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Symbolism And Themes In The Works Of Hemingway (Hills Like White Elephants, A Day’s Wait And Others)

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Hemingway is often regarded as one of the most influential writers of American literature stemming from the lost generation. His literary works largely relate to his own life and world views. In his literature Hemingway employs many literary devices including symbolism to represent certain notions. Along with symbolism, Hemingway’s literary works also incorporate themes like miscommunication, masculinity and alcohol. The themes discussed in Hemingway’s literature are pertinent to Hemingway’s life and he uses his literature to provide a commentary on them.

Symbolism is a literary device in which symbols are used to represent a certain theme, idea or concept. Objects are often used as symbols, but symbols can also be actions or events. Hemingway employs the use of symbolism in his stories in order to represent themes, ideas and concepts. In the Hills Like White Elephants Hemingway uses the train station as a symbol for transition. A train station is a place where people move from one place to another. The American man and Jig must make an important decision whether to have an abortion or to get married. They are in a state of transition, either decision will greatly transform their life.

Hemingway also employs the use of symbolism in A Day’s Wait. The Book of Pirates in the story is a symbol for masculine conventions. Pirates are often seen as a brute, tough and independent figures who are resilient through vicious battles at sea. They fight through their injuries and receive little to no aid for their ailments. The young boy has internalized such notions of masculinity because of which he chooses to go out and about with his day despite being sick. The boy believes that choosing to rest while he is sick will make him seem less tough and resilient ultimately emasculating him in the eyes of others.

The reader is again exposed to symbolism by Hemingway in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. While on his safari the first animal Francis encounters is a lion. The lion is a symbol of bravery and masculinity. Francis is portrayed to be a weak, emasculated man who has lived a life of luxury without weathering through any significant hardship. The lion with his powerful roar causes Macomber to freeze in fear. This leads to him being deeply embarrassed when he is unable to kill the animal because of his own cowardice. The lion is everything that Francis is not as he embodies strength, endurance and bravery which are all characteristics associated with masculinity.

Along with symbolism Hemingway’s works contain themes which are certain central ideas and concepts discussed in his stories. Miscommunication is a theme Hemingway discusses in both Hills Like White Elephants and A Day’s Wait. In the Hills Like White Elephants two people who are presumed to be seeing each other somewhat casually discuss whether they should get an abortion. The couple go back and forth on whether it would be a wise decision for them to get an abortion while waiting at a train station in Spain. The conversation between the two characters seems meaningless as neither of the two make any effort to understand the point of view of the other. The man who is only referred to as “the American” expresses that he wants Jig to have an abortion. He is frustrated by Jig’s indecisiveness to get an abortion so he resorts to saying absolutely anything that would coax her to have an abortion. The American undermines the abortion procedure as much as possible and only refers to it as “the operation”. In order to convince Jig to have an abortion he says,” ‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig…’It’s not really an operation at all… ‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’… ‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural… ‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before”(Hemingway 476). Jig like the American only listens to what he has to stay rather than understanding what the American has to say. Eventually because of the persistence of the American, Jig momentarily agrees to have the abortion in order to shut him up. She says. “’Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine'(Hemingway 476). Regardless of Jig’s statement the American continues to talk about how he wants Jig to have “the procedure” which leads to Jig asking the American “Can we maybe stop talking?”(Hemingway 477). Jig realizes that the conversation between her and the American is not going to lead to any kind of decision.. Clearly they both cannot contribute anything meaningful to the conversation. While the story ends the reader is left right where they started. The miscommunication between Jig and the American leads to them remaining in the same predicament as they were in at the beginning of the story.

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Hemingway brings up the theme of miscommunication in A Day’s Wait as well. The young boy Schatz’s in the story has a mild fever which he believes is much worse. This is because he believes that the doctor recorded his temperature as a hundred and two degrees Celsius rather than Fahrenheit. Schatz had heard from his french classmates that forty two degrees Celsius is a fatal temperature and results in death.This causes Schatz to spend an entire day fearing for his life. While this is happening Schatz’ Father spends the day enjoying himself outside, unaware of the fact that his son believes he is soon to die. Schatz becomes so paranoid of the mild flu that he has contracted, that he refuses to let anyone enter his room at the risk of them contracting his ailment. When Schatz’ father insists on coming into his room he says, “‘ You can’t come in,’…’You mustn’t get what I have’” (Hemingway 334) The miscommunication between Schatz and his father leads to Schatz living in isolation and feeling traumatized. In this story Schatz is only a small boy so ultimately the fault is on his father and the doctor for not properly explaining to him the nature of his ailment. The doctor at one point tells the father that, “ …there was nothing to worry about if the fever did not go above one hundred and four degrees and Schatz fever was caused by…a light epidemic of flu…”(Hemingway 332). Ultimately in this story the misccomunication between Schatz and his father led to him spending an entire day scared for his life over a mild flu.

