“Hills Like White Elephants” is a short story that begins with a man and his girlfriend waiting for a train in Spain. They drink alcoholic beverages and speak about an unnamed operation. As one reads further into the story, it becomes evident that the operation being discussed is an abortion. The man is trying his best to persuade his lover to abort their unborn child, but she is uncertain about what she ought to do.
The girl, called Jig by her lover, is torn between a moral responsibility to her unborn child and a romantic bond between herself and the American. On one hand, the American is her lover; she doesn’t want to lose their relationship. She seems willing to do anything to stay with him—almost anything. On the other hand, this unborn child has an unspoken connection that every child shares with its mother. Cutting away the baby would be cutting away that connection.
Jig has to make a choice. Jig’s choice will definitely shape her future with the American, the baby, and her view of herself. “The railroad junction—a place where one can change directions—symbolically represents a point in time when the couple can change the direction of their lives.” (Lanier, “The Bittersweet Taste”) This train station is the place where Jig will decide her future. But which path should she take? Veer to the left and fix her relationship with her lover, or a hard turn to the right and keep the baby?
Jig doesn’t honestly want the abortion, but she doesn’t want to lose the American either. She looked across the mountains and saw nothing but dry land. Empty, dead land. This land symbolized the future if she aborted the child. She looked once more and saw poignant, fertile land with great beauty. This land symbolized her future with the child—unexplored, uncertain, and delightful. But was there any way to combine the two lands? Jig answered this question herself: “No, we can’t have everything.” (Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”) She knows that she has to make a decision. She knows that it can’t be both; it has to be one or the other. The problem is, which one?
She obviously depends heavily on the American—not only for affection and intimacy, but also for his leadership and dominance. “Clearly the American is the leader in their relationship: he knows Spanish, the language of the country in which they are traveling, he is knowledgeable about drinks, and he is in charge of their luggage and thus, presumably, of the destination of their travels.” (Renner, “Moving to the Girl’s Side”) The American controls everything that happens in their relationship. If the American were to leave her, Jig would have to take on many responsibilities that were not previously hers to carry. She would not only lose her emotional security, but her financial security. This man is more than just an arm to hold while strolling down the street—he is someone who supports her. If she loses him, she loses a crutch that she relies on so heavily. Will she be able to handle walking on her own?
One the other side of this dilemma, Jig has a connection with the baby inside her. Jennifer Yirinec, a literary scholar, states: “It is clear that if Jig went through with the abortion, she would never be able to view the world in the same way—nothing could ever be hers again, for she would have lost something that was truly important to her.” She feels a maternal responsibility and a moral obligation to this unborn child who hasn’t even had a chance to experience the world. Jig sees the land without the child as dry and empty—almost meaningless—while she sees life with the child as beautiful and extravagant. It’s a different perspective with new colors and refreshing waters. But this new land comes with uncertainties, unknowns, and possible heartbreak. This child is just a white elephant gift. It’s burdensome, unexpected, and unplanned. “Hills are like white elephants for Jig because they carry ambivalent evocations of the child within her like a white elephant, an unwanted gift, a seemingly remote but immense problem” (Kozikowsi, 107)
So what does Jig choose? Does she decide to save the unborn life within her? Or does she follow the wishes of the American? Hemingway doesn’t leave us with a straightforward answer to this question. The decision that Jig makes remains a secret. Some literary analysts believe that Jig goes ahead with the operation. Others believe that Jig leaves the man to raise their child by herself. Howard Hannum suggests that Jig doesn’t choose simply one or the other: “She has decided to have the abortion but not in order to resume her life with the American. And this is not so much a question of her having the courage to leave him, after the abortion, as it is a clear case of her being unable to tolerate him—of her having left him in her wake.” Is Hannum correct? Are there any more possible routes that Jig can take? How does Jig resolve this moral dilemma?
We can’t know for certain. That’s the beauty of Hemingway’s writing in this story. “Hemingway’s use of the white elephant symbol in his title and throughout the story has immeasurably enriched this poignant episode, with its insight into the complexities, the disappointments, and the sadness of life’s “might-have-beens.”” (Weeks, “Hemingway Hills”) The might-have-beens are endless. The possibilities never cease. What became of Jig and the American? Would she pursue the fertile land in all its mysteries and uncertainties? Would she try to appease her boyfriend? Would she have the abortion and leave her boyfriend, ultimately leaving herself free of any restriction? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.