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

The setting is important in "Hills Like White Elephants" because it tells us so much about the relationship between Jig and the American. The immediate setting of the train station in Spain means that the couple don't "belong" to this place, just as they don't "belong" together. They are travelers, passing through, emotionally set apart. The hills in the distance also point to Jig's apparent realization that her relationship is not as good as she once thought it was.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several aspects of the setting in this story that carry meaning or produce significant effects. First, the young woman called "Jig" and the "American" man are at a train station, a place of coming and going but not belonging. They are on their way to somewhere and coming from somewhere, but for now, they are in a kind of limbo, just like they find themselves in an emotional limbo in their relationship. Second, the couple are in a country, Spain, to which they are not native. The man is "American," and Jig, for example, does not speak Spanish—she needs him to read and translate the words on the beaded curtain at the cantina for her. They are travelers, out of their comfort zones and familiar spaces, just as they are emotionally as well.

Third, the physical topography of the area, with its hills in the distance, evidently reminds Jig of white elephants. Jig's reference to a "white elephant" is an allusion to an old tale about the king of Siam and how he would give a white elephant as a gift to someone he didn't like. It seemed like a really nice gift, but because the elephant was sacred and could not be put to work, it would bankrupt the person who had to pay for its expensive care. Thus, the look of the hills in the setting is forcing Jig to think of something that is ultimately harmful even though it may seem like a good thing.

Perhaps the white elephant is her relationship with the American: it seems good until her unplanned pregnancy helps her to understand that they are not really a good fit for one another, and they become alienated from each other (just as they are alienated by the other factors in the setting).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Hills Like White Elephants" is a story about the "lost generation," a term used by Hemingway explicitly in his novel The Sun Also Rises to describe the young adults of the period immediately following the first world war. The characters in his works about this period exemplify this by being rootless expatriates, lacking close and permanent ties to other places or people. 

The setting of "Hills Like White Elephants" in a railroad station exemplifies this sense of being "lost." A railroad station is not a permanent place anyone inhabits but a place one passes through in transit to somewhere else. This lack of permanence is emblematic of the relationship between Jig and the man. Rather than getting married and raising their child, Jig is preparing to have an abortion, and the couple is drifting apart. Their efforts to be free of anchors to place, community, and person have left them adrift and unmoored, constantly in transit between places but never becoming part of those places. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team