The story is a simple one. An American man and a young woman indirectly discuss “an operation” while they wait for a train to Madrid. What happens, or doesn’t happen, at that train station in the valley of the Ebro with its long, white hills and two lines of rails in the sun is an expressive microcosm of the inevitable choice between two ways of life.
The man and the woman are at a crossroads. They are burdened with a white elephant. Not the clever simile the girl draws as she gazes at the snow-covered hills in the distance, but the other kind of metaphorical white elephant – the burden of an unwanted, unvalued, and useless thing. Confronted with this dilemma, the American man and the girl must make a choice and decide which train they will board – the one that continues down the line of perpetual, aimless hedonism, or the one that will take them toward responsibility and participation in full, natural life.
The American speaks with cool assurance about how it is all very simple and how they will only let the air in, but the girl is reluctant and unpersuaded. She is tired of a life of merely looking at things and having drinks and lugging around bags with labels from all the hotels in which they had spent nights. The man explains how everything will be fine. He insists they can still have the whole world after the operation is completed, but the girl knows otherwise. The girl knows things. She understands the world is not theirs anymore. The man's attitude to all if offends the girl. The conversation ends after the woman asks the man to stop talking, and even threatens to scream if he continues.
This brief and rather disjointed summary trickled through my mind as I drove past the Schneeberg. The mountain disappeared from view after I rounded the bend and drew closer to the border. Once I had crossed over into Austria, I recalled my first reading of Hills Like White Elephants, and how I had assumed the American had convinced the girl to go through with it – that the life of aimless hedonism had emerged victorious, which made the story a depressing one for me, even back then.
Yet as I crossed over into Austria, I recalled subsequent readings had left me with a different take. Toward the end of the story, the girl smiles – once at the man and once at the waitress. And there is the whole bit about the man moving the bags to the other tracks. What did other tracks really mean? Did he move them because they were going to travel along a different line, or did he move them because the bags were merely in the wrong place for the arriving train?
Critics have been debating this one for decades, and Hemingway gives no solid clues. It is left up the reader to decide which train the American man and the girl finally board and, ultimately, which way of life won out in the end. Being an optimistic sort, I now believe the girl won. There would be no simple thing or air or any of that. The man would not be given the opportunity to be sensible like the others in the bar waiting for the train. He would have to take responsibility, and by doing so, he would at last fully participate in natural life.
Pulling into the university’s parking lot ten minutes later, I reflected on all the things I had once considered white elephants in my life, and the choices I had made regarding these. Like the American man in the story, I usually felt compelled to carry my bags over to the other tracks as well; and that has often made all the difference.