The game to play as theorists have been playing it since 1915 is to decide the meaning of George Samsa’s insectile character (as J. Robert Lennon would describe him). I’m partial to that interpretation: it’s an insectile character, which makes the physical look and whether George is “in fact” a n insect or not irrelevant. Kafka didn’t want Samsa illustrated for a reason. He’s imprisoned in a state of mind. Don’t imprison him in a physical depiction. The first line has been translated in many different ways: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” An insect, a vermin, nothing more specific. vermin and insects feed on the dead. This is a story of decomposition before our eyes–the decomposition of an ill and mentally and physically disfigured Samsa, the decomposition of a family, the decomposition of what had once been a loving relationship between Samsa and Grete, who becomes Samsa’s killer: “she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure,” the opposite of her brother’s decomposition. Gregor’s father, as in every Kafka story so far, doesn’t elicit sympathy either. But there’s nothing sentimental about the story. Kafka isn;t pulling at strings to get the reader all in knots over Gregor’s condition. It becomes more uncomfortably familiar than imaginary as the story wears on–as Gregor decomposes. A sick, leprous person has the characteristics of an insect. Doesn;t have to look like one to feel like one. It is a story of illness, decline, of being discarded.
A tedious, pretentious sequel to “The End of Something” cloaked in the three-day blow’s vaguely biblical connotations of a break between past and future, Nick Adams, annoyingly referred to as “Wemedge” by his friend Bill–and by Hemingway’s friends in his actual life–talks literature, booze and Marge with Bill as they talk of getting drunk more than they actually do get drunk. The story ostensibly reflects Nick’s uncertainty about his break-up with Marge, but not without a good dose of misogyny in the mouth of Bill:
“Once a man’s married he’s absolutely bitched,” Bill went on. “He hasn’t got anything more. Nothing. Not a damn thing. He’s done for. You’ve seen the guys that get married.”
Nick said nothing.
“You can tell them,” Bill said. “They get this sort of fat married look. They’re done for.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
Nick doesn’t want to talk about it but keeps talking about it. The dialogue is that clipped Nick-Adams-Stories type, mostly circular, a good pastiche of Hemingway.
Toward the end of the story Aileen, the young protagonist college girl reluctantly spending her vacation with her mother and her mother’s homebreaking lover Prue in a Colombian jungle, Aileen is walking by the huts of poor natives. A young man beckons her over through a mesh fence, then spits a mouthful of water at her face and dress. Westerners are not liked in the jungle, because they presume too much: “if Luz could only learn a little more about what white people like to eat an how they like it served,” Aileen’s mother writes her in the three-page letter that opens the story as Aileen is flying in through the white clouds she wants to step on, like a comic book character. The letter hints at the way Prue broke up the marriage between Aileen’s father and mother. The tension between Aileen and Prue is obvious from the letter. Prue to Aileen is “ungracious, ugly and something of an interloper.” Tension builds: it’s the story’s most appealing strength, that build-up. It explodes in a physical pummeling, by Aileen of Prue, after Prue flicks water from her glass at Aileen the morning of Aileen’s early departure, after her mother essentially threw her out for not getting along with Prue. A sense of the primeval recurs down to that primeval fight and the scream Aileen lets out at the end, when she is reduced to something primal, bashing the woman who’s taken possession of her mother. There’s nothing appealing in Prue, but Aileen is not much more so, and the intrusive sense Bowles builds up, of Aileen’s visit, is secondary to how obliviously intrusive all three of these characters are on the jungle around them. None of them belongs, not just Aileen.
Harper’s, September 1946
Nick is 17. Marjorie is his girlfriend. But “it’s no longer fun.” They’re in a row boat, going for a picnic. They remember the days of the mill, long gone. He’s not hungry. He eats anyway, and tells her it’s no longer fun. She rows off, leaving him. His friend Bill joins him. He doesn’t want to be joined by his friend Bill. It’s the end of something. I’m all broken up inside. I hope the pâté was good, at least.
