What is so important about the setting in "Hills Like White Elephants"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As symbols, the hills which resemble "white elephants," the treeless railroad tracks, and the station, represent the characters and their relationship as they imbue the narrative with meaning.

In his typical minimalist style, Ernest Hemingway's story, "Hills Like White Elephants" is wrought with ambiguity as the narrative consists of apparently trivial conversation between a young woman named Jig and an unnamed man.  Thus, in order to understand the implications their conversation, the reader must infer meaning from the symbols of the setting.  For one thing, it is Jig only who bothers to look to the horizon, calling attention to the large hills,white in the sun: 

"They look like white elephants," she said.

"I've never seen one," the man drank his beer.

"No, you wouldn't have."

That the man does not acknowledge or care to look at the "white elephants" indicates his self-absorption and lack of interest beyond anything that concerns his immediate desire which is apparently drinking a beer.  Of course, the symbolism of the hills extends  meaning to the man's uncaring and selfish feelings about Jig's pregnancy and his desire to be rid of their "white elephant" that threatens his independence and the careless relationship that they now have.  In Jig's use of the word skin in reference to these hills, there is also the added mimicking of the white hills as her belly that may go to "have the air let in" with the "awfully simple operation." Significantly, also, Jig knows that the man's protestation "If you don't want  to, you don't have to" is empty and worthless like a white elephant.  She replies,

"...But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?" 

Similarly signficant in meaning, the railroad tracts mimic the separation of attitude and thought between Jig and the man, indicating that there is no compromise--Jig must either decide to have an abortion or she will lose her paramour; either way, however, their lives will not come together.  The barren hillside signifies the future ahead for her:

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

With the barren hills in the distance, the man's looking only at the girl and the table imports that he continues in his narrow and selfish point of view while she sees beyond to their meaningless future.

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