Hills Like White Elephants Summary
An unnamed American man and a young woman named Jig wait for the train from Barcelona. While they wait at the station, they drink beer and talk.
- Jig stares out at the countryside, remarking that the hills look “like white elephants.” The man doesn't find this amusing.
- The couple are deciding whether or not to go through with an “operation.” The man repeatedly tells Jig that she doesn’t have to go through with it if she doesn’t want to.
- Jig walks to the end of the station, upset. When she returns, she tells the man that she feels “fine.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
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 that she get an abortion; in order to do so, however, she must give up her self-respect and her dreams of a fruitful life: “I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” She does not seem to have the strength to resist his demands, but she is aware of the significance of her capitulation. She looks at the beauty, the life, the bounty across the tracks—fields of grain, trees, the river, mountains. “’We could have all this,’ she said. ’And we could have everything and everyday we make it more impossible.’” The abortion is not merely a “perfectly natural” or “simple operation” to her; it is a symbolic act as well, which will cut her off irrevocably from what is good and alive in the world: “It isn’t ours any more.” The man takes exception to her powerfully negative vision of their situation, but she has heard enough: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” He desists, moves their bags, wonders, while he drinks his anisette, why she cannot act “reasonably” like other people, and then returns to her as if nothing had happened. Perhaps Jig’s perception that their lives are sterile and that the man does not truly love, or know, or care for her will enable her to leave him and struggle alone to live a meaningful life; yet Hemingway gives the reader no solid reason to believe that she will do so. The story ends with an apparent lie: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” Presumably they board the train; she has the abortion; and their relationship continues its downward drift into emptiness and hypocrisy.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698
“Hills Like White Elephants,” written in 1927, is told largely through dialogue. The story opens with a description of the setting, in rural Spain. We see a railway station between two lines of rails. It is hot, and there is no shade or trees.
The two central characters, an American man and a girl (whose nationality is not disclosed), sit at a table waiting for a train to Madrid. As they sit drinking beer, the girl notes distant white hills against the warm, dry country, and comments that they look like White Elephants. The man’s response and her reaction to it hint at tension between the pair.
This tension continues to simmer trough various attempts at small talk and the ordering of more drinks. Eventually, on the third drink, the man raises the subject of an operation he is encouraging the girl to have. It becomes apparent that the operation is an abortion. The man assures the woman that it is natural and that he will be there to support her if she goes ahead with it. Afterwards, he tells her, they will go on as before.
The girl seems unsure about having the abortion. When the American says he’s known lots of people who’ve done it, she says she has too, and adds with a hint of sarcasm that they were “so happy” afterwards.
When the man tells her she doesn’t have to do it if she doesn’t want to, she finally becomes serious, knowing the issue needs to be discussed. She questions whether things will be like they were before, and whether the man will still love her. He tries to reassure her, saying things will be better between them when he doesn’t have to worry about their current situation. The girl seems persuaded, saying she will do it to make things “fine” and because she doesn’t care about herself.
Leaving the table, the girl wanders to the edge of the station and looks at the scenery. In contrast to the scenery already noted, on the other side of the tracks she sees fields and trees, even a river. Her mood seems to change when she returns to the table. The landscape has, to her, mirrored their choice—on one side barren aridity, on the other, fertile life. Their relationship has been changed by his attempts to manipulate her and they will never “get it back.” His actions have made their future barren.
When the man tries to placate her, sensing her mood shift, she tells him to stop talking. She indicates that it is too late for him to make things better. He leaves her to get their bags ready for the train. He notes the other people waiting reasonably for their train—implying that he sees the girl as unreasonable. The story ends after he goes back, with the girl reassuring him that she feels “fine.”
While the focus appears to be the decision to have the abortion, the story is constructed to cleverly explore the relationship between the man and the woman. With little input from the narrator, the reader needs to interpret the feelings of the characters from what they say and, importantly, from what they don’t say.
The man’s irritability and perception of the woman as being unreasonable contradict his pretense that she has a choice. He patronizes her and appears to be talking to her as a child rather than a partner. Despite her claims that she doesn’t care about herself, the girl recognizes this crisis has changed their relationship. Whether she has the abortion or not is not her greatest concern—the man’s attitude and the pressure he is applying have shown her a side of his personality she has possibly not seen before, and changed their relationship irrevocably.
The setting of the story is also very important. The contrast between the landscape on either side of the station parallels the choice of the characters—life and fertility on one side of the track and barrenness and aridity on the other. Importantly, at the end of the story, the characters catch the train on the barren side.
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