**Note: 9/25/12 – I am still amazed that so many people (literally 200 to 400 a week steadily every semester since I posted it) visit this particular paper. Seriously, if you have any questions, go ahead and send a comment. I will try and help any way I can – same goes for any of my other papers on this blog.**
**Note: 3/23/13 – Nearly 100 visits to this essay come each day during spring and fall semesters. I check in for comments and questions three to four times a week, so if you have a question or something you want to bounce off of me, please know that I will respond and try to help. I also would appreciate if anyone has done well with their research papers that they send me a link or the text in an email so I can see how ya’ll did. Some of you have some really good premises you’re working on per the comments section at the end.**
Besides the symbolism in the story which has been gone over ad nauseum, I wanted to approach my analysis from a different direction. Keep in mind that in a literary analysis, you need to be focused on just the point you are trying to make and it can be difficult not to go off on tangents, like symbolism. We beat the symbolism to death in the discussion board section of the class, and I found I disagreed with most of the other online analyses I had read on this story that declared that the story’s outcome was that the girl was going to abort the baby and that the couple would part ways. She got lighter at the end – not many people noticed that – kind of like she was going to get her way. I won’t give it away. Here’s my analysis. I got a 98. The link to Hemingway’s story is at the end under the “Works Cited” section. I was never a big Hemmy fan, but I do appreciate and applaud his presentation of this particular story.
The “Elephant” in the Room: Hemingway’s Word Not Spoken
Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” uses dialogue almost exclusively to portray a serious conversation in which a major life decision is about to be made by a young female. Whereas other authors would carefully set the stage and provide backstory including insertion of motive and emotion cues of the characters as they interact, Hemingway puts the reader in the role of eavesdropper to the couple’s conversation beginning as they are seated at a table outside the train station bar. Like any eavesdropper who finds him- or herself tuning in to another’s conversation, the reader is left to discern the topic merely by listening and the occasional “peek” over at the adjacent table as to what action may actually be transpiring. Like the proverbial elephant in the room that everyone sees, but no one wants to acknowledge, not once does the couple’s actual dialogue specifically disclose the very serious and particular subject matter that the couple is discussing: abortion.
Although a sore topic for centuries and prior to the 1920s especially, birth control was a hotly contested issue in America, with proponent Margaret Sanger even living in exile in England for several years to avoid imprisonment, eventually returning to the United States to continue her social reform work promoting a woman’s right to access birth control methods and the right to safe abortions. Although as early as 1920, Communist leader Lenin legalized abortion in the Soviet Union, Hemingway’s story takes place in mid-1920s Spain, a staunchly Catholic country where abortion was still a criminal act until 2009 (“History”). The illegality of the procedure was likely the reason the word “abortion” was never injected into their public conversation. However, in any day and age, enough money seems to be able to buy anything, including the desired medical service of an abortion and with the story’s reference to many hotel stickers on their suitcases, money is apparently not an issue for the American. He was most likely aware of Margaret Sanger’s successful and legal opening in 1923 of the first birth control clinic in the United States and the progressiveness it represented.
It is also possible that he would have been aware of one of Sanger’s mantras, “Every child should be a wanted child,” and used it to persuade the young woman to arrive at this point on their journey (“Biography”). As to the American’s references to the “awfully simple operation” that was “not really an operation at all” and “it’s just to let the air in,” the man was avoiding acknowledging that the child that the girl was carrying – his child – was a human being (Hemingway). In fact, his references to her pregnancy were the same as his references to the procedure, both of which he simply called “it.” In fact, his lame attempt at patronizing her was a statement that he would “be perfectly willing to go through with it [having the baby] if it means anything to you” didn’t set well with the girl. Her sharp retort of, “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” tells the reader (or listener in the case of eavesdropping) that the man clearly does not want a baby in his immediate future as confirmed by his reply, “But I don’t want anybody but you” (Hemingway).
Whereas the interchange reveals the selfishness of the American, it also reveals the reflectiveness of the girl. Her various statements such as referring to the hills as looking similar to white elephants, her gazing across the fertile side of the train station and musing that “we could have all this,” and “once they take it away, you never get it back” reveal that she is thinking much more deeply about the issue at hand than is the man, who seems to take everything superficially (Hemingway).
If dialogue alone is not enough to surmise the topic of the conversation, Hemingway gives plenty of clues in the symbolism of his setting. The story opens indicating that the couple is seated facing the dry, barren side of the train station whereas when the girl gets up to look around, she sees that the opposite side of the station has wide open, fertile grain fields and a river. Despite the clouding of judgment one might expect from all of the alcohol the couple consumed in their time of waiting, it’s not the girl who vacillates, but the man. At the end of the story, the man takes the couple’s bags around to the other side of the station to wait for the train – the fertile side. The girl’s response was to smile at him. After his stopping at the bar for a second drink of the bittersweet Anis, he rejoined the girl who smiled again at him. After asking her, “Do you feel better?” her response that she felt fine indicates that she seems to know she has won him over from his preference to proceed with the abortion, although the conclusion is left to the judgment of the reader.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1927. Online reprint. Scribd.com, 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/94569/Hills-Like-White-Elephants>
“History of Abortion.” Wikipedia.com. 11 April 2011. Web. 15 April 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_abortion#1920s_to_1960s>
“Margaret Sanger Biography.” Biography.com. 2011. Web. 14 April 2011. <http://www.biography.com/articles/Margaret-Sanger-9471186?part=1>