Initially, I found it confusing and hard to understand. I hope to clarify the story by summarizing it, and explain the symbolism used. The story is set in a bar beside a train station. A couple sits together at a table discussing something that is unknown to the reader. The couple is enjoying a beer while awaiting their train.
The young woman seems disconnected as she looks out over a line of hills and says, “They look like white elephants”. This statement should set off an alarm in the mind of the reader. This statement and the title are symbolic to the meaning of the story. One must know that if one is given a white elephant then they are given an unwanted and useless gift.
This leads the reader to believe that this is what the story is about. The couple continues to drink heavily which would also lead one to believe that they have something troubling them. As one continues reading, they are presented with a clue to the couple’s problem. The man says, “You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it”.
He goes on to say, “If you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But it’s perfectly simple”. This leads the reader to believe that, although it is the couple’s problem, the woman holds all responsibility and the right to make the decision.
The man and woman go back and forth with the argument. The man says things to the effect of, ” I think its the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to”. She replies, “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me? Again, this gives the reader the opinion that her decision, and her decision alone, will alter their life forever. As the story closes, she asks that they terminate the conversation. He takes their luggage to the other side of the train to assure that it is loaded on board, and then he return to the table.
“Do you feel better?” he asks. She replies, “I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine”.
Throughout the story the couple refuses to speak of the problem. They refuse to speak of it for fear that actually saying it would be admitting that there actually is a problem. The couple is struggling over the decision of whether or not to abort their unborn child. The reference to white elephants symbolizes the abortion. Many years ago people would give miniature white elephants as gifts.
They served no function and were considered unwanted, useless gifts. The abortion was an unwanted gift to this couple. The man continues to reassure the woman that the problem can easily be taken care of. One gets the feeling from the couple’s conversation that she may want to keep their unborn child, but she would do anything for him; anything to keep him.
I really enjoyed this short story. I liked how Ernest Hemingway allowed the reader to ponder what the couple was arguing about. I hope this gives some insight to those who struggle with understanding this short story. The writing produced by Ernest Hemingway was in itself an act of rebellion that personifies the unique character of how Americans want or believe they should be perceived — brash, self-sufficient, able to move beyond what most people would presumably consider personal setbacks, even the ability to detach ones self from personal tragedy and see it in a humorous light.
Ernest Hemingway was as simple as he was complex. The lucid and uncomplicated images he created with his seemingly elementary style were anything but; in fact, the complexity that resides within his characteristically eloquent prose, which demonstrate a purity and precision like no other, are known only to those who can see beyond their faade. Attention to outer detail and an unquenchable desire to portray his .