In the style of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” and “Good Country People,” but with humor coating Sister’s every act and utterance like a shield. She cannot bear to say anything with a straight face. Humor is her defense and her blinders. It’s July 4. The fireworks are Sister’s family: Pappa-Daddy, his name as comical as his claim that he’s not cut his beard since he was 15 and reacts with a Hasidim’s angry panic when Stella-Rondo, Sister’s sister, falsely (purposefully) claims Sister wants to cut off the beard. Stella-Rondo has just been dumped by Mr. Whitaker, Sister’s ex-flame, stolen by Stella-Rondo, who has a two-year-old child by him, Shirley-T (named after Shirley Temple). Stella-Rondo absolutely refuses to acknowledge it’s her biological child. It’s adopted, in her invention. Uncle Rondo is the drug addict, the shock survivor (or PTSD as we’d have it these days), the veteran of World War I who ingests a bottle of a prescription narcotic every July 4 so he can knock himself out, and who wears a kimono, suggesting different treads in his sexuality. Fat Mama favors Stella-Rondo and slaps Sister around. And Sister: well, she seems to be the only employed one of the bunch, at the minuscule post office in China Grove, Mississippi, a job secured by her grandfather, and a refuge. She decides, as the story devolves into an endless series of alienating offenses, real or perceived, to pack up mounds of belongings, hers or not–if she’s paid a cent for anything, she claims it–and move to the post office, using a “Nigger girl” to haul the stuff–a sharp, brutal reference to a girl Sister has no regard for: “Took her none trips in her express wagon.” Even when she thanks her grandfather for the job, she wounds: “I says, “Oh, Papa-Daddy,” I says, “I didn’t say any such of a thing, I never dreamed it was a bird’s nest, I have always been grateful though this is the next to smallest P.O. in the state of Mississippi, and I do not enjoy being referred to as a hussy by my own grandfather.” So she’s no innocent. The story is written in dialect and takes a lot in style and perhaps aim from Twain. “One can find numerous topics for scholarly reflection in “Why I Live at the P.O.”—and in any other Welty story, for that matter,” Danny Heitman writes in a piece for Humanities, “—but my professor’s advice is a nice reminder that beyond the moral and aesthetic instruction contained within Welty’s fiction, she was, in essence, a great giver of pleasure.”
Atlantic Monthly, April 1941, A Curtain of Green (1941)
A thin story burdened by its topical strains and confusion over its unsteady point of view: Sushila and Len are an item. Mateo and Marcie are still married, still very good friends, but separated. Mateo, who’s known Sushila 18 years, makes an almost brutally direct move on Sushila: why not sleep together? Sushila looks past it. Len does not. “The insult was now general. It didn’t belong to anyone, and it couldn’t happen again. Women were at risk.” Of course the didn’t belong to anyone bit is rhetorical, sensational: Len takes ownership of the insult and thinks he must deal with it, no matter what the women say or do, dissuading him to go forth. He becomes an aggressor of sorts, his sanctimony growing more putrid as he considers–imagines, really–Mateo a “serial abuser,” though what Mateo may have done is merely act the way he thought he ought to within the new requirements of the MeToo era: if you’re going to make a move, at least be direct and take No for an answer, which he did. With several women. It’s a transaction. But for the pretensions and the name he sounds no different than Bulldog, Dan Butler’s lust-lapping but predictably aggressive character on “Frasier” who just asks: “Is she baggable?”
Len is offended by the approach, the number of “victims,” maybe by Mateo’s liberty rather than his libertinage. Of course they have a confrontation at a party when Mateo approaches him:
Len pushed him away. “Don’t fucking stand so close to me,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re saying. You’re actually a savage. What about Susan, Zora, and all the other women?”
Mateo replied that everyone knew that seduction was difficult these days. In these impossible times, courtship rituals were being corrected. In the chaos, those seeking love would make missteps; there would be misunderstandings, dark before light. Anger was an ever-present possibility. But it was essential that people try to connect, if only for a few hours, that they never give up on the need for contact. Otherwise, we would become a society of strangers. No one would meet or touch. Nothing would happen. And who would want that? Of course, Len was known in their circle to have issues with inhibition. If there was an opportunity to be missed, he’d miss it for sure. Didn’t he dream repeatedly that he’d gone to the airport and all the planes had left? At least, that was what he had memorably told everyone at supper one night. He was a born misser.
Len told Sushila that he had to go out for some air, but once he was outside he didn’t want to go back. He felt as if he didn’t quite recognize anything anymore. The world was stupid, and there was no way around that. He started to walk quickly away, but he knew that, however far he went, he’d have to come back to this place—if he could find it.
The title of the story is meaninglessly disconnected from the story. It seems to be flung up there for effect. Nothing about this is he said she said. The characters are flatly straightforward and uninspiring. Kureishi grazes the periphery of the topic more sociologically than searchingly, and the story has none of the depth, even the shallow depths expected of a New Yorker story, to be more than a graffiti.
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.