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Women in “Hills like White Elephants” Essay

Through history women have fought for equal rights and freedom. This tension is derived from men; society, in general; and within a woman herself. In the nineteenth century, women in literature were often portrayed as submissive to men. Literature of this period often characterized women as oppressed by society, as well as by the male influences in their lives. This era is especially interesting because it is a time in modern society when women were still treated as second-class citizens. Two interesting short stories, “Hills like White Elephants” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” focus on a woman’s plight near the turn of the nineteenth century. Both authors, Hemmingway and Gilman, leave an open end to the stories and allow readers to create their own ending, in turn causing them to take part in the action while reading. These stories require more effort from the reader, but seem to turn out differently for every reader making them a bit more interesting.

Hemingway led a difficult life full of martial affairs and misfortune. Some of these experiences have set the foundation for Hemingway’s greatest works. This essay will analyze the influence that Hemingway’s separation from Pauline and divorce from Hadley had on “Hills like White Elephants.” Before writing “Hills like White Elephants,” Hemingway had been residing in Paris with his wife Hadley and son, Bumby. During their stay in Paris, Hadley and Ernest Hemingway met a woman named Pauline Pfeiffer. Pauline was more of a friend to Hadley than Hemingway was. Pauline did not think much of Hemingway at first, she thought he was lazy and a no-doer. Later Pauline and Hemingway fell in love and had an affair. Once Hadley knew of their affair, Hemingway requested a divorce.

Hadley agreed under one condition, Hemingway and Pfeiffer had to separate for 100 days. After the 100 days if they were still in love, then Hadley would grant the divorce (Baker 174). This separation period left an indelible effect on Hemingway’s life and works. He wrote a short story, “Hills like White Elephants.” In both the story and Hemingway’s life one of the family members had to go. Hemingway wrote a letter to Pauline during the 100-day separation comparing it to being like an abortion. Hemingway wrote he thought that when two people love each other terribly much and need each other in every way and then go away from each other it works almost as bad as an abortion.

Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” also is related to her life experiences. In 1884, Charlotte married Walker Stetson, an artist. She tried to submit to the traditional roles of a nineteenth century wife. When her daughter was born a year later, Charlotte suffered from what we now call severe postpartum depression, which lasted almost four years. She was treated by a famous Philadelphia nerve specialist, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed a “rest cure” for Gilman’s “nervous condition” that forced her into inactivity with no physical or mental stimulation until she recovered. She said of herself, “I went home and obeyed these directions for some three months and came so near the border of utter mental ruin that I could see over”.(Golden 63)

To preserve what was left of her sanity, Charlotte eventually disregarded Dr. Mitchell’s advice, left her husband and moved to Pasadena, California.

“Hills like White Elephants”, is told nearly in its entirety through dialogue. It is a conversation between a young woman and a man waiting for a train in Spain. As they talk, it becomes clear that the young woman is pregnant and that the man wants her to have an abortion. Through their tight, brittle conversation, much is revealed about their personalities. At the same time, much about their relationship remains hidden. At the end of the story it is still unclear as to what decision has or has not been made, or what will happen to these two characters waiting for a train on a platform in Spain.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is told in first person. It presents the tragic story of a woman’s descent into depression and madness. A new mother suffering from what we might today call ‘post-partum depression,’ is diagnosed with a nervous disorder. Instructed to abandon her intellectual life and avoid stimulating company, she sinks into a still-deeper depression invisible to her husband, which is also her doctor, who believes he knows what is best for her. Alone in the yellow-wallpapered nursery of a rented house, she descends into madness. Everyday she keeps looking at the torn yellow wallpaper.

While there, she is forbidden to write in her journal, as it indulges her imagination, which is not in accordance with her husband’s wishes. Despite this, the narrator makes entries in the journal whenever she has the opportunity. Through these entries we learn of her obsession with the wallpaper in her bedroom. She is enthralled with it and studies the paper for hours. She thinks she sees a woman trapped behind the pattern in the paper. The story reaches its climax when her husband must force his way into the bedroom, only to find that his wife has pulled the paper off the wall and is crawling around the perimeter of the room.

“Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” are both about couples dealing with a delicate situation in a time when the power of men over women is obvious. The characters in both stories show that the man has more control and authority than the woman. “Hills Like White Elephants” demonstrates this through the use of the setting, time restrictions, and poor communication exhibited by the couple. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” she speaks of her husband as if he is a father figure and nothing like an equal.

The symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants,” is the word ‘Hills’ in the title. ‘Hills’ refers to the shape of the belly of a pregnant woman. ‘White Elephants’ is an idiom that refers to useless or unwanted things, meaning the fetus they plan on disposing of. Hemingway produces an effect of sympathy for the girl through the setting that symbolizes their decision process. The time passing symbolizes the pressure the two people are under, and through their poor communication indicates that this relationship does not and will not work. “

The Yellow Wallpaper” also has symbolism. Slowly the wallpaper becomes something more than an object for the narrator. She begins to see in it a movement and a purpose she has been unable to realize in her own life. As her madness develops, she shifts her own desire for escape from the limitations of her husband expectations onto the figure behind the undulating bars of the wallpaper. Thus, the wallpaper is a source of her psychological disorder as well as a refuge from her husband’s rule. In a sense, the wallpaper becomes the symbol of both confinement and liberation.

The main characters in these stories show similarities, both the characters are really mysterious. We know little about their lives prior to where the story begins and even less as to how the story will end. In the story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, we know the couple is being pressured into making a very important decision in only a short amount of time, leaving the couple with no time to really go into discussing the important details of their relationship and the decision they are making with little description of the decision they are trying to make allowing the reader to imagine the issues at hand. In the story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, it starts as they move to a rented house and the wallpaper comes alive in the mind of the main character.

The wallpaper itself, so marvelously described, becomes our storyteller’s best enemy and best friend. More like a mirror, this yellow consuming wallpaper reflects what our main character is really going through and feeling and the woman that stirs and creeps within the wall is literally herself, which is found out by us, the readers. It is the wallpaper, alive and a character in itself, that charges our main character’s mind and helps her break free from the dull and husband driven life she has been living. Through the story the reader believes they know what is happening only to get over half way through the story and then your imagination has to take over to try to imagine what the reader is seeing in the wallpaper. The language here is very simple in both of these stories, allowing feelings to be expressed and images to fill your mind.

The settings of these stories vary. The first impression the reader gets when reading “Hills like White Elephants”, is that the story is set in the middle of a dry, barren place under the sun, with no shade or trees. This reinforces the idea of lack of life, but, in contrast, they are in the warm shadow of the building where life is. This emphasizes the contrast between the pregnancy of the woman, as being fertile and everything around them, including him, in this idea of fertility as he is also apart from the barrenness and sharing the shadow. The “brown and dry” setting sets the tone for the conversation between the couple (Laughter 1495). It allows the reader to understand the feelings of entrapment held by the couple and especially the young girl. The couple is also separated from the rest of the people that are inside the bar by a bamboo beaded curtain.

This gives the idea of privacy reinforced by the idea of the warm shadow of the building that protects them from the world that exists inside the bar, they are outside, with nature. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” the story begins when he and her husband have rented a colonial mansion to relieve her chronic nervousness. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is interested in the surrounding scenery as well as the other rooms in the house. The mansion is described as being surrounded by hedges, a garden, and servants’ quarters. The narrator notes that the house and its grounds have fallen into a state of minor disrepair. As the story progresses, however, she becomes fixated on the nursery and its wallpaper. He chooses a “prison-like” room for them to reside in that he anticipates will calm our main character even more into a comma like life. This idea of forced rest and relaxation to cure temporary nervous problems was very common at the time. Many doctors prescribed it for their female patients.

The theme of the conversation in “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not clearly stated, but has underlying meaning. In “Hills Like White Elephants”, they are talking about love, feelings and her pregnancy. The problem that the two are having when communicating is that they are not hearing each other. In the beginning she wants to speak out about the situation clearly and put the feelings on the table to be talked about openly. Unlike “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I think in the beginning the communication would have been the best solution, but by the end of the story it did not appear to be an option because of her mental state. Her overbearing husband who stifles her emotional and imaginative impulses, forcing her to seek outlets in the inanimate objects that surround her.

Any anger or opposing views that are directed towards the husband are belittled as a lack of self-control. This reduces the wife to a childlike status and takes her away from reality and more into the wallpaper. Many times women with ‘post-partum depression’ can be cured with counseling, but in this era they were unaware of what it was much less how to cure it. During the story the theme was completely about the wallpaper until the end when you realized she was the woman trapped in the wallpaper and the theme had an underlying meaning of a woman trapped by her surroundings, she is actually imprisoned by the nature of her husband. The woman at last rips the wallpaper off the wall, freeing both the wallpaper woman and herself. After this action, the woman begins to regain self-empowerment and self-control once again.

The views and ideals of society are often found in literary works. Whether the author is trying to show the ills of society of merely telling a story, culture is woven onto the words. The stories allow the reader to understand the sexist culture of the time and the struggles a woman had to endure. The style of writing in both stories leaves much of the meaning of the story hidden and an understanding of the relationships between men and women of the era can lead to a deeper understanding of the story. Today, most women crave equality with their partner allowing women to be in charge of their own decisions with the support of the men in their lives, even if they are not in agreement with them, but in this era it was not a common practice.

Works cited

Baker, Carlos Heard. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.1969.

Laughter, Paul. The Heath of Anthology of American Literature. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994

Golden, Catherine. One Hundred Years of Reading. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on

“The Yellow Wallpaper”. NY: Feminist Press, 1991


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