What is the relationship between the two characters in the story "Hills Like White Elephants"?  What is the point of contention between them?

The relationship between the two characters in "Hills Like White Elephants" is a romantic and sexual one. An unnamed American man and a woman he calls Jig are involved, and she has become pregnant. The point of contention between them is that the man wants Jig to have an abortion, and Jig seems hesitant. She wants them to be happy like they were before she got pregnant, but she also seems to want to keep the baby.

Expert Answers

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

To say the least, the relationship between Jig and the unnamed American man waiting for the train with her is complicated. They have clearly been in a romantic and sexual relationship, which has led to Jig being pregnant. However, it is clear that the two are very different. While the man's attitude seems bored and disinterested, both in their surroundings and in Jig's pregnancy, Jig’s approach to both their surroundings and her pregnancy seems lively and imaginative.

She is focused on the surrounding hills, noticing their resemblance to white elephants, while her partner simply sits quietly, waiting for the train to arrive. It is apparent that there is significant tension between the two, and the point of contention appears to be that he wants her to have an abortion, while she wants to keep her baby.

Jig has agreed, unhappily, to have the abortion when the two arrive in Madrid, and it is part of the man’s attempt to keep Jig on board with this plan that he keeps assuring her that the procedure is a simple one, and that having it done will result in their relationship being unchanged. It was perfectly natural for Jig to be afraid given that, at the time, abortion was illegal just about everywhere in the world.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The relationship between the two characters in the story, an unnamed man and a woman called Jig, appears to be quite complex. Though they are clearly lovers—Jig is carrying the man's unborn child—there doesn't appear to be much in the way of real intimacy between them.

The way they conduct themselves around each other is awkward, to say the least. When Jig expresses her opinion that the surrounding hills look like white elephants, it's notable that the man's response is dour and phlegmatic. Among other things, this tells us that her world isn't his world. These lovers are like ships that pass in the night, as distant from each other as if they'd never even met.

Jig's focus is on the outside world, which is somewhat ironic given that she is carrying her lover's baby, which one would've thought would be her main preoccupation. And it this imaginative connection with the world around her that forms the main bone of contention between herself and her lover. Far from being imaginative, the man is brusque and down-to-earth—a man of few words, none of which are in the least bit memorable.

Jig and her lover are clearly on completely different wavelengths. It isn't surprising, then, that there is so much tension between them. The only surprise is that they ever got together in the first place.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The two characters in the story—an unnamed American man and a woman called "Jig"—are involved romantically. Jig asks the American if soon things will be like they were before and "you'll love me?" He assures her that he does love her "now" but that he is simply worried and preoccupied. He claims that she "know[s] how [he] get[s]." Jig, however, seems more concerned about their being happy and things going back to the way they were "before," while the American is thinking about an "operation" that he clearly seems to want Jig to have.

The point of contention, as you put it, between them is what the American says is "really an awfully simple operation" where "they just let the air in and then its all perfectly natural." Jig seems to be unconvinced by the American's assurances that the couple will be "fine afterward. Just like [they] were before." He claims that "That" is the only thing that "bothers [them]" and makes them "unhappy." We have to do some reading between the lines here, but it seems as though they are discussing the possibility of Jig having an abortion.

This makes sense in the context of the hills that she says look like "white elephants," as well as the title of the story. White elephants were sometimes given as gifts by monarchs in southeast Asia. Because these elephants were considered sacred, they could not be put to work, they would cost a small fortune to feed and house, and receivers could be bankrupted by the cost of caring for these animals. Thus, the "gift" could become a sort of curse, though it was meant to be a blessing. It seems, then, that Jig is thinking of how this baby could be seen as a blessing, that the couple "could have everything," but the American man sees it as a curse to be gotten rid of.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The man and the girl he calls Jig are lovers. It is possible that they are married. They have been traveling around Europe together for a long time, judging from all the hotel labels on their luggage. Jig has become pregnant, and the man has persuaded her to have an abortion in Madrid. They are waiting at a transfer station for the express train to Spain's capital city. Although Jig has agreed to have the abortion, she is not at all happy about it. The man is afraid she will change her mind, which explains why he keeps assuring her that it is a very simple operation and that their relationship will be just the same afterwards. She knows it could be a dangerous operation and feels sure it will destroy their relationship. They do not use the word abortion because that is understood. Also, they are breaking the law and doing it in a foreign country where they could get into even more serious trouble than they would at home. The story was published in 1927, when abortion was strictly illegal almost anywhere in the world. The big point of contention between them is simply that he wants her to have an abortion and she wants to keep the baby.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial