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In American culture, a white elephant is a possession that is useless and a burden to its owner as it is often expensive to maintain and difficult, if not impossible to dispose of. Thus, it is significant that in "Hills Like White Elephants," Jig envisions the hills, like a pregnant womb, as white elephants. For, it is this pregnancy of Jig that causes the rift between her and her American boyfriend, who perceives the pregnancy as an inconvenience and impediment to their carefree lifestyle.
The American tells Jif if she has an "awfully simple operation," they, then, "can have the whole world...We can go everywhere." But, Jig realizes that, like a white elephant that often comes back to the owner who has tried to dispose of it, their life can never be the same if she has an abortion: "And once they take it [her innocence] away, you never get it back," she tells her boyfriend. She and he cannot move forward in their lives with their former insouciance because the memory of the unborn child will always loom over them, creating a burden on their happiness.
Hemingway attached great importance to making the reader feel present at the scene of the story. He was willing to sacrifice the who-what-where-why-when of an event in order to go straight after the feeling of "being there." He was an admirer of Stephen Crane and Joseph Conrad. Both of these older writers were noted for their ability to make the reader feel present at the setting where the action was taking place, as can be seen in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Crane's The Open Boat. "Hills Like White Elephants" is a good example of his technique. Among other things, Jig's reference to the hills in the distance establishes the perimeter of the setting. The hills are bleached white by millenia of blazing sunlight. The man mentions that the weather is hot, which is why they decide to drink cold beer. Hemingway appeals to all the senses with the possible exception of the sense of smell. He has both characters talk about the taste of licorice, which is very effective because every reader knows what licorice tastes like and can almost taste it from reading the word. We can taste the flavor and coldness of the beer. The girl feels a few of the beads in the curtain advertising Anis del Toro. They feel the heat. The American feels the weight of the heavy bags when he carries them over to where they will board the Madrid train. We can visualize the hills in the distance and can almost see and hear the big train even before it will pull in with all the squeaking, screeching, and squealing of the locomotive. We ought to be able to smell the odors of liquor and urine emanating from behind the bead curtain. We can hear the intonations of Jig's and the man's voices and the exotic tones of the few words spoken in Spanish, which so quickly and effectively reinforce the idea that we are in a foreign country. The story only gives us a glimpse into two people's lives, but we have shared their problems, regrets and sorrows while they were here. We have felt their feelings, including their guilt. Maybe we shouldn't try to judge them.
The title of this short story is used to refer to the comparison that Jig makes between the hills she sees in the distance and white elephants. So much of this story lies in the subtext, of what is not actually being said, and this is true of the comparison. The reader is presented with a woman who is desperately trying to please her lover, and is willing to alter her vision of the world as a result. Note how she backtracks a few lines later:
They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the colouring of their skin through the trees.
Through this modification of her original view, Hemmingway establishes that what is really at stake in this short story is her body and her will. In the context of the story, the reader comes to understand that Jig needs to make a terrifying choice about whether to stay with her partner and get an abortion, or to keep the baby and lose her partner. The way in which she modifies her vision of the hills strongly suggests that she will take the former option. The comparison to the hills therefore points towards the real topic of the title: a conflict of wills.
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