VCCS Litonline I
The following excerpts from email notes I have written to students regarding their responses to "Hills Like White Elephants" add up to a compendium of views, though not exactly my own smoothly written essay. Some more student ideas are captured here, besides those at my favorite excerpts from students' replies to "Hills Like White Elephants." --(Prof.) Eric Hibbison
|Here's an index to the sections of this page.|
|The Process of Interpreting||Character Development||Character|
|Conflict||Symbolism||Symbolism as a Natural Process|
The Process of Interpreting
Probability vs. Certainty
Think in terms of probability rather than certainty when interpreting any art form. It's likely that Jig is the protagonist of this story, but not certain, for instance. For another example, given the statement you cited for the American, as well as Jig's ending smile and his disgruntlement in the bar, it's highly probable that Jig has the upper hand at the end of the story, but it's far from certain whether this could be their last discussion of it.
Yes, a work of art can be seen in many ways; that's part of what makes it a rich experience to re-look at it. Critical views vary over decades, even centuries in the case of literature by Shakespeare and the ancients, as each generation finds meaning in them. The most a reader can hope for, in writing an essay, for instance, is to settle his or her own reasoning on some aspect of the art.
Emma asked via AOL if Hemingway really intended all the stuff that various readers find in this story. Here's my answer.
Actually, Emma, for this story more than others, perhaps. Scholars who have studied his manuscript have found he often crossed out lines that would give away too much (such a line by the American that suggests they could get along with a baby; in the published version only Jig has that line and it's a question). Another scholar has traced at least four different source ideas for the story from Hemingway's own experiences, his interview with George Plimpton, and an anecdote by a friend who wrote about giving Hemingway the line about "let the air in."
On the other hand, Hemingway did the actual writing of the story in manuscript form during two days of his honeymoon. Almost certainly the divided valley is his invention for the story. Also, some of these characters and angles seem to have been tried in earlier stories, according to other scholars. Hemingway may have been mulling over the story since 1925 as he worked on other writings; the manuscripts were part of a collection of stories published in 1927.
Still, there's the conscious crafting for any author vs. the subconscious crafting. The latter often is expressed as "it just seemed right" or "it sounded right." Whatever amount was conscious vs. unconscious, it is probably very risky to assume in this story that something was just tossed in. On the other hand, not every critic's or scholar's theory is correct or equally plausible for any story. For example, of the critical views I've summarized so far at http://vccslitonline.vccs.edu/copy_of_hills/criticism.htm, some critics think Jig will leave the American, while others think she will be dumped by him; some think she is caving in and on the way to have the abortion, while others see her as standing firm against abortion, and frustrating the American. You have to look at the evidence each gives to assess which is the most plausible analysis of plot and symbolism and especially theme for this story.
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Moving the Bags and Shifting His View
The American didn't move out of the shade to Jig's side of the station--until he moved the luggage to "the other side." Some readers see this move as a yielding to Jig, along with his statement that he doesn't want her to have the operation if she doesn't want to and his disgruntlement in the bar.
Many readers see moving the bags to "the other side" of the train station,
the fertile side, with the track heading in the opposite direction, as a
surrendering by the American. If he is giving in and the matter is settled, I
have some hopes that he will make a decent father, since he seems to have a
conscience, to be considerate of Jig and truly wish to continue their
relationship, and maybe to have a sense of fairness.
Jig Grows During the Story
A reader could trace a definite movement in Jig from uncertainty to certainty. My guess is that she asks about liquor whenever she wants to steer the conversation away from his pressuring her about the abortion.
Is He Married?
If their relationship is illicit, then he is not free to make it permanent. But they seem to have spent a great deal of time together, traveling as tourists--"look[ing] at things and try[ing] new drinks." Though possible, it would be difficult to sustain a marriage to someone else with this much (continuous?) travel.
