What does a white elephant symbolize in the story?

A white elephant is a gift that turns out to be more like a burden. It is an allusion to a practice once used by the King of Siam. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” it symbolizes Jig’s feelings about her unborn child and the American man. She sees the baby as a potential gift, but he sees the baby as a potential burden.

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It's notable that Jig later changes her mind about the surrounding hills looking like white elephants. As has already been noted elsewhere, a white elephant is something that no one wants. Initially, it seemed that Jig's unborn baby wasn't wanted, at least not by her lover, at any rate. That being the case, it appeared likely that Jig wouldn't go through with giving birth to their child, that she'd have an abortion instead.

And yet as we move towards the conclusion of the story, the situation becomes a good deal more ambiguous. This ambiguity is reflected in the status of the surrounding hills, which as Jig now reflects, no longer look like white elephants after all. In fact, they look rather lovely, perhaps like a newborn baby.

One suggestion here is that perhaps Jig's having second thoughts about going through with a termination. Just as she's starting to see the surrounding hills in a different light, she's seeing her imminent abortion in a whole new perspective. Perhaps she's now starting to assert her independence from her lover and is further questioning whether or not she wants to go through with the abortion. The story's ending is unclear on this; however, it is obvious that the couple's relationship is anywhere from being "fine."

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When the girl remarks that the hills across the Ebro valley look like white elephants, the man responds that he has never seen a white elephant, to which she replies, "No, you wouldn't have." This irritates him, suggesting a deeper significance to the comment.

White elephants are very rare and were once given to nobles at the court of Siam as a mark of the king's favor. The upkeep of these animals, however, was so ruinously expensive that they eventually came to symbolize the exact opposite, and the king would give them to those he wished to harm. The current meaning of the term "white elephant," therefore, is something expensive and useless.

There remains the question of why the white elephants were so expensive to keep. They were smaller than ordinary elephants, meaning that they would theoretically cost less to feed. However, they had to be given special food and washed in a particular way because they were sacred. The idea of a white elephant in the story, therefore, is a complex symbol. To the man, it means something expensive and useless, which would limit his ability to do as he likes. To the girl, it means something sacred, which it would be an abomination to kill. In each case, the white elephant stands for the girl's unborn child. It is, however, an indictment of soulless modern society that it takes the side of the man in giving the term "white elephant" its commonly understood meaning, instead of perceiving it as something sacred.

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A white elephant is typically thought of as an unwanted gift, something that is actually rather a burden. It is an allusion to a legendary practice of the King of Siam, who would give actual rare white elephants to courtiers and friends. Because they thought of the white elephant as a sacred animal, the elephant could not be put to work or trained to earn its keep. Thus, the recipient of this “gift” would actually have to spend tons of money to house, feed, and care for the animal, so much so that it could actually cause real harm to the recipient financially.

In the story, Jig’s description of the distant hills as looking like “white elephants” seems to betray, on some level, her thinking about the unborn child she carries. To some people—even to her—it might seem like a gift, something special and good, but to the American man who has fathered the child, the baby seems more like a burden, something unwanted that would forever change life as the couple knows it. Communication between Jig and the American is pretty ineffective, but her use of the allusion “white elephants” does seem to betray her own feelings about her pregnancy, which run counter to the American man’s.

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According to eNotes:

A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.

So, the white elephant is the unborn baby that the couple is discussing. The woman, Jig, is obviously the owner and her unwillingness to dispose of the baby is clear, though she does not expressly denounce the idea. The much subtext and unstated tension between the couple. The unsaid and unseen are as important and symbolic as the said and seen.

According to the wonderful eNotes critical essay "Symbolism in 'Hills Like White Elephant,'" by Lewis E. Weeks:

Emphasis by position and repetition clearly suggests the importance Hemingway attached to the comparison. Besides the reference in the title, there are, within this very short three-page story, two references to the whiteness of the hills and four to them as white elephants, although one of these suggests that the hills do not look like white elephants but only have their coloring.

On first reading the title, one assumes the comparison may merely be to the color and to the rounded contour of the hills that constitute part of the setting, a quite literal reference. This impression is reinforced by the first sentence, the subject of which is ‘‘long and white’’ hills. The second time they are mentioned, they are contrasted with the countryside, which is brown and dry, suggestive of the limitations and aridity of the relationship of the man and woman, which begins to unfold and which is the basis of the conflict and the meaning of the story.

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