Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and the Central Metaphor

Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” is a famous work of American short fiction that is often used as an example not only of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory style of writing, but also of how a governing metaphor can underpin a story and shape the scenery, characters, and plot, giving the entire narrative a kind of depth and dimension that would be hard, if not impossible, to replicate without the implementation of the metaphor in the first place. The purpose of this essay, however, is not to review the well-known story, nor to discuss Hemingway and his Iceberg Theory, nor the use of the particular metaphor really at all. It is instead an attempt to demonstrate a personal theory of mine – the central metaphor. I will do this by re-contextualizing Hemingway’s story through my own personal interpretation, using supporting evidence, and by the end, will have hopefully shown the utility and danger of this theory.

First, what do I mean by the central metaphor?

My idea of the central metaphor is a subjective interpretation that must be supported at least somewhat adequately by its own internal logic. It is a means for the reader to truly individualize, through both creative subjectivity and a personal sense of rational connection, their interpretation and understanding of the work.

This central metaphor functions in the same way as a critical lens, i.e. a Marxist lens, a feminist lens, a capitalist lens, a Christian lens, etc., in the way that it is a particular lens that can be used to analyze, through a set of specific criteria, most any given work.

But the central metaphor differs in the sense that it cannot, and should not, fit into one category. While a Marxist lens may only approach art with the intention of fitting it into a proletariat/bourgeoisie dialectic, or a Christian lens may immediately seek to pinpoint the messiah figure, or the God stand-in, the central metaphor must be a truly personal reading of the work. Much like an individual’s own faculties of perception, the central metaphor can and most likely will involve bits and pieces of other lenses. But it can and will and must also involve that reader’s own memories, past experiences, personal beliefs and practices, as well as what and how they have learned to interpret and understand works through their own education, whether institutional, self-guided, or both.

The theory of the central metaphor is one that is not new, and the idea of a governing metaphor has existed as long as human beings have told stories to each other. However, this particular iteration, my particular iteration, is meant to be a reconfiguration and a re-purposement of that idea. It is meant to mean a more subjective, reader-based interpretation of the observed work, rather than an over-arching theory or staunch proposition. The author acknowledges that the obvious may have been restated within this conception, and they ask for forgiveness and patience if that is the case.

Simply put, the central metaphor is what you make to be the meaning of this story. This meaning must be supported, but it is yours alone, because only you could bring it into form.

As I’ve said, I understand that this is a big restatement of the obvious. Clearly, everyone has a personal interpretation of a piece of artwork – it’s the starting point for our entire understanding of art in general. And because our own personal interpretations are often flawed, or fall short of adequately describing and discussing work, we use lenses, like the ones I’ve mentioned before, to further bolster our claims.

My attempt with the idea of the central metaphor is to try and cement the PERSONAL, the READER’s own subjectivity, in the pantheon of lenses. I believe this is the most powerful lens of all, as it is the master lens from which all others derive. And in my own schooling, I’ve seen too many instances of people, students and professors alike, simply delegating the thoughtwork of analysis to the tools, and not to themselves, the craftsmen and craftswomen. It’s easy to use lenses as a comfortable surrogate for our ideas – it is much more difficult to use these lenses to augment our own theories, as our own theories are often seen as crude, or even vulgar.

With that being said, here is my effort to use my own personal lens to analyze “Hills Like White Elephants”.

I consider myself a writer. I’ve been practicing since I was young, about five years old, and writing has formed the backbone of my personality for a very long time, much like a pro-sports player’s athleticism, both practiced and genetic, would form and shape their persona as well. Because of this, I often, both consciously and unconsciously, approach subjects with the eyes and mind of a writer first.

I’d like to make the argument that the central metaphor of “Hills Like White Elephants” could be an almost allegorical account of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, emphasized through its scene construction, characters, and overarching plot, which all serves to ultimately relate his relationship with his own writing process, and, more importantly, his stories.

A very common, almost sickeningly-repeated, phrase among writers is “Kill your babies.” This is a graphic metaphor which essentially means, “If it’s not working, even if you really like it, and a lot of times especially if you really like it, take it out.” Another iteration would be “Murder your darlings.” This was supposedly originated by the Cornish writer Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Coincidentally enough, this phrase is sometimes—erroneously, though understandably—attributed to Hemingway, most likely because of his proclivity to relatively sparse, succinct, almost barren prose. His Iceberg Theory was to cut out as much as possible from his work, in order to challenge readers, to make them look for the mass of hidden meaning that lay under the water of the visible writing.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is, again, an oft-cited example of Hemingway’s prose and his Iceberg Theory. There is little description of the scene, though what little there is manages to convey striking imagery. Dialog tags such as “he said,” and “she said,” are rarely used. The two main characters are an American man and a woman, possibly Irish, given her name—or possible nickname—Jig. The man is not given a name – this is important

For any not familiar with the overall plot, I’ll give a quick summary – pause here if you want to read it, it’s only four pages, you can find it online, I’d encourage you, if you haven’t, to give it a look.

