Ernest Hemmingway uses time, place, and symbolism in "Hills like White Elephants" to intensify the central dilemma in a story about a man and a woman deciding on whether to go through with an abortion. Although a literal reading of the title may not seem to have any relation to the story, the title is rich in implications. Critics suggest that "Hills" refers to the shape of a woman's stomach when pregnant, and Webster's 21st Century Dictionary defines white elephant as: "[An] awkward, useless possession." The term is also defined in Webster's as an item that is worthless to some but priceless to others. According to Victor Lindsey, the child in the story is a white elephant in the view of the man, who is trying to convince the girl to get rid of it. Hemingway hints about how the man and the woman each feel about the unborn child, but he never tells us why they have such different views on the prospect of an abortion. The man in the story, referred to as "the American," claims that the abortion is necessary because it would save their relationship, whereas the woman, Jig, has doubts as to whether or not she should have an abortion at all.
Hemingway uses a unique style of writing to communicate his ideas to the reader. Like most of his works, Hemmingway uses very simple language to build suspense, but he does not explicitly resolve the conflict. The words not said by the characters play a crucial role in describing their conflict. Jig's smiles, or the times Hemingway tells us "The girl did not say anything" suggest that there is a much deeper story in the background. Critics like Hilary Justice have written many in-depth analyses of the meanings of Jig's smiles throughout the story (3). David Wyche devotes half a page to Hemingway's choice of prepositions (6), and every detail relating to the setting can be taken into consideration in the effort to understanding the meaning of the story. The train depot is surrounded on both sides by fields: one side with trees and fields of grain, and the other contains nothing but dust (Hemingway 324). The two sides of the train tracks represent the choice Jig will have to face between pregnancy and abortion.
Every time the man or the woman try to change the subject and avoid talking about the abortion, they end up saying something that refers to or alludes to the baby or the abortion. The woman suggests that the hills look like white elephants (324), which the man fails to acknowledge. The lack of clear communication between the two causes tension and arguments at every turn. When the woman agrees sarcastically that the man has never seen white elephants, he says, "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything" (324). The woman is clearly annoyed at the insensitivity of the man's negative feelings toward her pregnancy. For her, the baby is a priceless treasure, but for him it is a worthless fetus.
Time and place are very significant in the story. The author...