The main characters in the story are the girl, Jig, and the American man, who remains nameless. It is not clear if Jig is her actual name, or the name that the American calls her. Their main literary conflict is left unstated, but their conflict is man versus woman. Jig’s conflict is herself versus the man, and this is a conflict that she keeps internal. The reader can see that the American wants Jig to get an abortion, but that Jig is not sure about it. Jig wants a real relationship with the man, but he wants a fun relationship. He explains to her that the operation is simple, and not even severe enough to be an operation, meaning he is looking for a superficial relationship with Jig.
Jig’s attitude to the American changes throughout the story from complacent, to argumentative, to becoming resigned. At first, the reader meets Jig as she is asking for them to order to large beers. She is being light hearted with him when he gets serious which makes her suddenly become dramatic about their situation instead of complacent. She tells him: “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” (Hemingway). This quote means that she is going to go through with the abortion because she wants him to care about her. Hemingway reverses the roles of the man and Jig when she tries to use this type of reverse psychology on him.
The setting is symbolic in the story because the hills are speculated to look like white elephants, which is something that neither the characters have experienced. This is similar to the idea that neither have experienced pregnancy and are debating what to do about it. The one side of the tracks are barren whereas the other side looks to be riparian. This is symbolic of the idea that if Jig chooses the abortion, she will choose a life that is void of life and action. If she chooses not to abort, she will experience the riparian side of the tracks. Jig is symbolically stuck in the middle.
The story’s style contributes to the tone of the story by making the reader feel the lack of empathy for the seriousness of the situation. The reader experiences the terse dialogue of the characters. There is not even much description of who is speaking. The reason for this is that the reader has to figure out who is speaking. There are subtle differences in their choice of words. The man says to Jig that he is “willing to go through with it if that means anything” (Hemingway). Jig does not want him to be “willing,” she wants him to want to be there and have everything with her.
Hemingway suggests that people are cavalier when it comes to significant decisions. The way that the couple dances around the topic shows that they are not comfortable discussing the topic and just want to get rid of it. Jig is shown to be a woman who is overpowered by the masculine authority of her lover. And the lover is shown to not care for the longevity of the relationship because he clearly does not want to have a baby with her. Jig’s name is a symbol of the way that Hemingway sees the manner that this couple handles their natural pregnancy. The unnamed American man remains unnamed because he is not permanent in her life after the simple operation. Their lifestyle is meaningless, their relationship is meaningless, and their decision is one that lacks any meaningful reflection about the significance of what they are doing.
- Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants,” 1927, pdf.