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My Favorite Student Views

select by Prof. Eric Hibbison, Litonline webmaster

Here are some insights from three rounds of responses for "Hills Like White Elephants" written by students that seemed particularly worthy of a closer look.  I didn't take the time to ask permission to quote, so I am using the student's  anonymous screen name to attribute the sample comments.  See also excerpts from my replies to other students whom, I judged, needed to take another look at the story or the critics.  Boldfacing is used to facilitate scanning for particular views, but <Ctrl> + <f> will aid searching this page for key words for ideas in which you may have an interest for this story.

"Sweets" noted at the end of her response to #16, "The bead curtain gave the story a certain aspect of emotion; every time she sought them they were ordering drinks to relieve them of worries. I think that the landscape was symbolic in this story. The mountains seemed to resemble a hardship or troubles. I believe that the grain field symbolizes time and growth and the flowing river water seemed to be pure and innocent like a newborn baby."

Many people see the curtain as a barrier, but "Justbecause" sees another negative symbolism to it: "In addition, the beaded curtain itself is representative of their entire life; a decorative front that the hot wind is able to blow right through, making them more uncomfortable with there life."

"D. Pedro" sees the hills as representing a goal: "I feel that the hills represent something that is so 'lovely' that she would love to do and she can see it as clear as day but is just so far away it is an opportunity that is almost impossible to take."

Surging ahead, "Sweets" noted in her reply for #17 that the couple's conversational tactics seem like a debate, but "The repetition in their conversation makes it clear to me that there was no clarity for them while dealing with this issue. The decision to have this operation was clearly a difficult choice for the both of them. To me they seemed to be still in the early stages of their relationship; it's clear to me that they care about one another and want some kind of stability in their future--meaning that they want to be financially and emotionally ready to bear a child."

"Callie" did some wondering out loud in the middle portion of her reply to #17: "The man tries to convince her to have the abortion, while she seems to be pondering what her future will be like. At this point, the reader is most likely wondering if he had an affair and also the age of this 'girl.' He tells her she doesn’t need to be afraid and that it’s a simple operation. Has he been through this before? The girl seems to be insecure about their relationship. He wants her to believe it’s the right thing to do and when it’s over they will be happy again. Were they happy before?  I think the girl has many questions regarding his promise of commitment to her if she goes through with the abortion."  (I added the italics to show the questions.--EH)

Surging onward, "Callie" used the summary of critics in interesting ways; here's one.  Both Meyers and Wyche suspect that Jig sees how self-centered her American lover is.  Callie agreed: "He is not interested in having an adult conversation with her. He wants her to agree to the abortion so his worries will go away. The man does not want to understand the emotional issues the girl is facing. As long as she does what he wants, he will be happy and he’s not thinking of the emotional scar it may leave her with."

"Shutterbug" wondered about the purpose of the alcohol:  "'absinthe':  I had to look up this word as I am unfamiliar with it, but from the definitions, does she mean sleep, death, a bitter drink?  There is a lot of discussion about drinking, which I understand--wanting a cold one while waiting in the heat--but it is more than just talk of a drink.  It is making small talk when there is nothing to talk about [or to avoid arguing about the operation--EH].  Perhaps the alcohol is supposed to be taking the edge off as well?  Taking the edge off of what?"

"Sugar" used some background about absinthe: "In the dialogue the word absinthe was mentioned which is an herbal drink that causes hallucinations. Jig and the American engaged in unprotected sex while they were both under the influence of absinthe and Jig became pregnant. I think that Jig wants to settle down and have the child, but her American lover wants her to have an abortion."

"BB" makes an analogy between a basic ingredient in absinthe, wormwood, and the operation the couple is discussing: " 'Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything taste of liquorice.  Especially all of the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’   The mention of 'absinthe' by Jig presents a perception that is two-fold.  In fact, that phrase is almost like a simile ('Especially all of the things you’ve  waited so long for, like absinthe').  It is painfully obvious that the American never wanted, or waited for the baby.  Historically, absinthe itself has a dual past, both medicinally and recreationally.  Ironically, the major ingredient of absinthe is wormwood.  Wormwood was used medicinally since the Middle Ages, primarily to exterminate tapeworm infestations while leaving the human host uninjured.   Hemingway used one word (absinthe) strategically in a phrase to illustrate that the American wanted to play, but not accept the consequences.  He wanted the abortion and he kept assuring her (the human host), that it was simple and that she would be unharmed."

Dixie Girl noted "It seems as though he is trying to convince himself that it will all be simple and nothing will change.  I could feel his internal struggle with himself.  He knew her stance on the operation and yet he was still pushing for it.  The question I felt he was struggling with was between what he wanted her to do and what was right for them.  Their conversation shows that they are free spirits and having a baby would tie them down for the rest of their lives."

"Asphyxia" realizes that the man isn't satisfied with Jig's giving in, that he needs her to take responsibility and share in the decision or it could come back on him later: "He does sound like he cares about her and doesn't desire forcing her into having an abortion, because he knows that if she truly doesn't desire it also, it will always be an issue in their relationship."

About the bar scene, Rosco conjectures: "The couple does not have much time left and they are still undecided. Right before the train arrives, the American walks through the barroom filled with passengers and notices that 'They were all waiting reasonably for the train.' Does this show that the American is feeling rushed into a decision, or is he rushing Jig into the decision? It could also represent that the American feels that all these people were responsible with their lives and he was not."

"Huskers" noted support from critics about the tension always being between Jig and her American--and wondered how he would react if Jig had the baby: "Margaret Bauer reinforced my idea that the relationship between Jig and the American will not be the same, whether Jig chooses to have the baby or not.  Even though the American claims that he will always love her whether she has the procedure or not, there will be some type of tension between them both.  My thought would be tension towards the American from Jig because she desperately wants to have this baby, but the American does not want the child.  So what happens if she does have the child?  What would be the result of Jig having this child?  How would the American react?"

"Subdude" mentioned some possible symbolism for the luggage as emotional baggage: "The breeze blew the beads against the table as if to entice them to go through. Jig grabbed two of the beads as if she wanted to resolve the issue.  It was at the end when the American took their luggage around the station and not through the beads as to carry their problems with them.   I wonder if Jig will also walk around the station to catch the train or walk through the beads like the American did?  Jig felt better when the luggage was away from her and she smiled when she saw the American walk out of the station through the beads."

"BB" got intrigued by the symbolism and by Jig:  "As the story moves forward, the symbolic manifestations continue at an accelerated pace.  An example of this is when the American looks at the beads and starts to reminisce.  The beads lead to thoughts of hotel nights together (making love), logically leading to pregnancy, leading to current situation (possible abortion).  In a strange twist, Hemingway uses 'absinthe,' which historically has a double meaning as well. The closer that it gets to the time for the train to arrive, the more hurried the story gets, seeming to lead to an ominous crescendo.

"After the first reading, there are more questions than answers.  What is the significance of 'White Elephants'?  What is their final destination and what does their future hold?  Is Jig going to have an abortion?  If so, what is the psychological effect of an impending abortion in regards to Jig?  What is Jig’s cultural and religious background (Madrid, Spain, Primarily Catholic)?"

"Luv4Labs" sees the characters' identifiers as symbolic and sees the archetypal situation: "I found symbolism in the couple’s names.  When you think of 'Jig' the first thing that comes to mind is a dance and happiness.  However, the Jig in this story is far from happy.  The name Jig seems to be an oxymoron.  When Hemingway uses 'the American' in the story, I view the simplicity of what America is.  The American brushes off this procedure as un-invasive and simple, the typical American.  I found this piece to be very true to what many teenaged girls go through.  It shows the unsupportive partner and the struggling mother."

"Buddy" took an interesting route to figuring out that the operation is an abortion: "The hotel labels on the luggage (par. 99) suggested they might be having an affair, which sounded consistent, with what little I knew about Hemingway’s own experiences and his tendency to explore them in his writing. If they have been having an affair, the operation Jig is worried about is obviously an abortion. The man sees this as a simple choice, but fails to comprehend the emotional struggle Jig is facing."

