In "Hills Like White Elephants," Hemingway uses a symbolic physical landscape that represents an unplanned, unborn child. A young traveling couple—Jig the girl and an unnamed American man—stop for a drink while waiting at a train station along the Ebro river in Spain. The story opens with the words, "the hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white."
Jig gazes into the distance,
off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer.
Hemingway includes this detail of hills resembling white elephants to introduce the reader to the fetus as well as the characters' attitudes toward it. The term "white elephant" describes a burdensome, useless possession that requires more expense (in time, money, and trouble) to maintain than it is worth in value and practice. In ancient Asian countries (like Siam, today's Thailand), a "white elephant" referred to an albino elephant, which was considered sacred. As a holy animal, a white elephant could not be used for labor, only for worship. Nonetheless, a person gifted with one still had to feed and shelter the animal—in a lavish, expensive manner befitting its sacred status. Having a white elephant could financially ruin its unlucky owner.
To the formerly carefree couple with wanderlust, the unborn child seems to be a "white elephant." Certainly to the American man who has never "seen one," this accidental pregnancy has certainly cramped their lifestyle. He describes the baby as
the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy.
In fact, the fetus becomes like another expression: "the elephant in the room." This idiom describes an important and controversial topic that everyone knows about but refuses to acknowledge or say out loud. Similarly, while discussing whether or not Jig should undergo an abortion, the couple never names exactly what they are discussing; instead, they dance around the topic.
The American man wants Jig to have an abortion, but Hemingway does not explicitly name the procedure. Instead, the man describes it vaguely as "an awfully siimple operation." He continues,
"I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in."
The girl did not say anything.
"I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."
By this point in the story, the reader understands that the characters are discussing an abortion to get rid of the “white elephant" of the unborn child. The American man is pressuring Jig to undergo the operation and abort the child. On the other hand, Jig is more apprehensive about the medical procedure and perhaps not as willing to give up the baby. Earlier in the story, she even refers to hills as "lovely" and clarifies,
They don't really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.
Nevertheless, the man tries to reassure her that the "simple" operation will make them happy again:
I know we will. You don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it.
Jig reluctantly agrees because she wants to please her boyfriend and return to happier times when everything is "fine." She asks him,
But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?