A story written almost entirely in dialogue, "Hills Like White Elephants" is an example of Ernest Hemingway's objective and concise prose that presents an unstated tension, a style known as The Iceburg Theory. For, hidden in this seemingly banal dialogue is a discussion of aborting the couple's unborn baby.
The narrative opens with the longest description of anything in the story. The setting is the Ebro Valley region of Spain, whose rounded hills are long and white, reminding the young woman, named Jig, of white elephants. There is a distinct tension between the couple as they await the train to Madrid in the heat. Although they have ordered two beers, the woman asks about a new drink that she sees, "Anise del Toro," and the man orders it. After the woman behind the bead curtain brings it, Jig thinks it tastes like licorice,
"Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you've waited so long for, like absinthe.
Angered, the man tells her to "cut it out."
Jig says that she is just trying to have fun.
"I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it—look at things and try new drinks?"
At this point the tension between the couple is clearly evident, but the cause is not revealed. Soon, however, the man speaks of an operation being very simple and natural--something she will not mind. He even offers to accompany her. Jig asks him,
"Then what will we do afterward?"
"We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before."
Implied in their dialogue is the conflict between Jig and her American. She fears that even if she does have the abortion, the man will no longer love her; at least things will no longer be the same between them. She tells the American that life will not entirely be theirs after an abortion when he argues that they can return to their carefree lives before anything happened."No, we can't. It isn't ours any more."
"No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back."
"But they haven't taken it away."
"We'll wait and see."
"Come on back in the shade," he said. "You mustn't feel that way."
"I don't feel any way," the girl said. "I just know things."
Jig realizes that they can never return to how they have been before she became pregnant if she has the "operation" that just "lets in air." In order to appease Jig, the man tells her that he will go through with having the baby if it means "anything" to her. But, in response, Jig begs him to stop talking because she knows that he is insincere.
At this point in the narrative, the train begins to approach. So the American carries their bags to the platform on the other side where they will enter the train. He looks up the tracks, but he cannot see the train just as he cannot understand the tumultuous feelings of Jig. On his way back, he sidetracks and has a drink of anise at the bar while looking at all the people who "sat reasonably waiting for the train."
Finally, although he promised to drink with Jig and stops instead at the bar, he comes through the curtain where she sits smiling at him.
Do you feel better?" he asked.
"I feel fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine."
His rational question is answered rationally and the American believes that he has won, and Jig now understands his way to thinking even though in the beginning she has spoken of things for which she has long waited.