“Hills Like White Elephants,” takes place at a train station in a barren stretch of land near the Ebro River in Northeastern Spain. Two characters, an American man and an Irish woman, are sitting, waiting for the train to arrive. In the distance across a dry brown plain are mountains; the woman remarks, to a terse response from her partner:

“ ‘They look like white elephants,’.”(Hemingway, pg. 1).

The conversation is mostly sparse, though it becomes more tense as the subject shifts to an upcoming procedure the woman will be undergoing, something the man describes as follows:

“ ‘They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’” (pg. 2).

As the story progresses, the American man continues, with a kind of quiet insistence, almost anxiously, to press the woman about the procedure. This aggravates her so much that she cuts him off at one point, saying:

“ ‘Would you please please please please please please please please stop talking?’ ”(pg. 4).

The story final lines end with the woman saying she’s fine, that, “‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’” (pg. 4).

“To let the air in,” is an older expression referring to an abortion, which in Hemingway’s time, was an incredibly shameful, almost disgusting procedure. What’s notable is that most people don’t realize this, and walk away from the story confused; when explained, it becomes clear, not only in the dialogue, but in the construction as a whole, exactly what Hemingway’s talking about. The train station is in the middle of nowhere – it is a crossroads, symbolic perhaps that the man and woman are at a threshold they will not come back from. This is reinforced by the woman’s insistence that life will not go back to how it was before, how it cannot go back:

“ ‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’”(pg. 3).

Also, the plain in the distance is barren, juxtaposed against mountains that are white, almost pale, like skin – a possible reference to the state of the womb before the procedure, and its state afterwards. There are more subtle notes – the woman decides to have a drink, despite being pregnant, which is a sign that she herself is resigned to the procedure, though it is completely against her will, something that troubles her greatly. If it did not, she wouldn’t insist the man stop talking, so much so that she eventually threatens to scream if he continues to try and comfort her more about the procedure.

This is a clear metaphor, illustrated beautifully through the simple punches of scenery and the all-at-once relaxed, wanting, and tense dialogue between two characters who are right next to each other the whole story but feel so distant. Hemingway did a fantastic job at constructing a simple scene with lean language and abundant depth.

My argument, my assertion, my personal reading, my central metaphor, is that this story and the theme of abortion isn’t just about an abortion – it’s about Hemingway’s style, and the relationship it creates between him and his stories.

The American man is Hemingway’s authorial stand-in; the woman is a symbol of his prose and his work before he puts it under the knife. She, his work – his stories – is pregnant with new life, with something more, something she wants to give him, something she believes will give them everything. Notice – it’s her observation that creates the most well-known scenic description in the story, the line that the title comes from:

“ ‘The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.

‘I’ve never seen one,’ the man drank his beer.’ ” (pg. 1).

Hemingway, as the writer, appears to disagree and disapprove of his own writing’s tendency towards the descriptive, the excessive, the more – life will be just fine with the two of them. It’s unnecessary to add a third, to add more, to the mix. Better to keep it sparse and simple rather than chance his life on excess.

In this central metaphor, the train station could be taken as a symbol of the transition between drafts. Much like the man and the woman in the story, a writer and their story, by the time the first draft is completed, have a kind of history together. This is something they’ve been working on, sometimes for months, or even years. The writing becomes a kind of personal relationship, and much like a personal relationship, there are so many private memories between an author and their work, it’s oddly and wonderfully intimate.

But you arrive at a crossroads when the first draft is done. And if you want to make something more of a book, you have to take that first step and start to cut away what doesn’t work. The time before this is one that’s often a bit melancholic, and empty, almost hollow, and lowly peaceful. You know that the thing you’ve made memories with and poured yourself into, it will have to change. You, and it, your story, will have to let go. It is a kind of cutting away, an excising – it is editing. It’s what Hemingway built his entire Iceberg Theory and his own style on.

Hemingway is especially known for his severe editing. So it would make sense that this scene, the one between the man and the woman at the train station, the writer and his story at the crossroads, is especially quiet and sad. And even a bit uncomfortable, and unfair, in regards to the woman/stories themselves, who clearly don’t want to go along with the procedure.

