Research Essay Hills Like White Elephants

Essay/Term paper: Hills like white elephants: the symbolism of the setting

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Ernest Hemingway

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Hills Like White Elephants: The Symbolism of the Setting

In Ernest Hemingway's story "Hills Like White Elephants" an American couple is
sitting at a table in a train station in Spain. They are discussing beer,
travel, and whether or not to have an abortion. The train station and its
surroundings are symbolic in this story. The station itself represents the
choice on whether or not to have the abortion. There is a set of tracks on
either side of the station, each representing one of the choices. On one side of
the station, the tracks run through a lush, green landscape full of grainfields
and trees. A wide river runs lazily in the foreground of some tall mountains.
It is almost like a paradise. This side of the station symbolizes the choice of
going through with the abortion. As it is now they travel all around the world,
drinking and staying in hotels, and seeing all the beautiful places in the world.

They have no responsibilities or schedules in their life. With an abortion,
they could continue their party- and fun-filled, although meaningless existence.
The other side of the station is dry and barren of plantlife. The ground looks
as if there has been no rain for quite some time. There are hills in the
distance that have a whitish color as the sun radiates on them. The woman said,
"They look like white elephants."(343) White elephants are known to symbolize
unexpected gifts, which is certainly what the baby would be should they choose
not to have the abortion. The barrenness of the land refers the tame life--
settling down and having the responsibilities of parenthood--that they would
have to start living when the baby came; a life that would be duller but would
have a purpose. The bead curtain represents the fact that once they choose a
side, to have the baby or not, they cannot change their minds and then switch
sides. Once the decision has been made, it will affect their lives forever.
The man wants to have the abortion so they can continue to have the luxuries
they enjoy now. On the other hand, the woman is tired of the wilder life and
wants the baby and to settle down.


Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. "Hills Like White Elephants" Literature and the Writing
Process. Eds. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 4th ed. Upper
Saddle River: Prentice, 1996. 343-46.


 

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VCCS Litonline

Preparing Your Essay on "Hills"


Rationale: This sequence of tasks is designed to simulate some of the process of creating an informed interpretation of a story by reading on your own, getting views of other students, a prof, and critics. 

Step 1. Read "Hills Like White Elephants." Read the story in your textbook or in any library's copy of the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway.  On a first reading, make some notes for yourself, especially

  • your impressions of Jig, the American, their problems,
  • any object that might be symbolic in the story
  • questions you might have about the story.

Step 2. Read commentary and questions of others.  Use the study guide for the story online at the Litonline website to take advantage of observations by previous classes by reading the gray block at the beginning and the right-hand column (black print) to see if you can find plausible answers to your questions. Write more notes on your first impressions about

  • the characters
  • their methods of conversing
  • their problem and how it influences their view of things around them
  • symbolic objects
  • any other ideas you have. 
  • Consider the contradiction between "Then I'll do it because I don't care about me" and the ending of the story, if you see a contradiction. 

Step 3.  Read more student comments on the story.  Another set of comments annotates the story (link removed at the insistence of Hemingway's current publisher, Simon and Schuster) as read by students and a teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  Three "tracks" of passages are marked for you in three colors and indicate two symbols in the story, plus character and conversation traits.  Look for the question marks in squares early in the story to get started.

  • References to the curtain or its beads
  • Jig's questions
  • References to the hills

Jot down new ideas or changes in your view of the story, focusing perhaps on their conversational tactics, their relationship, or one of the color-coded ideas from the VCU annotations.

Step 4. Read preliminary views from a previous class and one professor's views. 

Step 5.  Read summaries of professional critics' commentaries. You can do a "key word" search on this long scroll by following the directions on the page of summaries.  Basically, you can use the keyboard keys <Ctrl> + <f> (Hold a "ctrl" key on your keyboard and tap the "f" key once--after you have clicked the link in the first line of this paragraph and your screen has switched to the long page of summaries).  For example, you can see what various critics have said about the curtain, the hills, Jig, the American, and other issues in the story.

Your task is to let the critics' ideas add to your own, as well as noting if their ideas contradict yours or reinforce them.  Jot down quotable quotes--with "quotation marks," of course--from the story and from the summaries.

