2 Plot summaryThe story takes place at a train station in the Ebro River valley of Spain. The time setting is not given, but is almost certainly contemporary to the composition (1920s). This particular day is oppressively hot and dry, and the scenery in the valley is barren and ugly for the most part. The two main characters are a man (referred to only as "the American") and his female companion, whom he calls Jig.
3 While waiting for the train to Madrid, the American and Jig drink beer and a liquor called Anis del Toro, which Jig compares to Licorice, showing how young she really is. Their conversation is mundane at first, but quickly drifts to the subject of an operation which the American is attempting to convince Jig to undergo. Though it is never made explicit in the text, it is made clear (through phrases of dialogue such as "It's just to let the air in" and "But I don't want anybody but you," among numerous context clues) that Jig is pregnant and that the procedure in question is an abortion.
4 After posing arguments to which the American is largely unresponsive, Jig eventually assents to the operation, giving the final justification: "I don't care about me." She attempts to drop the subject, but the American persists as if still unsure of Jig's intentions and mental state. As the train approaches, he carries their bags to the platform and has a drink alone before rejoining Jig. She smiles at him, assures him that she is "fine", and the story ends.
5 Themes and recurring elements "Hills Like White Elephants" is thematically rich, given its short length and sparse narrative. On the surface, it deals with concepts such as the conflict between personal responsibility and hedonism; rhetorical and psychological manipulation; coming of age; and the dynamics of the romantic relationship and its metamorphosis into the family.
6 Jig's reference to white elephants could be in reply to the baby Jig's reference to white elephants could be in reply to the baby. The American could see the baby as a white elephant and not want to raise it because of the cost, while Jig could see the child as an extraordinary addition to her mundane life of drinking and mindless traveling.
7 Symbolism and settingThe title of the story refers to an aspect of its setting which is symbolically important in many ways. Jig draws a simple simile by describing the hills across the desolate valley as looking like white elephants. The implication is that, just as Jig thinks the hills in the distance look like white elephants, the American views the couple's unborn child as an approaching obstacle, a hindrance to the status quo or status quo ante---a white elephant. To avoid this impending responsibility, he hypocritically attempts to manipulate Jig into having an abortion by presenting the operation as a simple procedure that is in her best interests, a panacea for all that is ailing her and troubling their relationship.
8 Furthermore, this symbolism combined with Jig's question "That's all we do, isn't it--look at things and try new drinks" and her statement that even exciting new things she has waited a long time to try, like absinthe (sometimes valued as an aphrodisiac), merely end up "tasting like licorice," implies that the couple's perpetually ambling, hedonistic lifestyle has become something of a metaphorical white elephant to her. It appears that she seeks more stability and permanence in life; "It isn't ours anymore," she complains of the carefree lifestyle she and the American have been pursuing from one hotel to the next.
9 The symbolism of the hills and the big white elephant can be thought of as the image of the swollen breasts and abdomen of a pregnant woman, and to the prenatal dream of the mother of the future Buddha in which a white elephant (in this case, a symbol of prestigious leadership) enters her womb.
10 Apart from the eponymous hills, other parts of the setting provide symbolism which expresses the tension and conflict surrounding the couple. The train tracks form a dividing line between the barren expanse of land stretching toward the hills on one side and the green, fertile farmland on the other, symbolizing the choice faced by each of the main characters and their differing interpretations of the dilemma of pregnancy. Jig focuses on the landscape during the conversation, rarely making eye contact with the American.
11 At the end of the story, the American takes the initiative to pick up the couple's luggage and port it to the "other tracks" on the opposite side of the station, symbolizing his sense of primacy in making the decision to give up their child and betraying his insistence to Jig that the decision is entirely in her hands.
12 Jig's name is symbolically significant, as is the fact that her real name is never given, that "Jig" is only her lover's pet name for her. In addition to being a dated slang term for sexual intercourse, the word jig can mean a sprightly Celtic dance or any of several different kinds of tools (whiskey measurer, fishing lure, woodworking tool, etc.); this implies that the American views Jig as more of a loving object or tool---a "fine time," to use his own words---than a person with feelings and values to be respected.
13 Dialogue"They look like white elephants," she said. "I've never seen one," the man drank his beer. "No, you wouldn't have." "I might have," the man said. "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything." The girl looked at the bead curtain. "They've painted something on it," she said. "What does it say?" "Anis del Toro. It's a drink." "Could we try it?"
14 The third-person narration reveals very few facts about the characters; it never explicitly states what it is that the couple is arguing. The reader must interpret their dialogue and body language to infer their backgrounds and their attitudes with respect to the situation at hand, and their attitudes toward one another. From the outset of the story, the contentious nature of the couple's conversation indicates resentment and unease.
15 Some critics have written that the dialogue is a distillation of the contrasts between stereotypical male and female relationship roles: in the excerpt above, for instance, Jig draws the comparison with white elephants, but the hyper-rational male immediately denies it, dissolving the bit of poetry into objective realism with "I've never seen one." She also asks his permission to order a drink. Throughout the story, Jig is distant; the American is rational. While the American attempts to frame the fetus as the source of the couple's discontent with life and one another, the tone and pattern of dialogue indicate that there may be deeper problems with the relationship than the purely circumstantial.
16 As usual, Hemingway here prefers to leave details of character to the sensibilities of the reader, allowing the characters to speak for themselves free of an omniscient narrator's subjective observations. This ambiguity leaves a good deal of room for interpretation; while most critics have espoused relatively straightforward interpretations of the dialogue (with Jig as the dynamic character, traveling reluctantly from rejection to acceptance of the idea of an abortion), a few have argued for alternate scenarios based upon the same dialogue.