Hills Like White Elephants Summary
The story opens—surprise, surprise—with a description of some white hills. We also get a view of the river Ebro, all seen from a train station. An American man and a woman are having some beers outside the station bar as they wait for the train from Barcelona to Madrid.
Sounds fun and peaceful, right? Eh—not so much.
As the couple drinks, the woman tells that man that the hills in the distance remind her of (yup) "white elephants." This sparks a little argument between them, which the woman sidesteps by pointing out that something has been painted on the beaded curtain that hangs over the doorway of the bar. The painting advertises a liquor called Anis del Toro, which they decide to try.
Their conversation remains tense, and soon the man begins trying to convince the woman, Jig, to have an abortion—but only, he says, if she wants to. She wants to know if this will solve their problems, and get their relationship back on track. He tells her that their relationship is on track, but that he's distracted because of his "worry" over the pregnancy. She agrees to have the abortion, but says she is only agreeing because she no longer cares about herself.
The man says she shouldn’t do it for that reason, which: yes...but he's hardly getting a "world's best boyfriend" award for that one.
She expresses despair over the situation and a feeling that all is now lost. The man tries to reassure her that this isn't the case, and finally tells her (without actually saying it) that he is willing to marry her...but makes it clear he would prefer that she have the abortion. (Definitely no "boyfriend of the year" award.)
She becomes anxious and asks him to stop talking. He responds by saying he doesn’t want her to have the abortion if she doesn’t want it. Jig threatens to scream.
The woman who has been serving their drinks tells them that the train will soon arrive, and the man gets up and takes their luggage over to the train stop. Then he goes into the bar and has another Anis del Toro. When he gets back to Jig, sitting at the table outside, she gives him a smile. He asks her if she "feel[s]" better," and she responds by insinuating she never felt bad in the first place. And that’s the end of the story.
Hills Like White Elephants
Note: This story is super-short and the style in which it is written is an important aspect of the story—Hemingway knows what he's doing. We highly recommend that you read the full story. If you find the plot confusing, come check out this handy-dandy summary, which should help to clear up any tricky parts.
- The story begins with a description of the setting, which, frankly, sounds gorgeous.
- We are told that the view, looking across the Ebro River, is of some "hills." Those hills are not only "long," but also "white." (This is about as much description as you're going to get from Hemingway, guys.)
- Apparently, you can see the hills from the train station.
- At the train station there's a bar, with beaded curtains covering its doorway.
- Outside the bar, in the heat, a man (know as "the American) and a "girl" (whose name you will learn in a moment) sit at a table.
- They have about forty minutes to kill, waiting for a train coming from Barcelona and headed for Madrid.
- The man and the girl decide to have a couple of beers, and the man orders them in Spanish ("dos cervezas") (5).
- When the woman who works in the bar brings the beers, the girl is looking at the white hills, and she says, "They look like white elephants" (9). (Title alert!)
- The man claims never to have seen a white elephant, and the girl expresses a lack of surprise.
- So the man says he could have seen one, regardless of what she might think.
- Then the girl changes the subject by pointing out that words are painted on the beaded curtain hanging over the bar’s doorway. She asks the man what they mean.
- The man tells her that they say Anis del Toro (an anise flavored liquor.)
- She wants to give it a shot, so the man orders each of them one.
- The girl says, "It tastes like licorice" (25).
- (Anise is often used to flavor black licorice candy; anise and licorice root have similar flavors.)
- The girl says that lots of things, including absinthe, taste like licorice.
- The man tells the girl to quit goofing around, and she says she was just trying to make lighthearted conversation, to keep things pleasant.
- He agrees they should keep things pleasant.
- Then she asks him if it was smart what she said about the hills looking like white elephants, and he says it was.
- The girl makes a remark about how all they do is drink and see the sights.
- He halfheartedly agrees. The girl looks at the hills again, and admires them, saying that they don’t actually exactly look like white elephants, but that their skin looks like white elephant skin.
- They decide to get another couple of beers, and the man admires the beers.
- Suddenly, he brings up the topic of some kind of medical procedure he’s trying to convince the girl to have.
- He also calls her by her name, Jig, for the first time.
- When Jig doesn’t respond, he continues attempting to persuade her to have the procedure, which he claims is "to let the air in" (44).
- (This is clue number one that the man is most probably talking about Jig having an abortion.)
- Jig remains unresponsive, and the man continues trying to convince her to have the procedure, saying he’ll accompany her, and will stay with her.
- She asks him what will become of them after the procedure. He tells her that everything will go back to the way if was "before" (48).
- She questions his logic, but he explains that the situation is their only problem.
- Jig isn't convinced.
- He claims that he has known many others who have had the procedure (though he doesn’t say whether or not they were happy after).
- The girl says she too has known others who have had the procedure, and insinuates that at least some of them had issues after.
- Now the man says he doesn’t want her to have the procedure if she doesn’t want to, while stressing how easy and harmless it will be for her to have it.
- In turn, Jig asks him if he truly desires for her to have the procedure.
- He says he feels that "it’s the best thing to do," but only if she feels the same way (57).
- Jig asks if it will make him "happy," (52) and make him "love" her (58), prompting him to say that he already does love her.
- She wants to know if he will find her clever again, if saying clever things like what she said about the hills and the white elephants will amuse him again.
- Her repeats his affirmation of love.
- Finally, she says she’ll go ahead with the operation, because she no longer cares about herself.
- The man says she shouldn’t do it, if she has that attitude.
- So Jig stands and walks off a little, admiring the view of the river, and says they could have "had everything," but that their actions are making having everything "impossible" (71).
- The man argues that they can, in fact, still "have the whole world" (74) and go wherever they please.
- She argues back that no, somehow the world no longer belongs to them, and that they can never reclaim it.
- (This conversation is pretty subtle, to say the least. You aren’t supposed to be able to squeeze a literal meaning out of it. Just trust your instincts and you can understand the feeling the characters might be having as they talk.)
- Now the man seems to be trying to convince her not to have procedure.
- Jig seems to doubt his sincerity, and requests another foamy, alcoholic beverage.
- The man starts to talk, but she cuts him off, suggesting that they stop talking for a bit.
- But, the man continues, suggesting (most readers and critics agree) that they could get married instead.
- Jig seems to warm to the idea, and he tells her that she's his one and only.
- When he goes back to talking about how easy the procedure would be, she expresses some irritation, and then asks him to stop talking.
- (She says "please" a whopping seven times.)
- Now he tells her that he doesn't want her to have the procedure.
- She threatens to "scream" if doesn’t stop (101).
- The woman working in the bar brings them their drinks and informs them that the train is going to be coming soon.
- Jig asks the man what the woman said and he tells her. (This is a slightly confusing moment because what the woman says, presumably in Spanish, is essentially translated once for us, and then for Jig).
- The news brings a smile from Jig, and then the man gets up to move their luggage over to where the train will arrive. This also brings a smile from Jig.
- On his way back from leaving the bags, he goes inside the bar and has another Anis, then goes back to Jig.
- He wants to know if she "feel[s] better" (109).
- She tells him that she "feel[s] fine" (110), and says there isn’t anything the matter with her.
- (We should note that this is what you call an open-ended ending. We can only imagine what the final outcome will be for Jig and the man. Check out "What’s Up with the Ending?" for more.)