Underlying Meanings Within “Hills Like White Elephants”
Though “Hills Like White Elephant,” by Earnest Hemingway, is mostly composed of a dialog between two people, the reader may learn a great deal about the characters and the meaning of the story indirectly through symbolism, word clues, and tone. The passage from lines 13 through 27, reveals the tarnishing of innocence, as a girl’s wanting curiosity discovers the disheartening and bitter realities of life.
Word clues in the passage illuminate the character of the girl enough so that the reader can understand her position in the story. The characters are named “man,” “girl,” and “woman.” This alone attributes traditional qualities to the protagonist character, the “girl,” as being inferior, vulnerable, innocent, inexperienced, foolish, and immature. Her conversation in the passage is limited to her observations and inquisitions such as “‘What does it say?….Could we try it?….Is it good,’” much like a young child, incapable of a meaningful and in depth conversation (171). The girl’s inferior position is further illustrated through her indirect contact with the “woman;” the man orders for the girl and mediates any conversation between them, again, much like a parent would speak for a child. Finally, the girl does display some resentment and rebellion in her tone when she strikes back with, “‘Everything tastes like Licorice. Especially everything you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe,’” which shows her development out of childlike ignorance (172).
After establishing the role and position of the girl, the meaning of the passage can be further reinforced through symbolism. When intrigued about the Anis del Toro, the girl asks, “‘Could we try it?’” (171). At this point she is inexperienced and is somewhat expectant that she may discover something she may like; she yearns for experience. Anis is clear in its straight form. When you add ice or water to the liquer, it turns cloudy and impure and its strength is diluted. This is the same transformation that the innocence of the girl goes trough as she experiences intimacy with the man and has become pregnant; she is now impure and weakened. In the end, she notes her disappointment and says, “‘It tastes like licorice,’” then concludes, “‘Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all of the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe’” (172). Relating her experience of trying the Anis with other experiences she has had with the man, whether it be sex, love, or hope for the future; she went in with curious aspiration, and came out with regretful discontent.
A great deal of tone and action can be lifted from the short dialog almost immediately. The girl is evasive as she “looks at the bead curtain,” showing her discomfort in the conversation (171). The man is obviously distracted and bothered and uses little dialog or enthusiasm when he offers, “‘Anis del Toro. It’s a drink’” (171). He has had the drink before but has no interest in telling the girl any more than the fact that it is a drink and “‘it’s all right’” (171). When the man answers “‘yes, with water,’” the very next line tells the reader that the girl is tasting the drink, indicating that a long silence has taken place between the two characters while the waitress ordered and delivered the drinks (172). Finally, the tone switches again when the man halfheartedly answers, “‘that’s the way with everything,’” and the girl harshly retorts with, “‘Yes. Everything tastes of licorce,’” repeating the word “everything” to show emphasis and sarcasim (172).
In merely 14 lines from “Hills Like White Elephants,” the reader can gather crucial information about the situation at hand and the hostility that exists between the two characters. The joy ride experienced by the carefree couple has been soured, yet enlightened, with the confrontation of responsibility. Now, the girl must come to grips about the meaning of their relationship and their true feelings for each other.