Ernest Hemingway is the ideal of an American legend, rugged, no-nonsense, with personal adventures rivaled only by those in his groundbreaking fiction. His sparse newspaper style created a literary furor and his success came early and grew until the day he died. In addition to his canonical novels, Hemingway was also adept at short fiction, including one only six-words long. Besides, his male bravado, he also managed to capture the alienating effects of modern life in his fiction. The modern themes of abortion, feminism, and alienation are expressed simply and eloquently in Hills Like White Elephants.
In the short story Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway explores modern alienation in a tense discussion between a couple waiting for a train. Two Americans in Spain, the man is trying to pressure the woman into some operation, though it is never revealed what this operation is. Throughout the tense, yet sparse conversation, the man insists she have the operation, yet the woman resists. It becomes increasingly clear that the operation they discuss may be an abortion, and the tension between the two symbolizes something uniquely modern. Though abortions have been performed for centuries, it remained taboo until the twentieth century.
Hemingway, though never specifically citing abortion as the subject in the story, displays the alienating effect it has on relationships and couples: Its really an awfully simple operation, Jig, the man said. Its not really an operation at all. The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. I know you wouldnt mind it, Jig. Its really not anything. Its just to let the air in (Hemingway). The man refuses to completely acknowledge the significance of the situation, perhaps suggesting either his refusal or dismissal of Jigs role as a woman worthy of making her own decision.
According to critic Paul Lankin, as the man persists in opposing the continuance of Jigs maternity, he grossly oversimplifies the issue, even to the point of self-contradiction, calling abortion first an awfully simple operation and then not really an operation at all (234). His dismissive attitude speaks of a former socially acceptable condescension by men towards women during a time when women were often treated as second class citizens. This frank discussion between the man and the woman seems only possible in modern literature and seems unimaginable during Victorian times.
The tension between the man and the girl is palpable in the short story. Though they are travelers, imbibing alcohol and waiting for the train to their next destination, the conversation is filled with underlying themes of male dominance and female perseverance. The man continuously belittles the girls feelings towards the pregnancy, and his argument includes many attempts at downplaying the importance. The man persistently tries to convince her, even though he seems to feign sincerity in much of his words: Well, the man said, if you dont want to you dont have to. I wouldnt have you do it if you didnt want to. But I know its perfectly simple (Hemingway).
The girl does her best to contend with the man, believing that if she listens to him the relationship will be back to normal. She hides her worry with levity, including her comment about the hills looking like white elephants. It becomes apparent that more than fear over the procedure, the girl is coming to the realization that her relationship with the man is not what she thought it was: the girl clings to a dream of family and togetherness until the last minute, and finally decides to give it all up as the requisite price of staying with the man-not knowing, as the reader does, from the many hints provided by Hemingway, that the man is likely to leave her, even if she goes through with the abortion (Hashmi 3).
Her final declaration that she is fine is the affirmation that a man cannot dictate her womanhood and her life decisions. In the end, she becomes the one with the strength and wisdom, understanding that the relationship is forever changed. The newfound disconnect between the man and the girl will be permanent after this episode, exemplifying the theme of alienation brought by many modern decisions.
Though the man believes that the only way to preserve the comfortable relationship is to maintain the status quo, even if it means aborting their baby, the woman disagrees. The American tries to make himself sound perfectly reasonable and rational, but as the dialogue continues, it becomes clear that he is both selfish and hypocritical (Overview: Hills Like White Elephants).
The couples disagreement, about something as monumental as creating human life, is a clear sign that they have little that bonds them other than their superficiality. The girl even comments in the beginning of the story how, Thats all we do, isnt it look at things and try new drinks? The man responds, I guess so (Hemingway). Later, when the man claims that everything will be the same after the abortion and the baby is the only thing that made them unhappy, it seems like a statement lacking all truth.
The very fact that keeping or aborting a baby is a choice, is a uniquely modern issue. The reality of having to even consider it completely destroys their carefree lifestyle as travelers in Europe, and underlines their existences as solitary beings alienated from each other. Ironically, the man claims that he only wants her and no one else, but his statements seem insincere.
The girl realizes their alienation from each other and the happiness they once knew with the claim that Europe isnt ours anymore, which expresses her knowledge that such an innocent return to a secularized American-in-Europe experience of time is impossible (Grant 3). Europe is not theirs to share, seemingly as if enjoyment is also no longer theirs to share. The complexity of their modern dilemma illustrates the true distance between them.
Hemingways story is one that could only be written during modern times. Though not many years removed from the Victorian Age, the themes of abortion, feminine independence, and modern alienation have continued to echo throughout the literature of modernity. While short and devoid of lengthy descriptions, the dialogue and significant themes give Hills Like White Elephants a lasting power that only continues to grow as time goes by.
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Lankin, Paul. Hemingways Hills Like White Elephants. The Explicator. Summer 2005; v63.