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The hills represent objectification and symbolize permanency while simultaneously symbolizing illusion, specifically, the illusion of how one thing can be reminiscent of another wholly dissimilar thing.
Hemingway chose this representation and symbol for the story title because the story's themes include
- objective point of view and objectification of an issue.
- the question of permanency in seemingly impermanent post-World War life.
- illusion and illusionary relationships.
It is "the girl," Jig, who sits gazing at the hills and seeing in them reminiscence of other unrelated things. First, however, the narrator introduces the hills as the first and foremost part of the setting:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees ....
Then Jig is shown by Hemingway as being preoccupied with the hills: "The girl was looking off at the line of hills." In her distancing preoccupation, she identifies the hills with something whimsical and far-fetched: "They look like white elephants." Jig's preoccupation is in part escapism and in part distancing and in part, perhaps, also yearning, too.
She escapes the saddening conversation about the unstated topic by submerging herself in daydreams about the hills as one might submerge oneself in daydreams about clouds. She distances herself from the topic and conversation and from "the American" by gazing at, thinking about, and talking idly about the distant, illusionary hills.
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.
Permanency and illusion represent the relationship Jig has with the American man. The longest exchange of dialogue in the story begins with a repetition of whether or not they can "have everything," with Jig quietly insisting that they cannot have because it is taken away. Jig insists their happiness has no permanency.
Illusion applies to the hills--their illusion of being like "white elephants"--and to the relationship between Jig and the man. The illusion of their relationship is revealed to Jig and to us when he slips and says "if it means anything to you." Jig, noticing, asks, "Doesn’t it mean anything to you?" His reply continues the illusion, "Of course it does," then shatters it again, "And I know it's perfectly simple."
In summary, Hemingway chose the title for all that it represents and symbolizes, especially as it symbolizes the illusionary and impermanent nature of the man's relationship with Jig and the opportunity created in which they "could get along."
As an aside, the issue of abortion is pinpointed as the man describes the "procedure," a description that fits abortion as performed in that era. Also, Jig is drinking beer and absinthe because it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that significant attention was given to whether pregnant women should or should not drink. This story is set in the post-World War I era as it was first published in 1926.
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