Essay Assignment: Write your definitive essay about some aspect of "Hills Like White Elephants."  Some grading criteria: The best answers will acknowledge by name the student writer or critic whose views contributed to the answer, as well as acknowledging opposing viewpoints before refuting them.     

Whether you depend on the views of others or strike out on your own depends on your topic.  For instance, many critics have written about what the couple might do next or who "wins," Jig or the American.  Hardly anyone, however, has written about the symbolic value of the oncoming train. 

To assure your readers (and teacher) that your view is well informed, you must quote the phrases that guided and helped form your views.  Acknowledge by name the ideas of critics or the location of ideas, e.g. from the VCU color-coded annotations or the Litonline right-column ideas. 

Step 6.  Read some sample essays about "Hills."  Successful essays by previous students are linked in the list that follows.

Some Suggestions for Topics:  The following topics indicate the level of difficulty you should attempt after the six steps above. 

  • Jig and the American are a modern, even a modernist couple, cynical, amoral, demonstrating that lasting happiness is an illusion in a society that destroys people.  Agree or disagree.
  • The symbolism of the story parallels and amplifies the conflict between Jig and her American--the hills, the train station and its tracks and scenery, the beaded curtain separating the couple from the rest of "reasonable" humanity, and the train itself, along with the luggage, its stickers and its movement.
  • Train time in this story provides tension and makes us aware of the pressure this couple feels to try to resolve their opposite goals.  The train will arrive in 40 minutes, then in 5 minutes, and stay only 2 minutes.  Jig is on a schedule, too, in her first trimester of pregnancy; if she just waits, the baby will arrive.  But if she has the abortion, she loses the opportunity to get her life on the track she prefers.
  • Jig and the American have different goals.  What are those goals, and how do their tactics during conversation help or thwart reaching their goals?  (Hint: Be careful not to summarize the story but to explain who has the upper hand during milestone moments in their conversation--and how you can tell who has the upper hand.)

 

Grading Hints: The best essays display the following traits, which demonstrate ingenuity, as well as control over the basics for writing a persuasive essay.
  • An Original Thesis: that is, their own perspective on the story and what the author may be telling us about couples or modern life; there are basically four speculations about what happens to the couple/family--
    • Jig caves in to the American and they continue their trip to the abortion clinic, probably in Madrid. Jig has the abortion, and the couple continues traveling around Europe, just as they did before.
    • The American relents and moves the bags to "the other side," the fertile side, to turn aside from the abortion plan by not boarding the oncoming train.
    • Jig has the abortion and the American leaves her, having escaped fatherhood (or she leaves him, no longer able to stand him).
    • Jig has the baby but loses the American.

    Which perspective seems sensible for readers today?  Which perspective seems sensible for readers after the slaughter of World War I?  Which perspective seems sensible for the boom times of the "Roaring Twenties"?  Which perspective seems to fit with the expatriate American (artistic?) existence in Europe before the worldwide Depression?  (Are any other possibilities likely for this couple/family?  Are other connections with appropriate historical eras viable?)

  • Extensive Support: There are several paragraphs and each paragraph includes important phrases quoted from the story and explained in view of the thesis, as well as consideration of actions the characters do or don't do, say or don't say, mean or don't mean.
  • Using and Acknowledging Sources: Ideas from the summaries of professional critics and from the sample student essays are mentioned with the critic's or student's name, and the essayist agrees with and amplifies the idea with a new example or disagrees and offers refuting evidence from the story and interpretation of that evidence.
  • Style: Not only are verbs correct and sentence endings marked, quotations introduced and blended into the writer's own sentences, but there is a distinctive voice or attitude expressed smoothly in varied sentence structures and varied lengths of sentences.

Each of the sample essays shows "extensive support" and "style," but most do not address an ending as appropriate for a particular historical era, and most do not acknowledge critics or other students.  You don't have to repeat these oversights.  In fact, if you leave out other readers' views, since I've provided multiple examples, you will be asked to revise to add them and to comment on those you mention.


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