The scene opens on a railway station in Spain where the Barcelona-to-Madrid express is expected in 40 minutes. A man referred to as "the American" and his girl, Jig, sit at a table outside the station's bar drinking beer. The landscape surrounding the station is described as the valley of the Ebro River, with long white hills on each side and brown dusty ground in between. Jig remarks that the hills look like white elephants, and the remark is not well received by the American.
The two decide to try a new drink, the anis del toro, with water. Jig remarks that it tastes like licorice, and the two begin bickering again. As they start on another round of beers, the man introduces a new motif into the conversation, saying that a particular operation is very simple and that Jig would not mind it. If she gets the operation, he says, their relationship will be fine again, as it was before. Jig is quiet and obviously skeptical.
The American says he does not want Jig to have it if she does not want to, but he says it would be best if she did. He maintains, however, that he loves her and that he is snippy only because he is worried. Jig says in return that she will get the operation because she does not care about herself, which guilt-trips her boyfriend into saying that he does not want her to get it if she feels that way.
Jig pauses to contemplate the scenery and says they could have everything. When the American agrees, she contradicts him, saying it has all been taken away from them and that they can never get it back. Then she asks him to stop talking.
They are silent for a while, but the American brings the operation up again, and Jig tells him in return that they could get along if she did not have it. He counters that he does not want anyone else in his life but her and that the operation is perfectly simple. She asks him to stop talking again.
The barmaid brings another round of beer and the announcement that the train is due in five minutes. The American brings the bags to the other side of the tracks, drinks an Anis at the bar and returns to the table. Jig greets him with a smile and in answer to his question says she is fine.
"Hills Like White Elephants" centers on a couple's verbal duel over, as strongly implied by the text and as widely believed by many scholars, whether the girl will have an abortion of her partner's child. Jig, clearly reluctant to have the operation, suspects her pregnancy has irrevocably changed the relationship but still wonders whether having the abortion will make things between the couple as they were before. The American is anxious that Jig have the abortion and gives lip service to the fact that he still loves Jig and will love her whether she has the procedure done or not. As the story progresses, the power shifts back and forth in the verbal tug-of-war, and at the end, though it is a topic of fierce debate among Hemingway scholars, it seems that Jig has both gained the upper hand and made her decision.
Hemingway's feat in this story is to accomplish full, fleshed-out characterizations of the couple and a clear and complete exposition of their dilemma using almost nothing but dialogue. This dialogue even omits the main causes of disagreement: the words "abortion" and "baby." He also gives the reader a clear sense of how the power shifts in the couple's relationship.
The American is anxious for Jig to have the abortion because he "doesn't want anybody but [her]". He is interested in his life with Jig continuing as it has, globetrotting, and having sex in different hotels, as Hemingway's description of the couple's bags confirms: "Heâ€¦looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights." To make the operation seem less frightening, he asserts that it is perfectly simple. Interestingly, he never mentions that the operation is "safe," a notable omission.
Ultimately, the American's ammunition in this verbal duel with Jig is the ability to make the relationship emotionally hostile for her, as evidenced by his reactions to her comments about the appearance of the hills and the fact that everything she waits for tastes like licorice. Hemingway implies Jig is more emotionally invested in the relationship, which for the American is clearly mostly about sex.
Jig, for her part, is very reluctant to have the operation, cares to some degree about the baby ("Doesn't it mean anything to you?"), believes the couple's relationship has been irrevocably altered simply by the pregnancy ("It isn't ours anymore"), and does not believe an abortion will solve their problems anyway. Jig's ammunition is that the American will probably have to support her and the child in some way if she forgoes the abortion; the fact that he has not already left her signals that she has some kind of hold over him, though she may not be married to him. Perhaps he does actually love her, as he claims.
The American, as scholars have noted, clearly wants Jig to say she wants the operation in order to absolve himself of blame, and Jig clearly refuses to give her partner that satisfaction. If she has the operation, she maintains wordlessly, it will be because he has forced her to. That, at least, is her attitude throughout the story. Whether an inner struggle will produce a different attitude later on remains unclear. However, at the end of the story, Jig seems to have gotten the upper hand. Jig all of a sudden begins smiling at the barmaid and at the American; she seems to have a new confidence and serenity about her, and the American gives up the argument to take the bags to the other side of the tracks. It seems that he realizes he has lost the argument and he takes a few minutes away from her to drink another liqueur in the bar before returning to their table. Once there, he asks if she feels better and she smiles serenely at him, telling him she is fine and betraying no anxiety of any kind.
One of the most notable aspects of this story is that Hemingway breaks with his typical "bitch goddess" characterization of women. Jig is a sympathetic character, ultimately more sympathetic, scholars have argued, than the American. She sees the issue of the abortion as a multilayered question, and considers the impact it will have upon her relationship with the American, upon the child itself, and upon the couple's economic means ("We could get along.") The American, on the other hand, considers only that he wants life to continue in a carefree fashion and that he wants to evade the responsibilities of fatherhood. Accordingly, he tries to bully Jig into the procedure, and this very bullying, and Jig's resistance to it, make her the protagonist of the story.
Another important feature of the story that backs up the idea that Jig is the protagonist is that Jig appreciates the beauty of the train station's natural surroundings. Hemingway was a great believer in the power of nature to edify and uplift people, and the fact that Jig understands and values "fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro," along with their attendant mountains and shadows of clouds, indicates that she is the character with her priorities straight. Later in the story, Hemingway states, "the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table." Once again, Jig is looking to nature as a guide in her time of crisis while the American ignores the scenery.
The title of the story has led many to speculate on what the "white elephant" symbolizes for the couple. A white elephant is generally thought of as unusual and cumbersome, in short, a problem. Various theories exist. The white elephant could be the pregnancy, the baby itself, the abortion, Jig's reluctance to get the abortion, the American's insistence that Jig abort, Jig herself and the American himself. The most popular choices among scholars are that the white elephant is the baby/pregnancy (the obvious choice) and the American himself, given his bullying of Jig.
"Hills Like White Elephants" is full of similes and metaphors as the language is throughout devoid of the words "abortion" and "baby" while that is all the characters are talking of. For example, at the beginning, Jig comments that the anis del toro tastes like licorice, and the man says that's the way with everything, to which the girl replies "Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe." The man then replies, "Cut it out," rather a strong reaction to a seemingly innocuous comment. It is possible that "absinthe" stands for something to the couple that the reader is not aware of, but it is also possible that Jig is referring to how she has waited her whole life to get pregnant and have a baby but now it is being spoiled for her by the American.
Study Questions for "Hills Like White Elephants"
1. Looking back on the story, list the evidence that tells what kind of operation Jig is confronting. How risky is it physically and emotionally?
2. Are you surprised that this story was written by a man? Why or why not?
3. How do the hills in the story spotlight Jig's decision? How does Jig see the setting as symbolic of her choices?
4. How does the fact that Jig sees the setting symbolically get us to identify with her more readily than if the author had suggested the symbolism to us directly? Note the symbolism of the two different landscapes on either side of the Zaragosa train station, plus the possible symbolism of the curtain, as suggested in the commentary beside the story.
5. Hemingway once suggested that his purpose in such a story is to tell the reader as little as possible directly yet to reveal characters' motives and their conflict. How does this principle operate in this story? Where would you like to have more information (besides "he said" and "she said")?