Study Guide

Jig in Hills Like White Elephants

Jig

Jig isn't, shall we say, the most fleshed-out characters in literature. The lack of physical and biographical details about her makes her a bit of a blank—we don't know where she comes from, and we don't know how she ended up in Spain.

But this isn't just Hemingway's notorious sexism. Jig being a cypher serves a very interesting narrative purpose: she becomes, first an foremost, a set of desires.

The Jig Is Up

To get at Jig’s character, we can ask the following question: what's being communicated to us about Jig?

You're in luck—we’ve made you a list. Jig:

  • speaks English
  • doesn’t (or pretends not to) speak any Spanish
  • has seen white elephants
  • drinks beer
  • has had absinthe
  • is aware of nature and her natural surroundings
  • is pregnant
  • doesn’t want an abortion
  • is young enough to be called "a girl"
  • has been traveling with the "American" man and staying in hotels with him
  • doesn’t call the man by his name
  • wants the man to think she’s smart
  • feels that she can only have an abortion if she no longer cares about herself
  • knows women who have had abortions, and implies that things didn’t turn out well for them

And we can use all of these snippets of info—especially in regards to what Jig doesn't want—to construct a fairly clear picture of what she does want...and why she wants it.

And for a story that deals in ambiguity, that's all we really need to know.

So Happy Together?

As the story ends, we know that these two characters have a total of two choices: marriage or abortion. Giving a child up for adoption or raising the child as a single mother simply aren't in the cards—this story takes place in 1927, when neither of those options were viable. So we're left puzzling: will Jig ultimately have an abortion, or will she marry the American?

But that's not the actual puzzle of this story. The real puzzle is this: can Jig reach a happy ending? We're not referring to the last lines of the story...because we have a strong feeling that Jig is lying through her teeth:

"Do you feel better?" he asked.

"I feel fine," she said. 'There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." (109-110)

Clearly, in the case of these two characters, "marriage" does not necessarily equate "happiness" and "abortion" doesn't necessarily equate "unhappiness." The American makes it abundantly clear that marriage isn't exactly his cup of tea, and Jig makes it clear that having an abortion isn't going to be a relief, it's going to be a source of sadness. After all, she says:

"Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me." (64)

In other words: if she did about herself, she wouldn't have an abortion. But why does Jig want to have a child? Is it because of a sense that abortion is wrong, or because she has maternal feelings, or because she's so in love with the American? Perhaps, but the the most impassioned argument for marriage she makes is that she thinks "[they] could get along." (92)

We get the feeling that something else is driving Jig's desire to get married and start a family: namely, that her life doesn't contain much that currently interests her. Take a look at the way she describes her existence with the American:

"I wanted to try this new drink. That's all we do, isn't it – look at things and try new drinks?" (33)

Oh man. That does sound empty.

So ultimately we're given an impressionist portrait of a woman who's feeling adrift: she has been touring around Europe drinking and looking at thinks for long enough that her suitcase is covered in luggage tags, and she's had enough. She wants home (or a home) and we get the impression that a child would give her a sense of being rooted.

What's less certain is whether she could be happy with the American...even if she did have his child. But hey; it's a Hemingway story—you're not going to find any easy answers here.