A story of coldness without and within. Jason and Sara Morton, a couple, only 50 years old, farmers, are in bed at night freezing, silent, all words and warmth having fled from their marriage, on a night when the whistle blows to alert farmers of a freeze. They get up, cover the tomatoes with their own clothes, return to the house, then start burning their last logs, a chair, the kitchen table that had sat there thirty years. It’s all gone, the night isn;t over and the whistle is still blowing. A terribly existential story from the first line: “The darkness was thin, like some sleazy dress that had been worn and worn for many winters and always lets the cold through to the bones.” The coldness, the whiteness of the moon’s light, drenching everything indifferently without hint of warmth, amplifies the existential condition of the couple and their isolated farm, as alone as could be.
Part of Maupassant’s fixation on canotage, the story was first titled “En canot,” and is the first of two by that title (“Sur l’eau”): he wrote another one in the form of a diary in 1888. A solitary canotier is sliding on the Seine, stops to have a pipe, and feels something shivery graze the boat just as he’d been reflecting superbly about rivers: “c’est en effet le plus sinistre des cimetières, celui où l’on n’a point de tombeau. La terre est bornée pour le pêcheur, et dans l’ombre, quand il n’y a pas de lune, la rivière est illimitée. Un marin n’éprouve point la même chose pour la mer. Elle est souvent dure et méchante c’est vrai, mais elle crie, elle hurle, elle est loyale, la grande mer ; tandis que la rivière est silencieuse et perfide. Elle ne gronde pas, elle coule toujours sans bruit, et ce mouvement éternel de l’eau qui coule est plus effrayant pour moi que les hautes vagues de l’Océan.”
His boat is stuck. The anchor won’t give. The next several pages paint the portrait of a frightened man in the thick mists of the Seine, immobilized as much physically as mentally by the imagined frights of his situation: “J’essayai de me raisonner. Je me sentais la volonté bien ferme de ne point avoir peur, mais il y avait en moi autre chose que ma volonté, et cette autre chose avait peur. Je me demandai ce que je pouvais redouter ; mon moi brave railla mon moi poltron, et jamais aussi bien que ce jour-là je ne saisis l’opposition des deux êtres qui sont en nous, l’un voulant, l’autre résistant, et chacun l’emportant tour à tour.” Finally, another canotier passes by and helps him unhook the anchor, or at least loosen it enough to bring the weight that had been clamping it down to the surface. It’s the cadaver of an old woman “avec une grosse pierre au cou.” So the misty uncertainty outlasts the story: suicide? Murder? We won’t know.
One of the classic foreboding Chekhov openings, the themes personified in the sense of place, a house that looks like a hunchback straining to hide:
Madame Tchikamassoff and her family, including her daughter, live there, receive “avec inquietude” the young narrator, whose purpose is unclear. The house business is to fill Manechka’s trousseau. But she has no prospects. Just her mother’s double-edged hopes. Her mother is the reason she has no suitor, and the trousseau is a red herring. There’s also General Tchikamassoff who lives in the past and is at the story’s periphery, and Gregory, who’s got some condition maybe related to his service in war. The narrator visits three times. The third time Madame Tchikamassoff is in mourning. Her daughter is gone. Where was she? The narrator asks himself. There is no answer. Maybe she’s married. Maybe she’s dead. Maybe she killed herself. The last line: “Tout etait clair et j’avais le coeur lourd.”
Naked and afraid, in the Yukon. Or: l’enfer, c’est l’autre. Or: nature indifferently demolishes man’s pretentious claims to civilization.
The story starts: “When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped.”
But here’s the effete, civilized Percy Cuthfert. His “evil star must have been in the ascendant, for he, too, joined this company of argonauts. He was an ordinary man, with a bank account as deep as his culture, which is saying a good deal. He had no reason to embark on such a venture, — no reason in the world, save that he suffered from an abnormal development of sentimentality. He mistook this for the true spirit of romance and adventure. Many another man has done the like, and made as fatal a mistake.”
Carter Weatherbee is no better. Together they’re a drag on the expedition brawny Jean Baptiste is leading to the Klondike, in search of gold. Conditions are harsh. They come across a cabin, “one of the many mysteries which lurk in the vast recesses of the North. Built when and by whom, no man could tell. Two graves in the open, piled high with stones, perhaps contained the secret of those early wanderers. But whose hand had piled the stones?” The graves are a portent. The expedition takes a vote, whether to stay or go on. Eight vote for going on. The two “incapables” decide to stay, to the relief of the others. But the two are sealing their fate by choosing to hibernate in isolation, at each other’s lazy throats, and the rest of the clan knows it. It starts quickly: ” The clerk was as sensuous as the other was aesthetic, and his love adventures, told at great length and chiefly coined from his imagination, affected the supersensitive master of arts in the same way as so many whiffs of sewer gas. He deemed the clerk a filthy, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine, and told him so; and he was reciprocally informed that he was a milk-and-water sissy and a cad. Weatherbee could not have defined “cad” for his life; but it satisfied its purpose, which after all seems the main point in life.”
They stop washing. They stop cooking for each other. They become gluttonous. They get scurvy. “They lost all regard for personal appearance, and for that matter, common decency.” London chronicles the descent of these two men into isolation-induced madness, their civilized past turned illusion and mockery. It’s as close as they come to experiencing nothingness, le néant: “This was the Universe, dead and cold and dark, and he its only citizen.” The dead visit them in hallucinatory encounters. Cuthfert keeps a gun trained on Weatherbee. Weatherbee wields an axe.
What with the Fear of the North, the mental strain, and the ravages of the disease, they lost all semblance of humanity, taking on the appearance of wild beasts, hunted and desperate. Their cheeks and noses, as an aftermath of the freezing, had turned black. Their frozen toes had begun to drop away at the first and second joints. Every movement brought pain, but the fire box was insatiable, wringing a ransom of torture from their miserable bodies. Day in, day out, it demanded its food, — a veritable pound of flesh, — and they dragged themselves into the forest to chop wood on their knees. Once, crawling thus in search of dry sticks, unknown to each other they entered a thicket from opposite sides. Suddenly, without warning, two peering death’s-heads confronted each other. Suffering had so transformed them that recognition was impossible. They sprang to their feet, shrieking with terror, and dashed away on their mangled stumps; and falling at the cabin door, they clawed and scratched like demons till they discovered their mistake.
Finally, paranoia provokes a fight to the death. One shoots the other. The other slashes the first with the ax. One dies on top of the other, whose death seeps in more slowly as life and heat seep out of the cabin as Cuthbert hallucinates about his paradise regained down south, “Steak, and potatoes, and green things,” while the weight of Weatherbee crushes him. The story was published five years after Germinal appeared in English. That final scene owes Zola that of Étienne and Catherine in the dark of the pit of Montsou as the body of Chaval knocks against them, though Etienne survives as Cuthfert does not.
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.
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.””
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?)