In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the image of the white elephant functions symbolically rather than literally. Thus we probably should interpret “having seen” a white elephant not necessarily in terms of having been in the physical presence of an albino elephant, but in terms of an inner or spiritual vision. The most important literary allusion here is to the white elephant seen by the mother of the Buddha while she was pregnant. The American, being male and rational rather than spiritual in unlikely to have seen or understand such a vision. Jig, being female and pregnant, is more likely to understand the religious imagery, especially as it pertains to the baby she is carrying.
Since a white elephant is a metaphoric expression for something that is a burdensome possession, the question of why the American does not perceive the hills as white elephants while the girl does is, indeed, cogent. Perhaps, the key to the answer is the fact that the hills like white elephants are in the distance, "across the valley."
For, it is Jig who perceives beyond the immediacy of the moment. This perception of Jig's is confirmed in the couple's dialogue as the American's myopia is instantly apparent:
"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer.
"No, you wouldn't have."
Jig thinks intuitively which allows her to sense the long-range effects of any actions that they take. She, therefore, is the one who understands that all is not as the man says,"perfectly simple." Repeatedly, then, she questions the American, asking if he will be happy and love her if she has the operation, asking also if he will no longer worry,
Intuitively, Jig understands that the operation will become "a white elephant" of memory and experience that can never be gotten rid of. For instance, when the American tells her that if she has the abortion, they can have everything, "We can have the whole world," Jig replies,
"No, we can't. It isn't ours any more."
"It's ours." [the man]
"No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back."
Near the end of the story, in a symbolic gesture, Jig looks back at "the dry side of the valley" while the man merely looks at her.
Very few people have ever seen a white elephant. It is highly unlikely that Jig would ever have actually seen one, except perhaps in a picture. A lot of hills look like dead elephants, if you look at them with imagination. The hills in this story look like dead white elephants because of the setting. The climate is so hot and dry that the hills have all become bleached white. Hemingway strongly believed in using description in order to make the reader feel that he is actually present at the scene of the story or novel. "Hills Like White Elephants" presents a vivid picture and "feel" of the setting through description and dialogue. It is a little, insignificant railway station in Spain. The weather is hot, as usual. The land is dry, almost like a desert. The whole picture is framed by the mountains in the background. This is a little incident in the lives of two people. You as a reader are drawn into it and experience the heat, the desolation, and the emotions of both the man and the woman. The feeling is more important than any "meaning." Heminigway once said something to the effect that the "why" is not important, but it is the "what" that is important. He was influenced by Stephen Crane in this respect, as well as by Joseph Conrad. These authors thought the most important task of the writer was to make you feel that you are there.