Hills Like White Elephants Essay
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Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” touches on an issue people have faced in the past and continues today: communication problems in a relationship. The ability to communicate your feelings to another person during complicated times reveals the true strength in a relationship. Hemingway tells his story through conversations between the two main characters, the American and the girl, named Jig. The characters face the harsh reality of an unexpected pregnancy and conflict is created through their dialogue.
Their obstacle is complicated by their inability to deliver their differing opinions to each other. The couple’s failure to communicate their opinions straightforward turns the conversation into a tactic of manipulation. On the surface, it seems the American is the one doing the manipulation and trying to persuade the girl to have the abortion, but when Jig’s dialogue is looked closer, it’s clear that she participates in attempting to control the conversation, as well. Regardless of who is more successful, their relationship is damaged forever.
To begin, the man does not want to be forced to deal with the complications of starting a family and giving up his lifestyle of travelling. He wants the girl to have an abortion, but he wants her to feel like the decision she makes is that of her own. The truth is he believes and knows his words will play a huge influence on her decision. After a few drinks, the man brings up the sensitive issue to the girl by choosing his words carefully: “It’s really an awfully simple operation” (Hemingway 133). The man tries pushing the issue further by inserting his own judgment and assuring her that “they just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural (133).
His manipulation can be seen clearly when he suggests “[The baby’s] the only thing that bothers us” (133). It is clear that their relationship has not been the same since hearing news about the baby. I think she begins to realize that she is left with the choice between having the baby or being with him, which could be depicted when she “put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings beads, “referring to only two people being able to be together: her and the baby or her and the man. The man is also planting the idea into the girls mind that he wants her to have a say in the matter and to soften its impact.
“You’ve got to realize… that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you” (134). Yet, when asked if the baby means anything to him, the man replies, “I don’t want anyone else”. In this line the American is referring to the baby in the girl’s womb and is saying that he wants only her. While its implications are insensitive, the man believes he is appealing to the girl’s desire for a man devoted to her. Instead of telling Jig that he does not want a baby to complicate their lives, the man tries to make it seem like an abortion is the best thing for the couple through his careful manipulation.
The man’s manipulation is very noticeable, but he is not the only one who can play that game. On the surface, the girl appears helpless and dependent, but if viewed from a different perspective she could be seen as manipulative. Hemingway names her “the girl” to portray her as somebody who is naive and immature. She appears to be dependent on the man by asking him questions such as, “What should we drink?” (132) or “What does it say?” (132). However, she is much smarter than she may seem and communicates her feelings through indirect ways without being offensive to the older man.
During their conversation about the drinks tasting like licorice, the girl comments, “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe” (132). She is trying to show her frustration towards the man in a subtle way. Her frustration is built on the fact that, despite always wishing for a baby, she might not have that chance anymore if she decides to have the abortion. The girl also makes it aware that her frustration runs deeper into their relationship. Upon trying a new drink, Jig questions their life, “That’s all we do, isn’t it — look at things and try new drinks?”
She uses “all” in a desperate attempt to show the man that she is bored of her life and their relationship, which Bauer suggests “does not seem to be moving into any kind of commitment” (Bauer), that she deeply wants. As the man suggests that everything will be better after the abortion, The girl reacts, “And you think then that we’ll be alright and be happy” (133). Without the man even realizing, the girl, to me, has gone from uncertainty to certainty because she did not have to ask the question, already knowing that, as Bauer suggests, “Whatever they do about the baby, they will not go back to where they were” (Bauer).
The girl seems to be in control of the conversation and in response to the man’s claim “I’ve known lots of people that have done it” (133), she offers sarcasm, “And afterwards they were all so happy.” The girl realizes that the man is clueless and will never understand. She realizes that she does not have a real decision in her abortion, feeling that the man has already made the decision for her. To compensate for her lack of autonomy, she wants to make the man feel guilty for making her have the abortion, so she tells him, “then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me” (134).
Jill grows more explicit to her refusal, as she repeats several times “No we can’t” (134), ironically refuting his agreement of her own sarcastic statement, “We can have everything” (134). The man fails to understand her point of view and when Jill points out that “once they take it away, you never get it back” (134), the man thinks she is talking about their world of travelling, proving his ignorance and selfish desire to hang on to that.
Yet if the girl carries the baby to term, the steady sex life that the American has enjoyed will come to an end: Not only will he have to forego sex during her pregnancy, but he will also have to fight for time to have sex with the girl once the babofy is born. Regardless of how seriously the American would take his responsibilities as a father, simply having the baby living with the girl at home would remind the American that he can no longer enjoy the fairly carefree lifestyle that he and the girl led prior to the baby’s birth. In a sense, he would be entering adult life a second time.
Another aspect of youth that the American relives is traveling. In looking at the bags with labels from “all the hotels where they had spent nights” (Hemingway 76), he is not only thinking of their lovemaking but also of the different places they have been to. Not only is the American sleeping with a young woman but he is also taking her to countless different cities. The man and the girl are vagrants with money, seeing the world as if there were nothing else for them to do.
This vagrancy also serves the purpose of masking the fact that the American is not moving quickly from one woman to another—indeed, that he cannot do so. Instead of moving between partners, he is moving between cities and countries. Were the girl to give birth to the baby, though, this traveling would likely be forced to stop—and even if the couple could still go to different places, they would either have to take the baby with them or find someone to leave it with.
In observing the girl’s willingness to carry their baby to term, he sees that she is ready to grow up, to take on responsibility, to settle down.