Hemingway believed that the omission of certain facts about characters or plot helped strengthen his stories. He hoped that readers would bring their own interpretations and abilities to infer important details. For example, in the novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway never overtly tells his reader that Jake Barnes is impotent because of a wound suffered during World War I, yet the fact is implied and acts as a metaphor for the impotence of his generation.
On the surface, the short story "Hills Like White Elephants" appears to be about a casual conversation between two lovers as they travel through Spain. Hemingway, however, immediately signals that there is a problem in the first paragraph with his description of the setting. He writes that the train station was "between two lines of rails in the sun," suggesting that this couple may be on the verge of going their separate ways. There is a curtain over the door to the bar, and the couple sits in the shade, implying they may have something to hide.
Eventually the woman observes that the hills in the distance look like white elephants. In many societies, a white elephant is a gift that may prove to be burdensome. Legend has it that the King of Siam would give away albino elephants to his enemies in the hope that the upkeep of the animal would destroy the recipient. In Hemingway's story, the white elephant in question is the unborn baby which the woman carries.
The conversation leads to a rejection of the baby by the man who suggests the woman should have an abortion. He describes the process by saying, "I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in." The woman seems to repel from the man's advice. When he contends things will be fine between them afterward, she says, "No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back." Finally, Hemingway hints that this is the end for the couple's relationship by showing them drinking in separate places in the bar:
He drank an anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.