“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. The setting – a train station between two stops – could be a symbol for whether they wish to continue their relationship or not.
The hidden plot of this story is that they are actually discussing if the girl should have an abortion, which he describes as “awfully simple,” “perfectly simple” and “not really an operation at all.” He promises to stay with her the whole time and promises that they’ll be happy afterward because “that’s the only thing that bothers us.” In accordance with Hemingway’s so-called Iceberg Theory, he stripped everything but the bare essentials from his stories and novels, leaving readers to sift through the remaining dialogue and bits of narrative on their own. Just as the visible tip of an iceberg hides a far greater mass of ice underneath the ocean surface, so does Hemingway’s dialogue belie the unstated tension between his characters. In fact, he firmly believed that perfect stories conveyed far more through subtext than through the actual words written on the page.
Both the American man and the girl speak in short sentences and rarely utter more than a few words at a time. Hemingway also avoids using dialogue tags, such as “he said” or “she said,” and skips any internal monologues. These elements leave the characters’ thoughts and feelings completely up to the reader’s own interpretations.
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.