¶ … Hemingway's " Hills Like White Elephants"
Two people romantically involved, arrive at a crossroad. Hemingway creates the perfect setting for this kind of situation: a small railroad station, placed between two railways, in a desert like scenery. A range of big white barren hills no one could ignore, borders one side of this scenery. The big city will be their destination if they both decided they should continue their journey together and board that train. The window is small: the train only stops there for two minutes. The girl, as the author calls her in the beginning, is pregnant. A new life would change everything. The unexpected pregnancy means the baby will add a new dimension to what they had been experiencing together, which is travelling without a worry about anything or anyone else, but their own happiness and well-being. Nothing new. There are endless rows of couples who go through similar experiences every day. They way they handle it depends on countless factors.
Embarked on their selfish love affair's journey, Hemingway's lovers expected new experiences, new beverages, new sites, new worlds. They demanded novelty and felt perfectly happy savoring it. They did not prepare for the responsibility of a new life. Human beings like to plan. Human beings have the right to seek happiness, fall in love, enjoy their relationship and get the best out of it. The American unnamed man in Hemingway's short story did not prepare for the imminent arrival of a baby, therefore he thought of the best way to deal with it: abortion.
Abortion was supposed to make everything go back to normal. The girl wants their life to continue unaltered, on the other side she is waiting for a sign. She is the passive partner. It is the classical story of men who want to live free and uninhibited and women who like living free and uninhibited as well, until they face the imminent perspective of becoming mothers and get into the next room of their love affair.
Hemingway's story is written between the Two World Wars. The U.S. was going through tremendous changes in the department of birth control at that time. Some people were demanding control, hoping to take charge of their own lives, by deciding how many children they were willing or able to take care of. On the other side, an important share of society was fiercely fighting against the idea of birth control or contraception. Sex is humanity's biggest problem, after all. Christianity asks for Jesus to be chaste and Catholicism asks for Mary not only to be a virgin, but to keep her chastity for the rest of her life. Moreover, Catholicism claims Virgin Mary was born out of an immaculate conception herself. Sexual relationships are thus taken out of the equation by one of the biggest religions of the last two millennia.
The pill came to symbolize not only freedom, but also power for the women. If until then, a woman could have used an unplanned pregnancy only in the hope that the man would take responsibility and marry her, once the pill came on the market, a woman got the control over every aspect of her life, including the possibility to postpone marriage for as long as she wished for without having to postpone the rest of the pleasures of life.
Hemingway must have been perfectly aware of the social and political aspects of the debate over birth control and contraception that was going on in the U.S. during the first two decades of the twentieth century. An unplanned pregnancy was a matter of life and death, violently taking the fun out of the play. The story of the man and the woman in "Hills Like White Elephants" could be just about any young American couple. They sit there, in the scorching sun, as if dropped out of the sky, their laughter still echoing from a short while ago when they just enjoyed each other. Matters get serious and they suddenly have to start dealing with the problem. "It's just to let the air in"(Hemingway, 476), he sais to her, encouraging her to accept going trough an operation to abort the fetus. The vital source of life, air, becomes the antithesis of it. "It's...
All he is willing to do is to sit by her, while the operation is performed. He speaks as if everything was up to her, when in reality, it feels like she has a gun pointed at her head. One way of looking at things would be to blame the man and treat him like the "bad guy." He is the one in control in their relationship, after all; she is in love, totally submissive and weak. Another way, even better, would be to try and see both their stands and analyze their circumstances.
The sixties and seventies with their huge social movement of the women's liberation were still a few decades away. Authors Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon present a fresh perspective on the women's liberation movement in their book: Dear Sisters: Dispatches From The Women's Liberation Movement. Their intention is to free the movement from the labels that still stick to it and take it out of the unfortunate territory where both women and men can accuse it of feminism reeking of sexual dissatisfaction and repression of their own desires and feelings. Of course, it would be far fetched to treat Hemingway as a precursor of the women's liberation movement, on the other hand you "just have to fight past the misperceptions and stereotypes" (Dowd, citing Hendrickson).
Hemingway's short story stops as sudden as the love affair of the two protagonists seems to have stopped at the railroad station. The reader, convinced by now that the man will never take a stance and urge his girlfriend to give up on the idea of abortion, is hopelessly waiting to see some sort of reaction from her part. To use a n expression feminists denounced and accused of being an obstacle in a woman's emancipation process: the reader is hoping that Jig will "act as a man." The women's liberation movement seems to have corrected that: "Yes, in order to be heard, especially because women had a history of being timid, soft-spoken and ignored [as seems to be the case with Jig], feminists sometimes shouted and oversimplified" (Baxandall, Baxandall, Gordon, 3).
When the man does not seem to be capable to stop talking, as she begs him to, Jig sais: "I'll scream." This comes at the end of her sad conclusion, she supports with multitudinous arguments that testify her certainty for the first time since they started their dialogue. While looking at the fields of grain (sign of fertility, of life) and the river (water, another source of life), she sadly acknowledges the truth behind the curtain of smoke: "And we could have everything and everyday we make it more impossible"(Hemingway, 477). When her partner continues to repeat the same mantra, unaffected by anything she said so far, the only thing left for her is to warn him she was going to scream in order to get through. This scream, the first sound of a new born baby in this world, gathers all the pain of those who are trapped in the pitfall of indecision.
While Hemingway's text could be regarded as a simple story of two people in a love affair who run into trouble, it actually bears more importance than just a nice piece of literary mastership. New ideas about human sexuality, gender role and a reconsideration of the place the institution of marriage held in society along with a shrinking of the role of the church in society influenced the way artists created. Hemingway wrote for the world that came out of a world war wounded and in great need of role models and guidance. He himself was wounded in the war and his experiences with the women he met, regardless if at the infirmary or otherwise active in the war, must have made him aware that the romantic image of the submissive, frail woman in the literature of the nineteenth century is long gone.
Hemingway, Ernst. Hills Like White Elephants. from Charters, Ann, Ed. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. 6th Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. Retrieved from: http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/fms/Colleges/College%20of%20Humanities%20and%20Social%20Sciences/EMS/Readings/139.105/Additional/Hills%20Like%20White%20Elephants%20-%20Ernest%20Hemingway.pdf
Dowd, Maureen. "A Farewell to Macho." The New York Times. 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/opinion/sunday/dowd-a-farewell-to-macho.html?_r=0
Widmaier Capo, Beth. "Textual Contraception. Birth control and Modern American Fiction." The Ohio State University Press. Columbus. Retrieved from: https://ohiostatepress.org/Books/Book%20PDFs/Capo%20Textual.pdf
Becnel, Kim. Bloom's how to Write about Ernest Hemingway. Infobase Publishing, 2008
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