"Black Beauty" carried that another step and saw parallels between the train station and an operating room: "I took in account that this story was written in the 1920s and any procedure being done at that time would be serious.  I also thought that Jig could have been pregnant and was thinking about aborting the pregnancy.  My feeling is that the train station is like an abortion clinic, their stop on the way to the their future and the rest of their life.  Illegal abortions were done back then and the lady coming in and out of the beaded curtain [seemed like] a nurse or something.  The people sitting around and waiting were symbolic to me also.  Then at the end of the story, the American man comes back and asks Jig if she feels better, and she responded by saying that nothing's wrong and that she was fine, as if something was done there at that time.  That makes me think that maybe the train station . . . was [akin to] an abortion clinic or some healthcare facility."

Here's one reply in its entirety, which analyzes the couple's dialog--

"The dialogue initiates a complex tone of melancholy between Jig and the American who converse in a casual familiarity with one another although the subject is decidedly heavy. Jig is more outspoken for a female than was common for Hemingway’s day and she displays it through some cutting comments, 'And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible' (841). She is obviously troubled and has a hard time confessing true emotions to her companion. Her strength is merely a facade for a hidden pain that she refuses to reveal mostly for the sake of herself, for once an emotional dam such as this gives way it’s impossible to stop it.

"Her mood presents the reader with a feeling of foreboding and secret desires that she accepts as impossible. She desires to keep the child in question here; moreover, she wants what most consider to be normal life--living in one place, setting down roots with which to grow and raise a family. These are wants she has given up for the sake of keeping her companion happy. The American resembles the male of Hemingway’s time, though he doesn’t exemplify the stereotype for he does seem to truly care about his mate. He is, however, a genuine member of the post-WWI Lost Generation who has lost meaning and chases it from country to country. He lives in a delusion of freedom from the bonds of reality and, unfortunately for his mate, a child does not fit into the picture of that freedom. He tells her, while simultaneously telling himself, that an abortion will make things better and that their lives can continue on like they were before. He holds on to this illusion to feel better, much like their alcohol does.

"The two suffer from a painful position that has the power to easily tear a couple apart. They face an impossible decision and have no real concept of how to make it, for they have no real means of communicating with each other. Each talks to the other but has become so used to the responses they get that their words don’t reach each other anymore. The symbols are quite blatant. The alcohol works like their own reassurances; it serves to let them forget the pain and live less in the world they attempt to deny. Then, of course, there are the White Elephants. A White Elephant is as unwanted gift, one which the recipient may feel obligated to accept and yet find it hard to do so, an unwanted gift such as an unplanned pregnancy."

Here's another complete response--

"Riyalgal" wrote compactly about the couple and the symbolism: "Hills like White Elephants is a story about an American man and a girl named Jig who has become pregnant.  It appears that their relationship was not a serious one.  They were traveling together and having a carefree, good time.  The pregnancy changed the relationship.  Made it serious and complicated as only an unplanned pregnancy can.  The American wants Jig to have an abortion.  Jig is either unsure that she wants the abortion or maybe she does not want the abortion but does not have the power to make this fully known to the American.  It is curious that she is referred to as a 'girl' when she is obviously a grown woman, though probably a young woman. This may be a way to further undermine her decision making ability. Jig senses that, whereas many of the things she once said, such as the 'hills looking like white elephants' were once considered by the American to be bright and amusing they are now just annoying.  The American is in control of the relationship.  He appears selfish and manipulative.  Jig knows that even if she has the abortion they will probably not stay together.  She says, 'It isn’t ours any more.  Once they take it away, you never get it back.'  Is 'it' the world, or something more intangible like trust and love?  I’m also not sure yet who 'they' are.

"The story is full of symbols.   Many of the symbols seem to imply the division between the American and Jig that has been created by the unwanted pregnancy.  The story talks of one side of the station having no shade or trees while on the other side were fields of grain and trees.  The fields of grain could suggest a fertile place just as Jig is fertile.  The shadow that moved across the field of grain may be the impending abortion that the American wants Jig to have.  The bead curtain certainly seems to imply a separation.  The felt pads brought by the waitress suggest protection.  Does Jig need protection from the American or does the unborn baby need the protection from the both?  The drink that tastes like licorice was mentioned twice in the story.  Since licorice is a bitter taste, both the American and Jig may be feeling bitter with the outcome of their relationship.  The train might symbolize the future.  The American looked up the tracks but could not see the train.  He could not see what the future held for him or for Jig."

