Note: This story is super-short and the style in which it is written is an important aspect of the story—Hemingway knows what he's doing. We highly recommend that you read the full story. If you find the plot confusing, come check out this handy-dandy summary, which should help to clear up any tricky parts.
- The story begins with a description of the setting, which, frankly, sounds gorgeous.
- We are told that the view, looking across the Ebro River, is of some "hills." Those hills are not only "long," but also "white." (This is about as much description as you're going to get from Hemingway, guys.)
- Apparently, you can see the hills from the train station.
- At the train station there's a bar, with beaded curtains covering its doorway.
- Outside the bar, in the heat, a man (know as "the American) and a "girl" (whose name you will learn in a moment) sit at a table.
- They have about forty minutes to kill, waiting for a train coming from Barcelona and headed for Madrid.
- The man and the girl decide to have a couple of beers, and the man orders them in Spanish ("dos cervezas") (5).
- When the woman who works in the bar brings the beers, the girl is looking at the white hills, and she says, "They look like white elephants" (9). (Title alert!)
- The man claims never to have seen a white elephant, and the girl expresses a lack of surprise.
- So the man says he could have seen one, regardless of what she might think.
- Then the girl changes the subject by pointing out that words are painted on the beaded curtain hanging over the bar’s doorway. She asks the man what they mean.
- The man tells her that they say Anis del Toro (an anise flavored liquor.)
- She wants to give it a shot, so the man orders each of them one.
- The girl says, "It tastes like licorice" (25).
- (Anise is often used to flavor black licorice candy; anise and licorice root have similar flavors.)
- The girl says that lots of things, including absinthe, taste like licorice.
- The man tells the girl to quit goofing around, and she says she was just trying to make lighthearted conversation, to keep things pleasant.
- He agrees they should keep things pleasant.
- Then she asks him if it was smart what she said about the hills looking like white elephants, and he says it was.
- The girl makes a remark about how all they do is drink and see the sights.
- He halfheartedly agrees. The girl looks at the hills again, and admires them, saying that they don’t actually exactly look like white elephants, but that their skin looks like white elephant skin.
- They decide to get another couple of beers, and the man admires the beers.
- Suddenly, he brings up the topic of some kind of medical procedure he’s trying to convince the girl to have.
- He also calls her by her name, Jig, for the first time.
- When Jig doesn’t respond, he continues attempting to persuade her to have the procedure, which he claims is "to let the air in" (44).
- (This is clue number one that the man is most probably talking about Jig having an abortion.)
- Jig remains unresponsive, and the man continues trying to convince her to have the procedure, saying he’ll accompany her, and will stay with her.
- She asks him what will become of them after the procedure. He tells her that everything will go back to the way if was "before" (48).
- She questions his logic, but he explains that the situation is their only problem.
- Jig isn't convinced.
- He claims that he has known many others who have had the procedure (though he doesn’t say whether or not they were happy after).
- The girl says she too has known others who have had the procedure, and insinuates that at least some of them had issues after.
- Now the man says he doesn’t want her to have the procedure if she doesn’t want to, while stressing how easy and harmless it will be for her to have it.
- In turn, Jig asks him if he truly desires for her to have the procedure.
- He says he feels that "it’s the best thing to do," but only if she feels the same way (57).
- Jig asks if it will make him "happy," (52) and make him "love" her (58), prompting him to say that he already does love her.
- She wants to know if he will find her clever again, if saying clever things like what she said about the hills and the white elephants will amuse him again.
- Her repeats his affirmation of love.
- Finally, she says she’ll go ahead with the operation, because she no longer cares about herself.
- The man says she shouldn’t do it, if she has that attitude.
- So Jig stands and walks off a little, admiring the view of the river, and says they could have "had everything," but that their actions are making having everything "impossible" (71).
- The man argues that they can, in fact, still "have the whole world" (74) and go wherever they please.
- She argues back that no, somehow the world no longer belongs to them, and that they can never reclaim it.
- (This conversation is pretty subtle, to say the least. You aren’t supposed to be able to squeeze a literal meaning out of it. Just trust your instincts and you can understand the feeling the characters might be having as they talk.)
- Now the man seems to be trying to convince her not to have procedure.
- Jig seems to doubt his sincerity, and requests another foamy, alcoholic beverage.
- The man starts to talk, but she cuts him off, suggesting that they stop talking for a bit.
- But, the man continues, suggesting (most readers and critics agree) that they could get married instead.
- Jig seems to warm to the idea, and he tells her that she's his one and only.
- When he goes back to talking about how easy the procedure would be, she expresses some irritation, and then asks him to stop talking.
- (She says "please" a whopping seven times.)
- Now he tells her that he doesn't want her to have the procedure.
- She threatens to "scream" if doesn’t stop (101).
- The woman working in the bar brings them their drinks and informs them that the train is going to be coming soon.
- Jig asks the man what the woman said and he tells her. (This is a slightly confusing moment because what the woman says, presumably in Spanish, is essentially translated once for us, and then for Jig).
- The news brings a smile from Jig, and then the man gets up to move their luggage over to where the train will arrive. This also brings a smile from Jig.
- On his way back from leaving the bags, he goes inside the bar and has another Anis, then goes back to Jig.
- He wants to know if she "feel[s] better" (109).
- She tells him that she "feel[s] fine" (110), and says there isn’t anything the matter with her.
- (We should note that this is what you call an open-ended ending. We can only imagine what the final outcome will be for Jig and the man. Check out "What’s Up with the Ending?" for more.)
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: “He…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.