Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

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What happens in Hills Like White Elephants?

An unnamed American man and a woman named Jig wait for the train to Barcelona. While they wait, they drink beer at a table outside of the station bar, which advertises a drink called Anis del Toro on a beaded curtain.

  • Jig wants to try the Anis del Toro drink. It tastes like licorice, which disappoints her. She stares out at the countryside, remarking that the hills look "like white elephants." He doesn't find this amusing, under the circumstances.
  • Jig and the American man are deciding whether or not to get an abortion. He tells her the operation is nothing to worry about: they just "let the air in." He also tells her that he doesn't want her to get the abortion if she doesn't want to.
  • Jig walks to the end of the station, upset. When she comes back, she claims they could "have everything." It's clear that she wants to keep the child but that she's going to get the abortion to please her boyfriend. In the end, they board the train headed to Madrid.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

An unnamed American man and a young woman, Jig, are waiting for the express train from Barcelona; they are on the terrace of a small station-bar and seem to be on their way to Madrid. The story consists entirely of a seemingly objective documentation of their words and actions during their forty-minute wait for the train. The surface events are very simple. The woman looks at the hills across the valley of the Ebro, suggests that they order a drink, tries to engage the man in light conversation, responds briefly and unhappily to his assertion that an operation that she is to have is “really not anything . . . it’s all perfectly natural”; she then stands up, walks to the end of the station, looks at the hills again, speaks angrily, sits back down, demands that he “stop talking,” drinks in silence, and finally assures him that she feels “fine.” The only actions of the man not accounted for in this detailing of the woman’s movements occur after she asks him to “stop talking” and before she asserts that she is “fine.” During that brief period, he carries their bags “around the station to the other tracks” and stops to drink an anisette at the bar alone.

Clearly, little happens and not much is said, but just beneath the surface of these spare and dull events, a quiet but crucial struggle between these two characters has been resolved. The future course of their relationship appears to have been charted in these moments, and the fate of their unborn child determined. Their very first words not only reveal tension between these two but also suggest that there are perhaps fundamental differences between them. The woman is interested in the world around her, concerned with being friendly, vital, and imaginative; the man, on the other hand, is self-involved, phlegmatic, and literal.“They look like white elephants,” she said. “I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer. “No, you wouldn’t have.” “I might have,” the man said.

What is critical in this story, as in Hemingway’s fiction generally, is the ironic gap between appearance and reality. The seemingly petty conversation here about hills and drinks and an unspecified operation is in actuality an unarticulated but decisive struggle over whether they continue to live the sterile, self-indulgent, decadent life preferred by the man or elect to have the child that Jig is carrying and settle down to a conventional but, in Jig’s view, rewarding, fruitful, and peaceful life.

In spite of his transparent assertions to the contrary (“I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to”), it is clear that the man wants Jig to have an abortion so that they can be “just like we were before.” Their life together up to this point seems to have been composed primarily of travel and aimless self-gratification: “That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?” “I guess so.” The woman apparently yields to his unacknowledged insistence...

(The entire section is 1,488 words.)