"Shutterbug" explains how Jig controls the conversation:

"Jig--is she the helpless and dependent girl or is the performance for a purpose?  If concentration is given to Jig’s dialogue, it could be seen as merely an act.  She appears helpless and dependant, but if viewed from a different perspective it could be interpreted as manipulation.

"We are first introduced to Jig as 'the girl.'  Immediately, one thinks she is in her youth or perhaps her immaturity warrants her identity as a 'girl.'  We don’t really know her relationship with the American, but there is an [impression] that they are in a romantic relationship.  In the opening dialogue, she first confuses her partner with indecisiveness.  Her first comment is “What should we drink?”   This makes her appear dependent.  Is this because Jig wants the American to make all the decisions for her, or is it her way of making him feel as if he is making the decision? 

"Before the drinks even arrive she is quietly looking out to the hills.  She is contemplating something heavily or devising a plan.  After this moment of reflection, she comments that the hills look like white elephants, knowing that the American will not initially see the symbolism but will take it literally.  Perhaps this is exactly why she made the comment.  When he states he has never seen one, she snips back at him--'No, you wouldn’t have.'  This makes her feel in control as if she knows something he doesn’t, and it seems to get to him for that reason.  Plus, it allows her to start an argument.  She doesn’t just come out and discuss what she would like, she picks a little at a time.

"Jig also makes a comment regarding the taste of a drink they are sharing as being similar to licorice but adds another stinger of--'All things taste of licorice especially the things you’ve waited for so long, like absinthe.'  This appears to really push his buttons and she knows it.  He immediately responds negatively.  She then pushes further by pointing the finger back with how he started it and she was having a 'fine time.'  She is feeling more in control and has shifted the blame.  However, she then knows she has crossed the line and they begin safe conversation.  She diffuses [the situation] this way several times.  He, sensing that she is not done, goes ahead and brings up what he knows she wants to talk about, the operation.  He is blunt and matter of fact, indicating that he feels she is being foolish.  She silently lets him finish.  Her first question to him is about what they will do afterward. 

"To her it is not an easy decision to have this operation and more importantly, she feels like the whole topic has changed their relationship forever.  Perhaps she thinks less of him for the suggestion, maybe she hates that it is as if he has already made the decision for her.   Jig responds with only two statements, 'Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me.'  This tactic is to see if he really even cares about her or just wants to take care of their unhappiness.  Perhaps she is thinking that, after this operation, he won’t feel obligated to stay with her anymore.  She states she will do it because she knows this is what he wants to hear, but it is obvious that she doesn’t want to.  Further comments [reveal] that she already knows this has changed the relationship forever.

"One thing is for certain: she controls the conversation and her tactics produced the results she wanted.  After bantering back and forth, he finally gives in and says what she wants to hear, that he is 'perfectly willing to go through with it,' meaning for her not to have the operation.  However, she still wants to know if it means anything to him so she asks.  This is probably the most direct question she has asked throughout the story.  He admits that yes it does mean something.  He also says he loves her and only wants to be with her.  Now, has she gotten the responses she wants?  I think so.  What we don’t know is what her decision will be."

BB's response for #18 (on critics' views summarized at this website) shows careful crafting--using a headnote, beginning, and ending that all echo the idea of "footprints," as well as multiple ways of mentioning critics' names, titles of their works, and quotations--

     “Hills Like White Elephants”  

                                                           (Critics’ Analysis)

                                                  “Lives of great men all remind us,
We can make our lives sublime.
                                                   And, departing, leave behind us,
                                                   Footprints on the sands of time.”

                                                                                Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway has left an indelible mark on the American culture.  The footprints of Hemingway are still evident in more than just the field of literature.  His legacy is such that the Cuban leader Fidel Castro has made a national monument of Hemingway’s home in Cuba.  He was also a legendary hunter whose mystique has grown with the years.

     Given the aforementioned, it stands to reason that his work would be analyzed/judged in more than one arena.  There is the biblical (Hammersten), artistic (Gaillard), cinematic (Hollander), and gender versus gender (Flynn).  I explore how these and other ideas have impacted, contradicted, and reinforced my ideas.

