Tag: isolation

Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927)

ernest hemingway

The elephant in the title, as big as the hills, as big as the elephant in the room, the white elephant: the “girl” (Hemingway’s women are always “girls”) is pregnant. “The American” (not just a man, certainly not a boy: The American) wants her to have an abortion, “to let the air in,” as he describes the “operation,” which he says isn’t an operation at all really, never saying the word abortion or coming close to it. It’s what, 1920s Spain? They’re drinking. “That’s all we do, isn’t it–look at things and try new drinks?” she tells him.

She looks out and describes the hills “like white elephants,” at least at first. He misses the point. He doesn’t try to engage her on hers. What do you mean? What do you see? He doesn’t even think of trying to see through her eyes. He says:  : ‘I’ve never seen one,” and drinks beer. Brings it back to himself. He’s a narcissist. “No, you wouldn’t have,” she says. Again he misses the point: “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.” What their exchange proves is that they are talking at cross-purposes. It’s a conversation between two deaf people, two people deaf to each other. He is not listening. She is not interested in listening, and will have to tell him so explicitly by the end of the story.

They talk beer. Talk drinks. They have that in common. Then he breaks it to her: “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig.” Jig? Why did Hemingway call his “girl” by a dance’s name? It’s not a small detail. Nor is the astoundingly dumb, even macabre, reduction of an abortion to this: “It’s just to let the air in.” For him, maybe. (The story is an unfortunately strong argument for anti-abortionist zealots.) It brings happiness, he tells her. Couples who do it love each other again: that is, they can fuck freely again, no baby burden. She wonders: “and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” That she has to ask whether he loves her negates his affirmation (“I love you now. You know I love you.”) Clearly, so much is amiss, tragically so. Including the next revelation, almost suicidal for the “girl” and at this point murderous for the bay: “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” If you don’t care, I don’t care. Hemingway’s foresight: he is the man, nevertheless he can articulate the woman’s isolation and nearing despair. The man is about what the man wants: the operation, the resumption.

Then she changes her mind about the hills like white elephants, as if to try again, prompt him to see: “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skins through the trees.” But all she’s done is humanize the hills even more. 

There’s an exchange toward the end where she seems to want the possibility of possibilities: “we could have everything.” No. The man says they can’t. “Once they take it away, you never get it back.” Take what away? We never know. The baby? She wants him to stop talking. She begs him to. The drink at separate tables. Her last line is damning: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” She wants the baby. She is not diseased.

The themes strengthen the story, which hints at certain sensibilities that suggest Hemingway was not entirely deaf to women’s. And abortion, ever the white elephant. Hemingway executes the theme deftly, with the unsaid here sounding so loud, so painful, as it always is in these circumstances: so much of it can’t be verbalized, so much of it the man in the story either doesn’t want verbalized, for all his intolerable volubility, or wouldn’t know how: “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.” But it seems to.

Transition, August 1927.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Key” (1969)

Bessie Popkin isn’t the only one confused in the story. Isaac Singer is a bit confused to. He sets up his widow heroine in the opening paragraphs as a woman paranoid of dybbuks and evils all around her in descriptions that make her seem more like a woman in the creeping stages of dementia. She lives on Broadway, she despises New York, especially its colorful people. She seldom ventures past her blocks. One day returning from the market she breaks her key. She never gave a spare to the superintendent, thinking he steals. She wanders the streets, giving us a few of the city as it was around 1967, when Singer wrote the story (the picture above was by David Attie of Getty Images, taken in 1968):

She notices an accident, firefighters cleaning the street of the victim. The reader thinks she’s seeing herself, dead. As she wanders about, she thinks, passing by a church and huddling in its doorway, where she sleeps, unmolested, of making reckoning. She has an epiphany. The animals she had always despised, she now loves, embodied in a cat that purred by her. It’s night, but “the fear of death was gone, along with her fear of being homeless.” She returns home. The superintendent helps her get back in her house. She is amazed by his kindness. A neighbor had placed the milk and butter she’d left at the door in her own fridge. Again, Bessie is amazed by th kindness. She goes into her room, lies down, feels something strange rise from her feet to her breast and as if dreams of her husband telling her, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter—and mazel too.” Is she dead?

Th confusion I referred to has to do with that first page: the details Singer sets out don’t relate to anything else in the story, at least not those that imply she is forgetful or delusional.

Here’s how The New Yorker summarizes the story, which ran in the Dec. 6, 1969 issue: “Bessie Popkin, a widow for over 20 years, lives alone in her apartment near Broadway. She has become slatternly and suspicious, feeling tormented by Evil Powers. Returning from a shopping trip, she tries to open her door, but the key breaks in the lock. Leaving her groceries in the hall, she goes in search of a locksmith. Exhausted from wandering in the darkness, Bessie dozes off on a church step. Awaking late at night, she sees the moon for the first time in years and thinks of her husband Sam. In a renascence, she decides to start a new life. Reaching home in the morning, she finds that a neighbor has taken care of her groceries and that the superintendent does have a key to the apartment. She lies down on her bed, feeling a heaviness and vibrations in her body, and dreams that Sam comes. Together they walk through a corridor which leads to two mountains meeting, with sunrise or sunset between them. In the voice of the hotel owner who had led them to their bridal suite, she hears the words, “You don’t need no key here. Just enter–and mazel tov.””

The New Yorker, December 6, 1969

Edith Wharton, “Mrs. Mantsey’s View”

Mrs. Mantsey is an aging, stuck-in-her-ways woman whose only pleasure in life seems to be the views of the city from her boardinghouse in New York. Mrs. Black plans to build an extension of the building in front of Mantsey’s view, which would be blocked. Matsey panics, offers $1,000 to Black not to build. Black had offered her a room in the extension, which would have fixed the problem. But Mantsey doesn’t want to move. Black takes Mantsey for nuts. She’s right. Mantsey next sets fire to the construction’s wares after the first day. But she catches pneumonia and dies–happy, because she was able to look at her view one last time. (Compare to Carver’s “The Idea.” Why do we assume that looking out from a greater distance is OK, but looking from a nearer distance is voyeurism, at least when one is within one’s own home?)

The story reminded me of this recent item in The Times: “That Noise? The Rich Neighbors Digging a Basement Pool in Their $100 Million Brownstone: The extremely loud and incredibly expensive renovations that have shattered a formerly quiet residential block in Manhattan.” (See the picture above.)