“Hills Like White Elephants” opens with a long description of the story’s setting in a train station surrounded by hills, fields, and trees in a valley in Spain. A man known simply as the American and his girlfriend sit at a table outside the station, waiting for a train to Madrid.
It is hot, and the man orders two beers. The girl remarks that the nearby hills look like white elephants, to which the American responds that he’s never seen one. They order more drinks and begin to bicker about the taste of the alcohol. The American chastises her and says that they should try to enjoy themselves. The girl replies that she’s merely having fun and then retracts her earlier comment by saying the hills don’t actually look like white elephants to her anymore.
They order more drinks, and the American mentions that he wants the girl, whom he calls “Jig,” to have an operation, although he never actually specifies what kind of operation. He seems agitated and tries to downplay the operation’s seriousness. He argues that the operation would be simple, for example, but then says the procedure really isn’t even an operation at all.
The girl says nothing for a while, but then she asks what will happen after she’s had the operation. The man answers that things will be fine afterward, just like they were before, and that it will fix their problems. He says he has known a lot of people who have had the operation and found happiness afterward. The girl dispassionately agrees with him. The American then claims that he won’t force her to have the operation but thinks it’s the best course of action to take. She tells him that she will have the operation as long as he’ll still love her and they’ll be able to live happily together afterward.
The man then emphasizes how much he cares for the girl, but she claims not to care about what happens to herself. The American weakly says that she shouldn’t have the operation if that’s really the way she feels. The girl then walks over to the end of the station, looks at the scenery, and wonders aloud whether they really could be happy if she has the operation. They argue for a while until the girl gets tired and makes the American promise to stop talking.
The Spanish bartender brings two more beers and tells them that the train is coming in five minutes. The girl smiles at the bartender but has to ask the American what she said because the girl doesn’t speak Spanish. After finishing their drinks, the American carries their bags to the platform and then walks back to the bar, noticing all the other people who are also waiting for the train. He asks the girl whether she feels better. She says she feels fine and that there is nothing wrong with her.
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.