The story opens with an extended description of a train station located in Spain’s Ebro valley. In these opening details the landscape’s barren, hot, and shadeless nature is emphasized. Into this landscape appear an American man and his female partner, called the girl or “Jig,” who are waiting for an express train to Madrid from Barcelona. They seat themselves at a bar in the shadow of the train station and begin to discuss what they should drink. The man, who speaks Spanish while the girl does not, orders two beers from the Spanish waitress, who is referred to as the woman.
Hemingway immediately emphasizes the oppressive nature of the setting, and the couple escapes into the only shade available for temporary relief through alcohol. Significantly, their conversation begins with a discussion of what to drink, suggesting how central alcohol has become to their avoidance of real communication. The fact that the man speaks Spanish and must translate the waitress’s words to the girl further highlights the uneven power dynamic in the couple’s relationship, and is also another way Hemingway emphasizes the limits of language, a major theme of the story.
When the woman serves the couple their drinks, they are not talking. The girl is staring at the distant hills, which are brightly lit in the sunlight, though otherwise barren in appearance. The girl makes a seemingly innocent remark to the man that the hills “look like white elephants,” to which the man responds that he has never seen one. This comment leads to a brief bickering match over whether the man may or may not have seen a white elephant.
The relationship between the man and the girl is characterized by silence, small talk, and outbursts of irritation, along with drink after drink. This tension suggests that the two are desperately trying to avoid talking about the unnamed “white elephant” between them. The many descriptions of the landscape as both barren and fertile already hint at the idea of pregnancy, and the emphasis on the harshness of the sunlight suggests a glaring truth the couple is trying to avoid by staying in the “shade”—and by not communicating. Hemingway is typically sparse with his language and doesn’t give away any real plot points in this story, so it’s important to examine his descriptions of the setting, as these are in many ways more revealing than the actual dialogue between the characters.
The girl, seeing a Spanish ad for a special liquor painted on the bar’s beaded curtain, asks the man to translate what it says. He responds that the drink is called Anis del Toro. The girl asks if they can try it, and the man immediately tells the woman to get them two Anis del Toro. The girl isn’t sure whether she should drink the liquor with water or not and asks the man what he thinks. He orders the drinks with water.
The man’s controlling position of authority in relation to the girl dominates this scene, even as the action remains innocuous. Besides choosing to remain silent, there are very few decisions or comments the girl can make without the man’s direction or agreement.
The girl makes another seemingly benign comment about the licorice taste of the Anis drink and how everything tastes like licorice. The man snaps at her, asking her to “cut it out.” The girl says that she was simply trying to have “a fine time,” and the man agrees that they should “try and have a fine time.” The sporadic conversation between the man and the girl continues, interspersed with more drinking. The girl remarks that it seems all they do is “look at things and try new drinks,” and gazes off at the hills, adding that “they don’t really look like white elephants.”
The man and girl are unable to approach any issue, however small, without their anger spilling out, yet they continue to try to maintain an appearance of normalcy, leisure, and “freedom.” However, the girl is skeptical of this performance of happiness, hinting at the serious problems in their relationship they refuse to openly discuss.
The conversation lapses into small talk, as the two comment on the beer they are drinking, until the man suddenly brings up the subject of “an awfully simple operation…not really an operation at all.” For the first time he also addresses the girl by her nickname, “Jig.” The girl remains silent as the man continues to describe how easy, simple, and natural “the operation” is.
The operation goes unnamed throughout the story, but it is clearly a euphemism for an abortion. At the time abortions were illegal and often very dangerous, adding to the coded nature of their conversation.
Finally the girl breaks her silence and asks the man what they will do after the operation. The man insists that everything will go back to the way it was and the two will be happy together again. But the girl is skeptical, responding sarcastically to the man’s confident optimism and casual description of the operation. She repeatedly asks whether he will love her if she does what he wants. The man says he doesn’t want her to have the operation if she doesn’t want to, but continues to urge her to get the operation, arguing that “it’s perfectly simple.” The girl eventually agrees to do it, claiming that she doesn’t care about herself. To this the man replies that he doesn’t want her to have the operation if she feels that way.
