In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Jig undergoes a transformation enabling her to realize and declare her own feelings. At the story’s beginning Jig is passive, unaware of her own feelings, and in the habit of looking to the American direction. She soon comes to realize her own desires and struggles to assert herself for the first time. The story is structured around the two sides of the valley, the division symbolizing the opposition between the American’s values and Jig’s. The two sides of the valley of the Ebro represent two ways of life, one a sterile perpetuation of the aimless hedonism the couple have been pursuing, the other a participation in life in its full natural sense” (Renner, 32). On one side are the values associated with abortion, and on the other are the values associated with having the child. “In this setting, then, Hemingway works out the story’s conflict, which revolves around the development of his female character” (28).
The dialogue between Jig and the American about hills and drinks “is in actuality an articulated but decisive struggle over whether they continue to live the sterile, self-indulgent, decadent life preferred by [the American] or elect to have the child that Jig is carrying and settle down to a conventional but, in Jig’s view, rewarding, fruitful, and peaceful life” (Holladay, 1).
The American argues adamantly for the abortion while Jig, being accustomed to doing what he wants, “has not yet developed the mechanism to know what she wants, much less to articulate it. Thus she cannot forthrightly contest her companion’s urging, but neither, because of what is at stake in this case, can she stifle her own feelings” (Renner, 29). Up until this point the American has been the leader of the couple’s relationship, managing their life together in a manner consistent with his own desires.
At the beginning of the story, the couple is sitting at a table on one side of the station, “facing out toward the hills on the same side of the valley,” the side “associated with the barrenness and sterility both of the implications of going through with an abortion and of the current state of the couple’s relationship” (Renner, 30). Jig looks at the hills on this side of the station, noting that they look like white elephants.
A white elephant, in a North American cultural context, “is not only a rare and sacred creature, but also a metaphor for an expensive and burdensome property…the burden at issue in this story is the unborn child” (Link, 67). The American responds that he has never seen a white elephant. “No, you wouldn’t have,” Jig replies. “To Jig, the unborn child she carries is eminently, painfully real; to the American it is a concept, an abstraction, and too expensive to keep” (Wyche, 59). Jig goes on to say, “That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks? This statement articulates “an increasing awareness of the emptiness of the couple’s lifestyle to date” (60). Jig stands up and walks to the other end of the station, “effectively [distancing] herself from the influence of her male companion and [enabling] herself, evidently for the first time, to realize what is in her own mind” (Renner, 32). She is now able to see the other side of the valley, “the fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro,” and the river, which are representative of the values associated with having the child.
Jig rejoins the American at the table, once again facing the “the hills on the dry side of the valley. ” She tries to convince the American that her pregnancy could be meaningful for them, and that they could get along even with a child. The American “resumes his double talk, assuring her that he will go along with what she wants while stubbornly pressuring her to do what he wants” (Renner, 33). Pushed to her breaking point, Jig finally “explodes with real feeling. Even though she still does not state in direct terms her feeling that there can be more to life than their aimless hedonism, she…. vidently for the first time…[asserts] herself openly against the American” (33). “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking? ” Jig no longer wants to hear what the American has to say, demonstrating her “increasing awareness…of the man’s self-centered and insecure motivation for pursuing the abortion” (Rankin, 235). She is resisting both “what he wants for their relationship and the hypocrisy of his efforts to persuade her” (Renner, 33), as she realizes it is the “unencumbered sexual playhouse” that the American is selfishly trying to reserve. The American takes carries their bags to the other side of the station, and upon his return asks Jig if she feels better. “I feel fine,” she responds. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine. ” “The absolute straightforwardness of the last line, a line that incidentally coincides with Jig’s own dramatic epiphany” (Rankin, 234) may well “imply her realization that there is something wrong with her companion” (Renner, 40).
By the conclusion of the story, “the relationship between Jig and the American has been effectively destroyed” (Wyche, 70). However, “we see the result of her development toward self-realization: the reluctant and still somewhat resentful capitulation of her male companion” (Renner, 28). Once the “stereotypical passive female, not even knowing her own mind,” Jig finds herself no longer able to “drift along in mindless accompaniment” (37) and breaks free from her conditioned deference to assert her own feelings to the American.