Symbolism In “Hills Like White Elephants”

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SWBAT analyze symbolism in this story by collaborating and examining the language of the text.

Big Idea

Combing through the story to arrive at an accurate interpretation of symbols in the story.


I plan on engaging students in a series of short writing assignments that respond to different aspects of the story. The writing is meant to engage students in thoughtful analysis of “Hills Like White Elephants” as well as develop their writing skills. We begin with an analysis of symbolism in this story.


5 minutes

We have already studied symbolism in this class and today I begin with a brief review. This is the definition of symbolism I have posted on my wall and I refer to it to remind students of the definition. I then give them an example from the novel we read together last semester, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I ask them to remember the symbol of the head rag and remind them of the explanation we came up with for this symbol. The head rag symbolized Jody’s attempt to control Janie and the oppression she experienced in that relationship. The head rag was meant to cover Janie’s hair, one of her most attractive features. In this manner, Jody was attempting to keep Janie away from all other men and under his control. What I am doing, besides reminding them of the definition of symbolism using a familiar example, is modeling what is expected of them when they analyze a symbol, which is to identify the symbolic meaning and support that interpretation with specific textual evidence. This is one of the focuses of CCSS RL.11-12.4.

Small Group Work

20 minutes

I want students to collaborate to identify all the possible symbols in the story. I give them a few minutes to work together and list all the possible symbols. I listen in to make sure they are on the right track.

I then ask them to share as I write these on the board. We evaluate the list together. To evaluate, I remind them that the meaning of a symbol must be central to the story. We narrow the list down to:

            White elephants


Bead curtain

Flat land

Train/train tracks


Students Analyze A Symbol

20 minutes

I ask each group to select one symbol from the final list and be responsible for identifying the language used to describe this symbol in the story. One student in each group needs to take out a piece of paper and use the symbol as the title. Students in a given group are to work together to list everything the text says about that particular symbol. This is completely doable since the story is only two pages long. The easiest way of doing this is for each group to split the work so that the entire story gets thoroughly sifted. In this video, you can see how I explain the rationale behind this activity to students so they understand the purpose of devoting this time combing through a story they have already read in its entirety.

Note that it is helpful to tell students to look for sentences that say something directly and indirectly about the symbol they are responsible for. For example, if the sentence uses the words “mountains” it is about the white hills. It is important to note everything the story says about the item, especially because so little is said. This is particularly important for the group responsible for the flat land. I sit with them for a bit because they had not realized the quotes describing the dry land and the land filled with trees pertains to the flat lands and its symbolic meaning.

I then give students time to discuss the possible meaning of this symbol. I just listen in and let them talk. If they are inaccurate, it’s ok. They will be talking and writing tomorrow.


Sharing Out

5 minutes

I have a few groups share their working interpretation of the symbolic meaning of the item they are responsible for. One group suggests that the bags represent freedom or memory because of the labels. Another group suggests that the bead curtain represents safety when he is holding on to it during the operation. I clarify that the operation has not happened yet. Another group suggests that the train represents comfort because Jig asks what time the train is coming and the answer gives her comfort. This misconception has to do with a literal interpretation and I expect to address this in a lesson about symbolism. However, I don’t explain it today. Today I just want them to propose interpretations and support them. Tomorrow will be a time when we dig deeper and challenge interpretations. I expect them to struggle with figuring out the meaning of the symbol though not as much as the very first time we talked about symbolism in this class. Indeed, they do struggle a bit, but they are doing what I want them to do, which is to provide an interpretation and explain it by citing specific textual evidence. The first group does this and I praise them by explicitly pointing out that they in fact provided an interpretation and supported it with evidence.