Jig has a name; she gets to say the title line; she is smiling and has the upper hand at the end of the story. The American is pushy, suspect, and even shallow and self-centered. I think I'd pick Jig as the protagonist, which could make him the antagonist, but we might want to figure out who "they" are. Jig appears not to see herself or her man in control of her or their life but some group larger than this couple that travels.
To see what Hemingway made of the same technique a couple years later in a larger writing, see this set of notes about "they" in A Farewell to Arms, a tragic story of another couple who gets pregnant. Even without reading the novel, you can see how diverse is the use of this pronoun (they) in the novel--and how ominous.
Is Jig a Wimp, Doing Anything to Please Her Man?
Yes, this story is really about their relationship. Yes, the American WANTS control over the situation, but the end of the story--his disgruntled gripe about "reasonableness" and her smiles, as well as his defensiveness all through the story in the face of her sarcasm--all suggest that the American does not have the control that he wishes. Yes, Jig SAYS that she will have the operation, but the American realizes she can't simply cave in to his wishes. If he is to avoid her resentment in the future, she has to buy into the decision to abort the baby. Once she stands and clearly expresses her desire not to have the abortion by pointing to the fertile side of the train station, the American has no control.
Most who see Jig as week do not mention anything that happens after "I'll do it because I don't care about me." It's risky to take anyone's words at face value, especially someone whom we are overhearing in an argument.
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Many see the drinking as escapism or avoiding the problem. Some see Jig's
asking about drinks as a way to block the American from insisting that they talk
about the operation; as such, then, it would be a way to get him to make actual
decisions but just to block arguing when she knows they will disagree.
But absinthe for Jig represents something she has "waited so long for." In this relationship, what has she been waiting for? I'm guessing for him to stop collecting stickers from hotels, the sort of life she sees in the lush side of the train station and argues for.
Their attempts to maintain the illusion seem futile. Even Jig says, "Once they take it away from you, you can never get it back." "It" can be her baby, their prior happiness and seemingly carefree existence.
Fetal alcohol syndrome wasn't discovered until decades after this story was written.
I get the impression from Jig's sarcasm that she has the opposite experience
from the American's regarding those acquaintances who have had abortions.
Maybe she knows more women, who have to carry the medical and psychological
consequences of the operation. Jig keeps her skepticism to the end because
her acquaintances' experiences have taught that there are medical and
psychological dangers and
consequences for abortion (in this era before antibiotics) which she alone risks.
Each is being tentative because neither is looking for an excuse to end the
relationship. They just have opposite goals. Jig's sarcasm and skepticism are
her weapons against his oversimplifying. Since she's the one who has to
face the mental and psychological consequences of the operation (most readers
agree they are discussing an abortion), she distrusts his reassurances. Yet she
also wants to be reassured that the operation won't be for nothing, that it will
save their relationship.
Some readers sense an undertone in the story, a realization by each character that they can't go back--and that maybe their prior "happiness" was an illusion if Jig has been waiting for him to settle down.
Considering that phrase about "just let[ting] the air in," one form of abortion used in the 1920s apparently involved inducing a miscarriage by breaking the amniotic sac. Still, even this operation is not truly "simple" medically--and especially psychologically.
Most readers see this conversation as the umpteenth time they have discussed the operation. Jig is disappointed with her lover's response to the situation, as signaled by the way she characterizes their relationship after the licorice-flavored (bitter?) drink. The American is both self-centered but concerned about Jig's reaction, if not her actual wishes for a change in their lifestyle. Neither seems to be looking for an easy way out of their relationship; otherwise, their disagreements would get a bit more vicious.
To read this story, you have to supply your own "speaker tags" of "he said" and "she said," at least until you get to the point where you can identify the speaker by seeing the attitude. Jig gets to say the imaginative things, as well as the sarcastic things. The American oversimplifies the operation, promises future happiness from returning to the status quo (as if that's possible), and seems to know everything about the "operation" (except its psychological ramifications on the woman who has it).
