The main conflict in the story “Hills Like White Elephants” is the debate between the man and his girlfriend Jig over whether or not to abort their unborn baby that Jig is carrying. The man obviously wants—and pressures—Jig to have an abortion while Jig is reluctant to go through with the procedure. The man and Jig are a young American couple backpacking through Spain, carefree and supposedly in love. The baby would disrupt their relationship and lifestyle of wanderlust. In fact, the fetus is a “white elephant.” The term “white elephant” originally referred to an albino elephant which was considered holy in Asian countries (e.g., India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka) during ancient times. Although expensive to feed, a white elephant needed to be cared for and made available to worship. Today, the term “white elephant” refers to a burdensome object that requires more expense (in time, money, and trouble) than it is worth in value and use. A “white elephant” may not be easy to get rid of.
When Jig tries to lighten the mood by commenting that a line of the hills resembles white elephants and that everything tastes like licorice—even an alcoholic drink like absinthe—the man tells her to stop being silly. He also replies that he has never before seen a white elephant. Jig notes that indeed, "No, you wouldn't have." As a male, Jig’s boyfriend and father of the baby does not bear the physical and emotional burden of the child; he does not seem to realize how difficult a decision aborting the child is. This disparity between Jig and the man’s views of the abortion creates the story’s main conflict.
The man downplays the seriousness of the procedure, calling it a “really an awfully simple operation… not really an operation at all." He says that an abortion is just letting “the air in and then it's all perfectly natural." In fact, it will solve and get rid of their problem (i.e., the baby, which is “the only thing that's made us unhappy") and that everything will be fine afterwards, enabling them to return to their carefree past. Meanwhile, Jig looks down and away, obviously uncomfortable with the idea.
The man states that he would support her either way: “If you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to.” Through the characters’ dialogue and Jig’s physical actions, however, Hemingway reveals the underlying conflict between Jig and the man. Jig asks the man, “if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?” Although the man claims to love her, he is pressuring her into aborting the baby. Understandably worried about the procedure itself, Jig is insecure about their relationship and will go through with it because the man worries and she wants to make him feel better.
The man wants their relationship and life to return to how it was before the pregnancy; in fact, he truly believes that they can reclaim their freedom and “have the whole world.” Jig, on the other hand, realizes that they cannot. She just wants to move on with life and for him to stop talking and trying to convince her otherwise.