What is the conflict between the couple in "Hills Like White Elephants"? Who is on which side of the issue? Consider how the setting reinforces the story. You may also want to think about the era in which the story takes place.

The conflict between the couple is whether or not Jig (the pregnant girlfriend) will undergo an abortion. While Jig seems reluctant to have an abortion, her boyfriend clearly wants her to. Set at a Spanish train station in the 1920s, the story explores the couple's decision to either abort the baby and continue on their fun travels or have the baby out of wedlock and settle down.

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In the short story, a young American couple stops at a train station in northern Spain. Through sparse text and without actually stating the word “abortion,” Hemingway reveals a conflict brewing between the two main characters, Jig and her unnamed boyfriend. They are debating whether or not the pregnant Jig should abort their unborn baby. If Jig were to abort the fetus, the couple could preserve their happy relationship and continue their carefree travels; on the other hand, if Jig were to have the baby, the couple’s nomadic lifestyle and freedom would be hindered or halted. Jig seems reluctant to undergo the medical procedure and abort the baby, while her boyfriend clearly wishes for an abortion.

The story’s action takes place at a small train station seemingly in the middle of nowhere between Barcelona and Madrid. The sun-drenched train station sits in a valley next to the Erbo River, across from a long line of white hills. Jig and her boyfriend sip drinks at a shaded bar adjacent to the station and discuss whether or not she should have an abortion. Although Hemingway does not state their next destination, they apparently are poised to embark on the next leg of their journey, both physically and metaphorically. The setting represents a geographic junction in their travels as well as an emotional junction in their relationship.

The arid, hot, and hostile landscape has

no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

The stark reality is that the couple have a major issue on their hands: the impending, life-changing birth of a baby. They cannot hide from this uncomfortable situation but must face it fully illuminated, like anything lit by complete sunlight. The only escape they have is the warm shade outside of the bar where they “look at things and try new drinks.” The bar is cheap (with felt pads for coasters and a curtain of beads imprinted with a type of liquor) and dirty (flies swarm around just outside). This setting reinforces the tawdriness of their relationship; after all, the story takes place in the 1920’s when sex and pregnancy out of wedlock was considered disreputable and immoral.

Interesting, Jig and her boyfriend chose to sit outside of the bar in the open air where “warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.” Her boyfriend tries to convince her that having an abortion is simply an operation is “just to let the air in.” Perhaps to combat his malevolent influence (i.e. killing the fetus), Jig fingers the bead curtain like a rosary when "she looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads." She then moves out of the shaded area in order to ponder her decision:

The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

Jig sees and appreciates light and life that her boyfriend does not—the white hills, the fields of grain, trees, the flowing river, and the mountains. Perhaps during her walk she considers not aborting the baby; nonetheless, her boyfriend calls her back into the darkness like the cloud obscuring sunlight from the fields. He commands her to “come on back in the shade” and sit with him as he further pressures her to terminate her pregnancy.

In the end, Jig seems to acquiesce to his request to have an abortion. Hemingway leaves her decision ambiguous—she may be giving in to keep their relationship intact, or she may be pretending to do so to make her boyfriend stop talking.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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