Jig's questions are defensive. She tries to defer to her mate's knowledge of alcohol to keep him talking about innocuous subjects, but she also asks for reassurance that he won't abandon her, that the operation will be worthwhile as a gesture to save their relationship. My suspicion, however, is that they both realize that they can't go back; Jig never was satisfied with tourism and drinking, and now he wants to deny her that which she has been awaiting--a chance to settle down.
The American's assertions about the simplicity of the operation are meant to be reassurances, as are his disagreeing with Jig's skepticism about not having "everything" as she looks out over the fertile side of the Ebro valley. His defensiveness in the face of her sarcasm seems infantile, but perhaps he realizes he is standing on shaky moral ground, as well as resisting what Jig has wanted all along--a family. When she threatens to scream and he looks away in order to hold his tongue, he looks at the luggage with the hotel labels, his image of their "happiness" before the pregnancy, and his desperation returns, pushing him to one more assurance.
Certainly, he TRIES to influence her; readers are split, however, on whether he succeeds. She SAYS she gives in, but he realizes that, if they are to stay together, she not only has to do what he wants but also to share in the responsibility of the decision so she won't blame him alone for the consequences.
If the American feels "unreasonable" for rushing Jig, then the ending makes more sense. She's "fine" because she resisted his oversimplifications and may make a daddy of him yet, I suspect.
The critic named Lamb does analyze Jig's weapons to try to defend herself against his pressures, though, ending with silence. After all, they've been drinking quite a bit, seeking relief from the heat of the countryside and the heat of their situation--and getting neither, it seems.
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The White Elephants
Some readers, as you may see in later assignments, wonder if Jig hasn't
become a white elephant to the American--or he to her. I think some of this sort
of thinking is going on when she takes two strands
of beads from the curtain--which two do those beads suggest, her and her man or her with the baby? I wonder.
The Beaded Curtain
I like your idea about the curtain through which the wind can blow right through as akin to their insubstantial life. What does it mean for Jig to grasp two strands instead of three, if the baby is a third person in this story?
At least one critic sees her grasping the two strands of beads as a turning point in the conversation toward her resolution not to have the operation--and even to get rid of the American to keep the baby. If the curtain represents an obstacle (and I think it certainly can), how does that work when Jig and the American are on the same side of the curtain vs. when he is in the bar and comes out through it?
Of course, the beads in the curtain are a different size, color, and texture
than rosary beads, but, as you noted, she may be grasping them to get her
bearings and reinforce faith [in her vision of how their life should be, for
instance]. Another critic suggests the curtain's beads might literally be
closer to the feel of the kinds of beads that babies play with. Grasping two
might suggest her and the baby rather than Jig and the American, since several
critics bet that one of them ends the relationship either with or without an
You stated, "The curtain may symbolize their emotional separation." I agree in two ways; the couple is separate from the other people--and the rest of most couples, probably--in their consideration of abortion (in 1926 or 7). Especially when he is in the bar--and considering her "unreasonable" as he
drinks the liquor she didn't like--the curtain certainly symbolizes their emotional separation.
Train Station as Foreshadowing of Operating Room
A few readers see the isolated table outside the bar as a kind of foreshadowing of an operating room; one critic even calls the American's question at the end, "Do you feel better," a "post-op" question, as well as Jig's reply of "I feel fine" as sounding like something a patient would say and maybe what this couple will be saying after the abortion. The shade is his territory, and the American invites Jig back into the shade after she steps out to see the other side of the station and their situation in the sunlight: "Once they take it away from you, you can never get it back." This symbolism can apply if they have the abortion, as a kind of foreshadowing, but also if they do not get the abortion, as a picture of the situation they are avoiding.
Train Station--Two Tracks, Two Sides, Two Perspectives
No shade: Lots of readers see the first side of the train station that is mentioned as the barren side, his side, the side of "looking at things and trying new drinks." A lack of trees would mean lack of growth, especially when contrasted with Jig's side, the "other side" of the station, the fertile side. Of course, there is shade across the table at which Jig and the American sit, which sets up contrasts between sunlight and the possible future Jig sees on the fertile side, as opposed to his inviting her back into the shade of the train station, perhaps to his view of things.