Another theme that Hemingway analyzes in his literature is masculinity. The theme of masculinity is central in The Old Man and the Sea. Through the course of the novel Santiago proves himself to be the image of the Hemingway Code Hero despite his age and frail body. The Hemingway Code Hero embodies many of the traditional notions of masculinity. Santiago’s character is portrayed to be courageous and resilient with an unbreakable spirit. When Santiago is at sea he fights fiercely against the Marlin. He does not give up even when he becomes greatly injured while attempting to reel the fish onto the boat. Santiago proves himself to be especially resilient when fighting against the Marlin. Hemingway proves Santiago as resilient when he writes, “He could feel the steady hard pull of the line and his left hand was cramped. It drew up tight on the heavy cord and he looked at it in disgust. “What kind of a hand is that,” he said. “Cramp then if you want. Make yourself into a claw. It will do you no good” (Hemingway 21). It is made clear to the reader here that Santiago can withstand the hardships that come in his way regardless of whether that requires him to handle pain. Even though Santiago’s hand is cramped and he is in obvious pain he is resilient. He bears with the pain in order to reach his end goal of catching the Marlin. Santiago’s courageous nature is also made obvious to the reader while he is at sea. Santiago’s courage is apparent when he is struggling against the Marlin and says, “I’m being towed by a fish and I’m towing bitt. I could make the line fast. But then he could break it. I must hold him all I can and give him line when he must have it” (Hemingway 16). Santiago knows that it is a very real possibility that the Marlin could drag him with his boat into the sea, yet he does let that possibility scare him from pursuing the Marlin. Santiago’s mind is ruled not by his fear but by his determination to catch the Marlin. In the end, Santiago is left defeated as he is unable to capture the Marlin, but he faces this defeat with grace. The way in which Santiago deals with his defeat makes it apparent that he has an especially unbreakable spirit. Once defeated Santiago says, ““But man is not made for defeat,”…“A man can be destroyed but not defeated” (Hemingway 38). Santiago knows that he was not successful in his pursuit, but he does not let that crush his unyielding spirit.

Hemingway also focuses on the theme of masculinity in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Francis is portrayed by Hemingway to be the antithesis of the man who adheres to the traditional notions of masculinity. Francis is boyish, cowardly and naïve, while on a safari with this wife he becomes frozen in fear when attempting to hunt a lion. Francis’ character is in stark contrast to Robert his English hunting guide who is rugged, courageous and determined. Hemingway when describing Francis writes, “Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in the same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records…”( Hemingway 6). Hemingway describes Francis as handsome but his looks are surprisingly neat and put together like that off a woman. He is wearing the same clothes as Wilson, but it is apparent from the newness of his clothes that unlike Wilson he has no real experience hunting on a safari. Through the course of the story the reader sees Francis transition into a man after he successfully hunts a buffalo. Before Francis had hunted the buffalo he had attempted to hunt a lion. Francis was not only extremely unsuccessful at doing so but he also claimed to have” … bolted like a rabbit”(Hemingway 8). away from the lion because he was so fearful. Once Francis successfully hunts the buffalo he says to Wilson, ““You know, I‟d like to try another lion,” … “I‟m really not afraid of them now. After all, what can they do to you?” “You know, I‟d like to try another lion,”…“I‟m really not afraid of them now. After all, what can they do to you?”(Hemingway 25). It is clear that hunting the buffalo has transformed Francis. His successful kill has instilled confidence and a newfound bravery in him which even Wilson notices. Francis unfortunately lives for a very short amount of time after he discovers his newfound masculinity because he is shot by his wife soon after.

