An unnamed American man and a young woman, Jig, are waiting for the express train from Barcelona; they are on the terrace of a small station-bar and seem to be on their way to Madrid. The story consists entirely of a seemingly objective documentation of their words and actions during their forty-minute wait for the train. The surface events are very simple. The woman looks at the hills across the valley of the Ebro, suggests that they order a drink, tries to engage the man in light conversation, responds briefly and unhappily to his assertion that an operation that she is to have is “really not anything . . . it’s all perfectly natural”; she then stands up, walks to the end of the station, looks at the hills again, speaks angrily, sits back down, demands that he “stop talking,” drinks in silence, and finally assures him that she feels “fine.” The only actions of the man not accounted for in this detailing of the woman’s movements occur after she asks him to “stop talking” and before she asserts that she is “fine.” During that brief period, he carries their bags “around the station to the other tracks” and stops to drink an anisette at the bar alone.
Clearly, little happens and not much is said, but just beneath the surface of these spare and dull events, a quiet but crucial struggle between these two characters has been resolved. The future course of their relationship appears to have been charted in these moments, and the fate of their unborn child determined. Their very first words not only reveal tension between these two but also suggest that there are perhaps fundamental differences between them. The woman is interested in the world around her, concerned with being friendly, vital, and imaginative; the man, on the other hand, is self-involved, phlegmatic, and literal.“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.
What is critical in this story, as in Hemingway’s fiction generally, is the ironic gap between appearance and reality. The seemingly petty conversation here about hills and drinks and an unspecified operation is in actuality an unarticulated but decisive struggle over whether they continue to live the sterile, self-indulgent, decadent life preferred by the man or elect to have the child that Jig is carrying and settle down to a conventional but, in Jig’s view, rewarding, fruitful, and peaceful life.
In spite of his transparent assertions to the contrary (“I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to”), it is clear that the man wants Jig to have an abortion so that they can be “just like we were before.” Their life together up to this point seems to have been composed primarily of travel and aimless self-gratification: “That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?” “I guess so.” The woman apparently yields to his unacknowledged insistence that she get an abortion; in order to do so, however, she must give up her self-respect and her dreams of a fruitful life: “I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” She does not seem to have the strength to resist his demands, but she is aware of the significance of her capitulation. She looks at the beauty, the life, the bounty across the tracks—fields of grain, trees, the river, mountains. “’We could have all this,’ she said. ’And we could have everything and everyday we make it more impossible.’” The abortion is not merely a “perfectly natural” or “simple operation” to her; it is a symbolic act as well, which will cut her off irrevocably from what is good and alive in the world: “It isn’t ours any more.” The man takes exception to her powerfully negative vision of their situation, but she has heard enough: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” He desists, moves their bags, wonders, while he drinks his anisette, why she cannot act “reasonably” like other people, and then returns to her as if nothing had happened. Perhaps Jig’s perception that their lives are sterile and that the man does not truly love, or know, or care for her will enable her to leave him and struggle alone to live a meaningful life; yet Hemingway gives the reader no solid reason to believe that she will do so. The story ends with an apparent lie: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” Presumably they board the train; she has the abortion; and their relationship continues its downward drift into emptiness and hypocrisy.