See http://vccslitonline.vccs.edu/copy_of_hills/junction.htm in addition to searching the criticism page for "train" and "track" and maybe even "parallel." A few critics have hinted at the cloud as the thought of abortion, but no one associates it with the man because that is her side of the train station. To do so, however, makes more sense, since he is a sort of invasive force.
That "ominous crescendo" in the pacing of the story probably ties in with the
train somehow, which some people associate with change (if she keeps the
baby--with or without the American) and others with
inevitability (if she has the abortion). At the very least, the train is associated with time, since the numbers 40, 5, and 2 are all associated with the number of minutes for the train to arrive or stay in the station.
Hills--Traditional Symbolism vs. "Private" Symbolism Developed for This Story
I think the traditional symbolism of hills of hardship and valleys of relief can work, along with her seeing the hills as an image of what her tummy will look like in a few months if she keeps the baby. The "skin" Freudian slip indicates her personal image for the hills.
|On Symbolism as a Natural Part of the
Psychology of Characters (and Readers)
Think of this way. Here are two people with a problem. We'll assume they're facing an unplanned pregnancy and thinking about an abortion, since most readers see it that way.
The pregnant girl, Jig, sees her problem in everything she looks at. She looks at white hills and imagines what her pregnant belly will look like in a few months, sort of white and hilly, sort of like the backs of albino elephants. (The slang term "white elephant" was well established in the 1920's and many people knew both connotations--something sacred, but also an object that the King of Siam used to give to competiting, ambitious nobles in his country to make them go broke.)
She looks at a farm and sees growth, plants that someone nurtured, like she would like to do with her baby.
They try this drink and it's disappointing; the man makes a crack expressing the disappointment that both of them feel in losing their happy-go-lucky lifestyle. But the girl has been waiting for a long time, it seems to her, for him to get serious about her and ask to settle down. This baby could be their chance, but he acts like he doesn't want a family with her. So she's disappointed about that, too, even bitter, and sometimes she gets sarcastic because this guy she wants to be a father can only think to kill the kid and keep their dull lifestyle going.
When she pressures him to shut up, he looks at the luggage, and it reminds him of all those sweet nights of love-making--which he wants more of. She feels like somebody took something away from her, because she was young and probably thought she was in love; now she's pregnant and maybe in danger of being abandoned in a strange country.
If the characters are seeing their problem in everything they look at, then readers probably will, too. The critics look at the chemistry of that drink--anis--and find out it's made from wormwood, an ingredient that leaves a bitter aftertaste, and so it's a small leap to talk about emotional bitterness within this couple. The critics also often believe that one will dump the other, that the relationship has been permanently changed. In short, they don't believe a word the man is saying; he's just trying to reassure Jig so she will go ahead with the operation and he won't have a kid out there someplace to put a claim on him. They might try to keep going after the abortion, if Jig gets it (and she hasn't actually agreed to get the abortion yet); but they can't have the same blissful romance they had, since Jig will suffer physically and psychologically and probably translate her suffering into resentment of him.
When she takes hold of two strands of beads, then, could she be contemplating life with just her baby or a continued relationship with him without the baby. Those seem to be her choices.
If you see the "symbolism" in the story, in short, as part of the human dynamic of their relationship, ideas they project onto the scenery, then you might be more receptive to seeing other aspects of the psychology of disappointment, fear, and the polarizing effect of their opposite goals--family (for Jig) vs. freedom (for the American). It's not too big of a leap to see this opposition in the two different sides of the train station, one with treeless hills (white) seen behind the forest in the foreground and "the other side" with signs of life--water, grain, clouds that may bring nurturing rain.
I've suggested a few topics at the essay assignment. See these at the Litonline essay assignment: http://vccslitonline.vccs.edu/vcsyllabus.htm
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