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In Hemingway's story the dialogue goes like this:
"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer.
"No, you wouldn't have."
There is a great deal of significance in this interchange, as there usually is in Hemingway's dialogue. The man wants to avoid that line of conversation. He is in no mood to be talking about the scenery. He wants to talk about the very serious problem they are both facing, and he especially wants to keep Jig persuaded to go ahead with the abortion. This seems indicated by the fact that he says, "I've never seen one" and immediately drinks his beer. The two sentences are separated by a comma rather than a period. It is a stupid, thoughtless, even rude reply to Jig's observation that the hills look like white elephants. Jig has never seen a white elephant either. Few people have ever seen an albino elephant. The man''s reply seems to suggest that he thinks Jig has actually seen a white elephant, when he should know she is only talking about the sun-bleached and eroded hills. She is talking about hills and he is talking about real elephants. He is obviously preoccupied with his own thoughts and not paying any attention to her. He is thinking about the logistics of their joint enterprise--getting to Madrid, finding the abortionist, paying for the operation, finding a place to stay and for Jib to recuperate, etc. But she sarcastically takes his reply to mean that he has never seen a hill that looks like a white elephant when the setting is surrounded by hills that look like white elephants. So when she says, "No, you wouldn't," she is subtly implying that the man is insensitive, unimaginative, even brutal. They are two different types, and they have gotten along well together because they complement each other. It is true that opposites often attract in male-female relationships. He is rational, practical and materialistic; she is idealistic and poetic. He makes a good leader, she makes a good companion and follower. She goes where he wants to go (not unlike the dying man's wife in "The Hills of Kilamanjaro) and does what he wants to do. She is having an abortion because he wants her to. However, her sarcastic response to his insensitive reply suggests that she is beginning to see through him--to see that he is selfish and cares a great deal more about his own comforts and pleasures and freedom than he cares about her. If she had any illusions about his being transformed into a good father, a husband, and a dependable provider, she is losing them now. She is being literally railroaded. This painful epiphany suggests that she has come to a final, definite conclusion to go ahead with the abortion, regardless of the danger and emotional trauma. It also suggests that she will leave him as soon thereafter as she can. The question of whether this pathetic young woman actually went ahead with the abortion seems definitely settled in the affirmative by the time the train arrives.
Jig’s comment that the American would not have seen a white elephant suggests first a European view of Americans as naive and ignorant, unfamiliar with much outside their own country.
The term itself invokes the albino elephants held sacred in south-east Asia because of their association with a vision the Buddha’s mother had before his birth. They were given as gifts. The gift was a great honour, but also, because they could not be used in a practical way and were expensive to keep, also a problem.
Since Jig is pregnant with the American’s baby, this invokes the difference in the way the two see the baby – she sees the precious side of the baby (like the sacredness of the white elephant) and he sees only the potential burden and expense.
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