The man’s insistence that the abortion is the simplest and most reasonable thing to do is at direct odds with the girl’s feelings about her pregnancy. While the man sees an abortion as a chance to return to their former easygoing, pleasure-seeking relationship, the girl’s sarcasm indicates that she is doubtful and resistant. But the man is unrelenting in his persuasive efforts to coerce her into getting the operation—and to make her feel that it’s what she wants. His domination of the girl is more subtle but also more sinister than simple bullying—he doesn’t just want her to do what he wants, he wants her to want what he wants.
The girl gets up from their table and walks to “the end of the station,” taking in the landscape around her. Through her eyes the barren hills look fertile, full of grain and trees, a river far off, and “the shadow of a cloud.” The beauty of the scene compels her to remark aloud that she and the man “could have all this…and we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.” The man argues that they still can have everything, but the girl is firm in her opposition, claiming that “it isn’t ours any more.”
This moment reveals the crucially different ways in which the man and girl view her pregnancy. To the man the pregnancy is something they can leave behind them, like a piece of extra baggage in their many travels. But for the girl, the pregnancy holds the promise of a beautiful new type of life together, one that he cannot or refuses to see. Once again Hemingway’s descriptions of the landscape (now seen from the girl’s point of view, as she sees beauty and fertility where there was only barrenness before) are powerful signifiers of the characters’ thoughts and emotions—more powerful, seemingly, than the characters’ words themselves.
The man begs the girl to sit down again at the table and not to “feel that way.” The girl replies that she doesn’t feel one way or another but just knows. The man persists in arguing in favor of the operation, while claiming that he doesn’t want her to do anything against her will. The girl, in turn, asks him to stop talking. The man, however, is unable to stop, backpedaling to say that if she wants to “go through with it,” then he’s “perfectly willing.” This only upsets the girl further, making her question whether their potential future together means anything to him. He says it does, but significantly adds that he doesn’t “want anybody but you,” returning the conversation to the subject of the “perfectly simple” operation.
The man continues to try to control the girl, down to where she walks and what she feels and wants. It is not enough for him that she get the operation, which she agrees to, but she must also want to get the operation and return to their life of “freedom” and leisure. The girl probes the man’s feelings about the pregnancy to see whether he can imagine having a family with her. But as always their views are at odds, and the man’s seemingly romantic claim to not want anyone but her is the opposite of what she wants to hear. He is asking her to abort their child, but manipulatively phrasing his request as something romantic and selfless.
At this point the girl asks the man to do her a favor, to which he instantly agrees. With surprising intensity, she begs him to stop talking. The man does not respond but looks at their luggage, which is stamped with all sorts of stickers from their stays in various hotels. When he eventually speaks again, he claims not to care about the operation, and the girl threatens to scream. The woman appears from the bar to let the couple know that their train will be arriving in five minutes, which the man translates for the girl. The girl smiles at the waitress, as though everything is fine.
The girl has reached her breaking point, smothered into silence and agreement by the man’s controlling nature and endless talking. Here her feelings are closest to the surface and there is the sense that there will be an emotional explosion, and then perhaps even some real communication and confrontation of the truth. Instead the waitress reappears, and once more the couple’s conversation is postponed in favor of maintaining appearances.
The man excuses himself from the table, explaining that he should move their bags to the other side of the station. The man carries the heavy luggage to their tracks where the train is not yet visible. As he walks back through the bar he stops to get another Anis del Toro alone. As he looks at the people around him, he notes how they are “all waiting perfectly reasonably for the train.” When he rejoins the girl at their table, she smiles at him. He asks if she feels better, to which she responds that she is “fine” and that nothing is wrong.
As the man walks, we feel the oppressiveness of the pregnancy from his perspective, a worry he carries with him like heavy luggage. His frustration is palpable, yet when he rejoins the girl, both once again feign normalcy, refusing to communicate honestly in favor of further avoidance and concealment. Hemingway ends his brief but powerful story on this tense and ambiguous note—the couple is preparing to board a train (a traditional symbol of choice, a “crossroads,” and some sort of transition or “middle ground” state), but they seem to have accomplished nothing by this conversation, and their impending journey will lead them nowhere new. They continue to avoid the harsh “light” of their real feelings and instead hide behind the “shade” of niceties and double-speak, drowning their emotions in alcohol and mindless travel. It’s suggested that the couple’s relationship won’t last much longer, even though they continue to keep up the pretense that everything is “fine.”