Alcohol serves as a theme in Hemingway’s literary works as well. In Hills Like White Elephants alcohol plays a central role in facilitating the conversation between the American and Jig. The American and Jig engage in a rather boozy discussion regarding whether Jig should have an abortion. In fact, the first sentence spoken in the short story is Jig asking the American, “What should we drink?’” (Hemingway 475). The American and Jig do not even begin a conversation between each other without the presence of alcohol. The conversation becomes much more fluid and relaxed between the couple once they have both consumed some amount of alcohol. This suggests that the couple have no real connection and are rather uncomfortable with each other. The American seems to utilize the alcohol in order to disregard and brush off Jig’s feelings and comments. Jig makes a comment towards the American saying “‘That’s all we do isn’t it-look at new things and try new drinks?’”(Hemingway 476). This seems to be Jig’s way of conveying to the American that she is unhappy with the nature of their relationship since it seems to be a rather shallow one. The American’s replies to Jig’s comment merely saying, “I guess so”(Hemingway 476). The American’s short and meaningless response makes it very apparent that he simply brushing off Jig’s feelings and concerns. In the end the American and Jig never come to any kind of decision as to whether Jig should get an abortion. Alcohol in this case serves as a mode of avoidance and it is possible that the couple could have come to a consensus if they were sober.

The theme of alcohol is also prevalent in The Sun Also Rises. All the main characters in the novel excluding Cohn are seen drinking excessively. Consuming alcohol works as a coping mechanism for the characters to forget about their worries and personal doubts. The three war veterans Bill, Jake and Mike are portrayed to be constantly drinking along with their shared love interest Brett. The three men have obviously been very negatively affected by their involvement in World War I. Jake perhaps has had the war take the most from him as it is often suggested that he sustained an injury that led to castration in the war. There are many instances in the novel when it becomes clear that Jake uses alcohol as an escape from his own feelings of sadness. At one point he says, “Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people”(Hemingway 77). The world including the people in it seem friendlier and more inviting to Jake once he is intoxicated. This statement from Jake also makes it clear that Jake realizes that alcohol is only a temporary distraction from his feelings. Once he is sober all his worries and self-doubts will surely come running back to him. It is apparent that because of this Jake is an extremely heavy drinker. Jake’s veteran friend Mike makes a statement to similar Jake’s saying, “’I’m rather drunk,’…’I think I’ll stay rather drunk. This is all awfully amusing, but it’s not too pleasant for me. It’s not too pleasant for me’ (Hemingway 107). Here Mike makes it understood that he is aware that he has a drinking problem. Mike also states that he in no way wants to end his unhealthy relationship with alcohol. The alcohol provides him with an escape from his own thoughts and feelings. The characters in The Sun Also Rises ultimately are never able to deal with their own insecurities and mental state due to their constant use of alcohol as a crutch.

Hemingway’s literary works are riddled with symbolism. In the Hills Like White Elephants Hemingway uses the train station as a symbol for transience. The train stations represents the state of the two main characters in the story. In A Day’s Wait Hemingway uses The Book of Pirates as a symbol for masculinity. The young boy hears the stories of pirates in the book who are rugged, resilient and courageous. He begins to associate these traits with masculinity and tries to emulate these traits because he feels that is what is expected of a man. In The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber the lion serves as a symbol for bravery and masculinity. The main character himself is portrayed to be meek and effeminate for much of the story and the lion stands in stark contrast to him. Hemingway in his literary works also discusses themes which include miscommunication, masculinity and alcohol. The theme of miscommunication is central to both Hills Like White Elephants and A Day’s Wait. In both short stories the main characters are negatively affected by meaningless methods of communication. Masculinity is a theme which is central to both The Short But Happy Life of Francis Macomber and The Old Man and the Sea. The main characters in both stories embody or seek to embody typically masculine characteristics. Lastly the theme of alcohol is present in Hills Like White Elephants and The Sun Also Rises. In both stories the main characters utilize alcohol as a crutch to suppress their own feelings and the alcohol allows them to form deeper connections than they are capable of forming themselves.


  1. Hemingway, Ernest. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Scribner, 2007.
  2. Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1954. Print.
  3. Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. , 1952. Print.

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Symbolism And Themes In The Works Of Hemingway (Hills Like White Elephants, A Day’s Wait And Others). (2021, August 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 7, 2023, from
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Symbolism And Themes In The Works Of Hemingway (Hills Like White Elephants, A Day’s Wait And Others). [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 Feb. 2023].
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