtain has a painting on it and asks the American “What does it say?” similar to how the girl is unable to read the words on the actual curtain the coupls is unable to tell each other how they feel (202). The bead curtains also symbolize the partition between adolescents and womanhood because the girl refuses to discuss her true feeling on the issue and instead resorts to childish resorts such as threatening “(she)’ll scream,” if he does not stop talking (205).

Effectively cutting off their communication over the subject again and closing the barrier between the two. Ernest Hemmingway uses symbols such as elephants, alcohol, and a beaded curtain to illustrate the importance of honest communication. Neither the girl or the American are truthful about their intentions and feelings about the “procedure” and because they aren’t open about their opinions on the situation, they have a conversation that is virtually useless. The girl refused to openly admit that she wanted the baby and although the American said the procedure would be easy he wasn’t honest about how he wasn’t ready to settle down. It is understood that this relationship will most likely fail due to the failure of meaningful communication.

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