     The first area that we will discuss is which critics have had an impact on my analysis of Hemingway and his work, “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Theodore L. Gaillard, Jr. (“Hemingway’s Debt to Cezanne:  New Perspectives”) brought to light the following, “… one biographer reports Hemingway confessing to a friend that he learned to write about landscapes by looking at paintings by Paul Cezanne in his (Hemingway’s) early days in Paris.  Cezanne left some areas of canvas blank, guessing that the onlooker would mentally fill in the omissions.”  That telling quote helps one to understand that Hemingway used this technique in “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Bolstering this theory is that Gaillard also asserts that Hemingway chose to omit the word abortion because, “…the resulting tension would intensify the story.”

     Paul Cioe (“Teaching Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’:  A Simple Operation”) offers the glaring fact that this story is about miscommunication.  Noteworthy also is Hillary Justice’s “Well, Well, Well’: Cross-Gendered Autobiography and Manuscript of ‘Hills Like White Elephants” because in her examination of the manuscript, she notes that some changes were made.  She felt that these changes could support the view (held by Stanley Renner) that the American would come around to Jig’s way of thinking.  This synopsis, in particular, will have a tremendous impact on my final essay.  David Wyche’s “Letting the Air into a Relationship: Metaphorical Abortion in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’” brought to light that it was the American himself who was the “white elephant” to Jig.         

     There were many views that contradicted my analysis of “Hills Like White Elephants.”  In writing Assignment 16, I wrote that the story seemed to be leading towards “an ominous crescendo.”  This was based on the continually accelerating pace of the story, which I felt would lead to a tragic ending.  This seemed to be supported by the following quote from the story.  “’But I don’t want you to,’ he said, ‘I don’t care anything about it.’  ‘I’ll scream,’ the girl said.”  While James Barbour (“Fugue State as a Literary Device in ‘Cat in the Rain’ and ‘Hills Like White Elephants.”) uses “crescendo” as well in his analysis, he used the symbolic imagery to suggest that the story could have a positive end.  “Both the hill and the river are screened by the trees, so the river could represent ‘continuity’ or ‘the possibility of life going on after a decision’ or negotiation of some obstacle.”  David R. Gilmour (Tacoma Community College) agrees with my assessment that “white elephants” is an Asian symbol, but disagrees that Jig may be Catholic.

     What is most refreshing about this assignment was that there were many points of view that reinforced my ideas.  “He picked up the heavy bags and carried them around to the other tracks.”  After reading that passage, I mused that the American would choose to accept both Jig and their unborn child.  Mary Dell Fletcher, in “Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants,’” seems to echo my assessment.  “Moving the bags to ‘the other (fertile) side’ and Jig’s smile may suggest a positive ending.” (Fletcher)  This point of view will also be reflected in my final essay.

     In my earlier readings, it was evident that Hemingway was affected by his life experiences, current world affairs (i.e. WWI after-shocks, gender roles, changing society) and his peers.  Susanna Pavlovska points out that Hemingway may have avoided using the word abortion because of the legal issue—the Comstock Act of 1873.   Another interesting twist was that I felt that there was a stark similarity to Kate Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby.”  Many of Kate Chopin’s short stories often had male gender roles that are sometimes challenged by female characters.  The females often underwent a transformation from weak and dependent, to stronger more dependent women.  Stanley Renner (“Moving to the Girl's’Side of ‘Hills Like White Elephants’”) also recognized this pattern. Renner describes four “movements” in Jig’s development, thus: 

Viewed analytically, the drama may be seen to take place in four movements.  In the first movement we are shown the stereotypical passive female, not even knowing her own mind, accustomed to following a masterful male for her direction in life.  In movement two she comes to a dramatic realization of her own mind-her own welfare, dreams, and values.  In movement three she asserts herself for the first time.  And in the final movement we see the result of her development toward self-realization: the reluctant and still somewhat resentful capitulation of her male companion.

     The wide-ranging ideas of the critics offer a myriad of topics, areas, and historical facts that can be utilized in writing the final essay.  Indeed, Hemingway’s footprints continue to take us in many directions.


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