Hills Like White Elephants

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Barren/Fertile Land Symbol Analysis

Barren/Fertile Land Symbol Icon

As the story opens, we are introduced first and foremost to the setting’s barren landscape, which is described as “brown and dry,” with “no shade” and “no trees.” Yet while the story feels as though it were taking place in a desert—both because of the literal dryness of the landscape and in the sense of loneliness and alienation between the man and the woman—we are told at the beginning that the story is in fact unfolding beside the Ebro River. And, as the girl notes, this is not a place totally devoid of beauty. She describes the hills along the river, in fact, as “lovely hills,” particularly “the coloring of their skin through the trees.” The girl, who is pregnant and on the precipice of deciding whether or not to end the pregnancy, is sensitive to the latent beauty and fertility of this environment, though both of these things are invisible to her male companion. In this way the land itself represents both the girl with her possibility of motherhood and the conflicting barrenness of her relationship with a man who urges an abortion she doesn’t want.

Barren/Fertile Land Quotes in Hills Like White Elephants

The Hills Like White Elephants quotes below all refer to the symbol of Barren/Fertile Land. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Limits of Language Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Scribner edition of Hills Like White Elephants published in 1987.
Hills Like White Elephants Quotes

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

Related Characters: The Girl (Jig) (speaker), The Man
Related Symbols: Barren/Fertile Land
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a crucial passage in the story, because this exchange becomes the man's opening to begin his most intense manipulation. The girl has just made a reasonably provocative claim, that all they do is look at things and drink (which, like everything else in this story, refers to so much more), but she seems unable to stand firm in this statement. Instead of requiring the man to respond to her and address her concerns, she symbolically retracts herself. When she brought up the hills looking like white elephants, she was seemingly trying to bring up the topic of her pregnancy, and by telling the man that the hills don't actually look like white elephants she signals her willingness to bury the topic once more. Significantly, in this observation the girl refers to the organic features of the landscape, making it seem less barren than it had before. She refers to the trees, and to the "skin" of the hills. This shows that, even as she tries to bury the topic of fertility, it still has a grip on her subconscious.

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“And we could have all this,” she said “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

Related Characters: The Girl (Jig) (speaker), The Man
Related Symbols: Barren/Fertile Land
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

Like her statement that the hills look like white elephants, this is the girl's attempt to make a coded appeal to the reality she envisions. Just before saying this she looks out on the landscape that had been formerly described as barren and suddenly she sees grain and trees. The hills are fertile to her, while to the man they were dusty and empty, which symbolizes their conflicted views of their situation. By this point in the story the girl has been manipulated thoroughly, and it seemed that her ability to resist the man was limited to small disruptions of his own script ("Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me."). This outburst, though, is an unexpectedly radical appeal to the man to see things wholly on her terms--that she should have the baby, and that it would give them "everything." She is letting him know here unequivocally that this is the life that she wants.

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Barren/Fertile Land Symbol Timeline in Hills Like White Elephants

The timeline below shows where the symbol Barren/Fertile Land appears in Hills Like White Elephants. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Hills Like White Elephants
The Limits of Language Theme Icon
Choice Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Relationships Theme Icon
...of a train station located in Spain’s Ebro valley. In these opening details the landscape’s barren, hot, and shadeless nature is emphasized. Into this landscape appear an American man and his... (full context)
The Limits of Language Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Relationships Theme Icon
...is staring at the distant hills, which are brightly lit in the sunlight, though otherwise barren in appearance. The girl makes a seemingly innocent remark to the man that the hills... (full context)
The Limits of Language Theme Icon
Choice Theme Icon
Freedom vs Family Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Relationships Theme Icon
...“the end of the station,” taking in the landscape around her. Through her eyes the barren hills look fertile, full of grain and trees, a river far off, and “the shadow... (full context)