Of course, the woman/his stories do end up, ostensibly, going along with this – they have to, they are essentially his, but they are reluctant, almost distraught. The woman/story in the story attempts almost a sort of bargain with the man/Hemingway:

“ ‘I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?’” (pg. 3).

I find it key to mention that many of Hemingway’s critics argue his style and stories are far too sparse. There’s too much cut away, and there are chances for imagery and description that are totally dropped in favor of the style.

One last interesting piece I’ve found is this – the American man, reading as Hemingway’s surrogate, is given no name. By the very nature of his character, he is self-effacing. He does not want to be noticed – much like Hemingway’s writing style, he does not want to draw attention to himself. The woman, on the other hand, is lively, almost childish – and her name, presumably, is Jig. Jig was, during Hemingway’s time, a side-eye way to wink at possible Irish heritage. And remember what a jig is: a lively dance, something full to burst with passion, something happily excessive Something that, by its very nature, draws attention to itself. In this central metaphor reading, the woman’s character, the stand-in for Hemingway’s stories, is the absolute antithesis of Hemingway’s authorial stand-in, the American man. They couldn’t be more different, yet they have been drawn together, seemingly by fate, possibly by luck, and sadly by misfortune.

So, a quick recap – my central metaphor interpretation of “Hills Like White Elephants” is as follows:

The story’s abortion metaphor can be read as a deeper allegory for Hemingway’s own journey as a writer with each of his stories. He is a quiet, passionate, self-effacing man and artist, who finds himself bound and invariably attracted to a woman, a muse, whose entire being, lively, passionate, and excessive, is antithetical to his own. In his pursuit of this relationship, trying to do what is best for the both of them, he always arrives at a kind of crossroads after the completion of the first draft – the train station – before the abortion procedure – his editing process. While his stories may end up eventually going along with what he says, there is always a sense that perhaps, there is something lost in the whole affair that can never be regained, i.e. parts of prose that Hemingway perhaps nixed away, which could have been wonderful segments and pieces, that he cut in order to adhere to his Theory, his sense of what writing must be.

Now, Hemingway’s voice is what makes him Hemingway – but what if he could have been more? Or better? Those are often pointless questions in totality, but I do find they bear asking in the realm of theory. I personally find Hemingway’s work enjoyable, I’ve read a few of his books and short stories and found them compelling, almost cinematic.

But one of my nagging fears with him is that he was afraid to try for more. What if his reason, or one of his reasons, for omitting so much wasn’t out of a rigid adherence to the duty of style? What if, underscoring it, was a bit of fear? What if he was afraid to try for more detailed descriptions, interior monologues, and so on? What if he was afraid of more?

I don’t know, and this speculation is just that – speculation. But the central metaphor is founded in personal belief, and if part of my personal belief is a speculation that Hemingway was flawed in such a human way, I don’t find that it devalues his prose, but rather adds another dimension to it. True or not, it shapes my own personal understanding of him and his work. Again, this is not meant to replace the original meaning or reading of Hemingway or his stories. Rather, it is meant to shade a little bit, add a personal dimension to my own particular understanding of the writer, who he might have been, and what went into his stories.

And this helps to show the benefit and danger of the central metaphor – anything, if convincing enough, can be re-contextualized by anyone at any time. This can be fantastic, because it can help us view artists and their work in different, and unexpected, lights. Artists such as Tarantino, Scorsese, James Joyce, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Frank Zappa, and so on made their careers on works of art that re-contextualized or repurposed prior materials and made them their own.

But this technique can also, if used negligently or maliciously, corrupt a work and re-orient it towards ignorant, unjust, or even cruel, ends. Real-world examples abound—see any social movement that has co-opted the Communist Fist, the Nazi’s re-purposing of the swastika and the Roman Salute, even the massive, usually unpopular re-duxes of pop culture franchises that seem to rub most of their intended audiences the wrong way. These are all examples of movements that have attempted to co-opt and re-use various symbols and signals, and either ignore, or abuse, the original’s intent for their own means and ends.

All this is invariably moot in the larger scheme of things. Everything is reused, repurposed, recontextualized, recycled. It’s very easy to feel as though we have nothing left to contribute, because in a way, there really may not be anything that anyone’s contributed that hasn’t already been said. In a sense, though, I’d like to think that particular brand of nihilism takes a lot of the pressure off of anything we might think, say, or do. So, I hope, through a demonstration of my central metaphor theory, and an analysis of “Hills Like White Elephants,” you may have found some idea, some sentence, some minor expression or inflection, that caught you and made you, even if just for a moment, feel included in some larger discussion, and inspired to say something, anything, before it ends.

-Bibliography-

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.

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