Critical Analysis of "Hills Like White Elephants"
by Ernest Hemingway
Analysis by Fred Edwards
Semiotics is the study of signs. It involves the study of signs and
anything that stands for something else. From this definition it can be
seen that semiotics is able to be applied within many disciplines. Signs
include images, sounds, objects and words.
Semioticians study how meanings are made and are concerned with the
relationship between the sign and it's meaning.
Semiotics is often used in analyzing texts and investigates connotative
A semiotician emphasizes the importance of the significance which a reader
attaches to signs within a text.
For something to qualify as a sign it must have physical form(word and text
included) and must refer to something other than itself and others must
recognize the fact that the sign represents something else.
Each sign is made up of the signifier(form which the sign takes) and the
signified(concept or meaning it represents).
So in a nutshell semiotics looks at this story from a symbolic point of
view looking at the signs used and their connotative meanings.
"Hills Like White Elephants" contains many signs.
A casual reading of Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" may
leave the reader grasping for the main topic of the story. We see a couple
engaged in conversation about going through with an operation and the
effects it will have on their relationship. A reader- like myself- may not
immediately key in on the fact that they are discussing the girl having an
abortion. A look into Hemingway's use of symbols leaves no doubt at all of
the topic of their conversation. His symbology compares fertility and
barrenness mush like the decision being contemplated by the woman. In fact,
many symbols used throughout the story reinforce this idea. Barrenness and
fertility directly correspond to the life or death of the baby and the life
and death of their relationship. Listed below is some of the symbology
Hemingway uses and its connotative meaning. The reader his or herself can
see how these meanings apply to and strengthen Hemingway's story.
Here are some signs that Hemingway employs:
- -- We see a contrast between barrenness and fertility while the girl is
surveying the terrain which corresponds to the decision she is having to
make at this time on whether to have an abortion or not. On one side of the station she looks off at the country
is brown and dry-barren. On the other side of the station she sees fields of grain and trees along the
river-fertility. These scenes contrast life or death- the same question
she is pondering. Trees are also symbolic of life itself.
- --Hills are said to be representative of the belly of a pregnant female.
- --White elephants are possessions unwanted by the owner but difficult to
rid of much like the baby she is carrying.
- --A train represents destiny or change and this is an express train
indicating the change will be quick. Perhaps this is referring to how
quick the "operation" is which will change her for a lifetime.
- --The train stopping for only 2 minutes corresponds to the brief time
she has to make this decision.
- --The trip or journey they are taking is representative of a call of
adventure designed to explore the self until serenity is achieved. The
line seems to indicate she reached this point.
- --The trip also takes them from Barcelona to Madrid. This is a westward
direction. The west represents the setting sun which is equivalent to
death-the death of the child and their relationship as they know it.
- --Beads which are mentioned several times are symbolic of the circle of
continuity. The circle being representative of the notion of totality,
wholeness and perfection. It also symbolizes the striving towards
wholeness and self-realization. Another meaning for the circle is
potential as in an embryo. This could apply several ways. The
potential(embryo) is self-evident. The girl is also struggling towards
wholeness or self-realization in that-I have been told- a woman
doesn't feel whole if she never has a child.
- --They decide to drink alcohol. Alcohol is the conjunction of opposites-
male and female, active and passive and both in a state of creation and
destruction. Alcohol also eliminates inhibitions and prohibitions.
- --"Do you want it with water" they are asked when ordering the drinks.
being symbolic of life, birth and fertility.
- --When they order the new drink the girl states it tastes like licorice or
absinthe. Absinthe is flavored with wormwood. Wormwood refers to
bitter grievous and extremely unpleasant. Such as what she is going
- --A shadow is referred to more than once. On page 758 line 10 the shadow
a representation of unconscious layers of the personality that are
integrated into the structure of the experienced world through the
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