"Hills Like White Elephants" depicts a relationship stuck in limbo. The man wants his girlfriend, Jig, to get an operation (usually interpreted as an abortion). Jig wants to keep the baby. For such a spare story, using a minimum of words, Hemingway spends a good deal of time describing setting and locating the characters carefully within it. The setting reflects the unhappy situation of this couple.
First, we see that Jig and her boyfriend are stuck at a train station in Spain, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. After moving their luggage, the boyfriend looks up in hopes of the train's arrival:
He looked up the tracks but could not see the train.
This mirrors the way their relationship is at an impasse, going nowhere. They are waiting for a train—for movement forward—but in the story, that never comes, revealing how stuck they are not only at the train station but also with their decision about the abortion and in their relationship as a whole.
Hemingway also puts the couple alone together at a table outside a bar, separated from it by a beaded curtain that is meant to keep the flies out. Are they the flies, buzzing at each other but not communicating anything meaningful? When the narrator goes to put the luggage on the platform, he passes through the bar, which is filled with people. The couple, however, is isolated, reflecting their inner isolation as well as their isolation from other people. They don't seem to have anyone to turn to for help in their crisis, which they won't even admit is a crisis.
Jig looks for solid ground, something physical to hold on to as her boyfriend pushes the abortion. She wants an anchor, but her boyfriend isn't providing it. A bead curtain is fairly insubstantial, but Jig holds it anyway:
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads . . .
We also learn that the train station is set between a fertile valley on one side—
Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains . . .
—and a dry, barren valley on the other:
the hills on the dry side of the valley.
This setting mirrors the choice the couple must make between barrenness (abortion) and fertility (having the baby).
The loneliness, isolation, and limbo of their setting, along with the choice represented by the two valleys around them, symbolizes the plight of the couple. Their future seems bleak and not very hopeful, even though they could, if they wanted, choose fertile ground.