What is the symbolism of the anise / licorice / absinthe ?

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The short story “Hills like white elephants” talks about a girl called Jig who is waiting to take the express to Madrid with her American boyfriend. As they wait, they talk about an operation that Jig is supposed to have. Their conversation verges on an argument as it becomes increasingly clear that Jig is not keen on going through with the operation, even though her boyfriend is totally for it. The operation in question is an abortion.

The couple orders a drink called Anis del Toro, which they have with some water. Jig has never had this drink before. Upon tasting it, she says, “It tastes like licorice," to which the man replies, “That’s the way with everything." Jig then says, “Yes, everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe." Her companion is not amused by her comment and says, “Oh, cut it out."

In trying to understand the symbolism in this part of the couple’s conversation, we need to understand the meanings of “licorice” and “absinthe” in the given context. Absinthe is a distilled, bitter-sweet, anise-flavored drink with high alcoholic content. It is mostly diluted with water before consumption. It also has narcotic-like effects and tastes like licorice. It is worth noting that absinthe was banned in most parts of the western world, in the early years of the twentieth century, due to its narcotic-like effects on people. Licorice, on the other hand, is a sweet tasting aromatic plant extract used in making candies and liquors. So when Jig says that everything tastes of licorice, she could be referring to their life as a couple, a life that has been focused on travels and drinking sprees, a heady life that has little real substance. It is a bitter-sweet life, sweet because of the fun, and bitter because of the consequences of the fun, such as the unwanted pregnancy. She compares their life to absinthe, perhaps drawing on the narcotic-like effects of the drink. She could be saying that their heady life is addictive, so that it is momentarily sweet, with dire long-term effects.

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