illustration of train tracks with low hills in the background and one of the hills has the outline of an elephant within it

Hills Like White Elephants

by Ernest Hemingway

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How is the setting at a Spanish railroad crossing appropriate to the theme?

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The two people seem to be in the middle of nowhere. The hot, barren setting with the bleached mountains in the background is nearly surrealistic. This is a junction. They are waiting to transfer to the train to Madrid.

It was very hot and the express train from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

This information adds drama and suspense to the story. It provides what editors call a "ticking clock." Time is of the essence. Once they board that train to Madrid they are committed to doing what they have been talking about--finding an abortionist in Spain's major city, where they have the best chance of getting the illegal operation performed safely.The fact that the train is called an "express train" suggests that this interlude is only a temporary lull and that their lives will soon be speeding up exponentially, leading to that irrevocable act which will haunt the girl for the rest of her life.

The setting at the little cafe suggests that they are travelers. The hotel labels on their luggage shows that they have been everywhere. They are probably in Spain because everything is so cheap there. The two big glasses of beer cost them only the equivalent of about four American pennies. The girl is getting tired of being constantly moving from one place to another and living out of suitcases. She complains:

"That's all we do, isn't it--look at things and try new drinks?"

The desolation of the setting seems to suggest the desolation of modern life. They are all alone in a godless, meaningless world. The one thing that could provide meaning to both their lives is the one thing the American wants the girl to have destroyed. She knows intuitively that that will mean the end of everything. She knows it is wrong, regardless of how hard the man keeps trying to persuade her that it is right. The strangers inside the little cafe know nothing and care nothing about them. No one in the whole nation knows them or cares about them. They only have each other. And pretty soon that may end.

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