Ernest Hemingway is well known as a man’s man. In his life and in his writing, he occupied an extremely masculine world—a world of war, hunting, and bull fights. Hemingway’s macho characters are so strongly drawn that critics created a new prototype to define them: the “Hemingway hero.” This hero has almost always been a man.
But what are readers to make of Hemingway’s women? Many feminist literary critics find Hemingway hostile toward woman. Women, they argue, are portrayed as a corrupt influence on men, somehow diluting their masculine powers.
In Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” we discover a female character, Jig, who contradicts this conventional theory. In this essay we will argue that Jig, “a mere girl,” and not the American man, conducts herself more truthfully to the characteristics of the traditional Hemingway hero. We will define the supremely heroic, distinctly Hemingway concept of “grace under pressure” as courage, honor, and the ability to cope with pain and suffering in the most difficult situations.
No doubt, the man and the girl are in an extremely tense situation. She is pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion. They are discussing a life and death situation, literally for the unborn child, and figuratively for their relationship. Hemingway has set a stark scene at a remote train station on a hot afternoon.
Courage to Face Challenges
True heroes demonstrate courage in all aspects of their lives, not just on the battlefield. In this story, Jig is the courageous one. She is willing to call the situation what it is, to speak out, if sarcastically, about their shallow relationship. “That’s all we do isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”
It seems that she is brave enough to go through with the pregnancy while he is too selfish and afraid, “But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else.” He cannot face up to the change and challenge that life brings them. Ironically, he’s the one trying to build...
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The short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway, is about a young couple and the polemic issue of abortion. Though the word ‘abortion’ is nowhere in the story, it is doubtlessly understood through Hemheingway’s powerful use of two literary elements: setting and symbolism.
From the first paragraph the setting immediately introduces the tense atmosphere that will surround the rest of the story. The story takes place in Spain in the late 1920’s. The setting is described as follows:
The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. […] The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
The couple is in the middle of making a drastic decision where there are only two choices, two directions, just like the two rail lines that pass by the station. The openness and loneliness around the railroad station imply that there is no way to back out of the problem at hand and that the man and the girl must address it now. The heat turns the scene into a virtual teakettle, boiling and screaming under pressure. The landscape that encompasses the station plays a fundamental role in the conflict of the story through its extensive symbolism.
When the girl sees the long and white hills she says that “they look like white elephants.” As she observes the white hills she foresees elatedly the birth of her baby – something unique like the uncommon white elephant. The color white symbolizes the innocence and purity of her unborn child. She also admires the rest of the scenery:
The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were the fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees..
The fields of grain and trees represent fertility and fruitfulness, which symbolize her current pregnant state and the life in her womb. The Ebro River also represents life, as it germinates the fields. Just as the girl appreciates the panorama and its connection to her unborn child the “shadow of a cloud,” which represents the abortion of the fetus, overcomes her happiness. After an exchange of words with the man she again looks at the scenery, but this time in a different way, as the following sentence illustrates: “They sat down at the table and the girl looked across the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.” The man is obviously in favor of the abortion, and everything he says is an effort to persuade her into it. As she considers his point of view she looks at the dry side of the valley, which is barren and sterile, symbolizing her body after the abortion. The man and woman continue arguing and stop for a little when she says, “Would you please please please please please please please please stop talking?”
He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.
The American apparently wants this abortion because he wants to keep his current lifestyle. The bags with all the hotel labels on them are symbolic of his vivacious spirit. If the woman goes ahead with the pregnancy, he would have to settle down and raise a family, which would mean forgoing his youthful desires of seeing the world.
The story ends with the couple expecting their train’s arrival in five minutes. There is no resolution and there is no decision stated regarding the abortion. Hemingway’s interweaving of setting and symbolism helps him juice each sentence to provide maximum detail. This story was not only intended for the pleasures of reading, but also though provocation. Hemingway has intentionally left the readers to conclude for themselves what will happen next.