Tag: symbolism

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.

Hemingway, “Cat In the Rain” (1924)

American Writer. Ernest Hemingway With His First Wife Hadley Richardson And Their Son John Hadley Nicanor Hemingway (Jack) In Schuns, Austria, 1926. (Credit unclear. Found on “Posterazzi,” on Amazon.)

There’s always been various connections between Hemingway and cats, even in passing. This is one of them.  Carlene Brennen in Hemingway’s Cats (2000) describes Hemingway’s young marriage to Hadley Richardson when she wanted a child and a cat. A child was out of the question: he was writing. She was lonely. At the time Hemingway was a reporter for the Toronto Star, writing from Europe. She had nothing to do. They both loved cats but he told her they were too poor to own one. They lived in a shabby rented room with beautiful views of Paris rooftops. Hemingway thought the room had belonged to Verlaine, where Verlaine had died. He worked. She paced. She got pregnant, unexpectedly. “The story was a tribute to Hadley, who was dealing with her first year of marriage, the loneliness it entailed, and her deep desire for motherhood,” Brennen writes. Brennen then cites Gioia Diliberto’s biography, Hadley, that found Hemingway basing the story on an incident in Rapallo in 1923, the little Mediterranean town near Genoa, where the couple spent some time when Hadley was two months pregnant. She saw a kitten hiding under a table, just as in the story. “I want a cat,” she is reported to have said in the biography, or in the story: Brennen doesn’t make a distinction. “I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun I can have a cat.” Ernest actually gave her a small dog in her last month of pregnancy, and they both took to it. “Cat in the Rain” was part of the In Our Time collection published in 1924.

As in “The Quay at Smyrna,” most of the story is in what’s not told, though in this case, between the affected prose and the Hemingway anchor attached to the story, it leaves a lot of room for wild interpretations. The biographical context of the story doesn’t help, except to shed some of the pretentious assumptions a critical reading of the story risks producing. To me, a little too obviously, the protectiveness for the cat is the basic maternal instinct, the more so since Hadley was gestating child and instinct. The opening scene-setting seems superfluous: the war monument, the palms, the Italians who come “from a long way off” to look at the monument, even Italy: they could have been on a hot tin roof for all we care, the story could have still been pulled off the same way but for Hemingway’s affectations and his desire to advertise that he’s ben to an Italian seaside town with a war monument. The insistent rain is necessary to ensure that the cat needs to be sheltered from it, though wind, cold, sleet or afternoon heat might’ve had the same effect on most cats. Why the woman is referred to, twice, as a “girl” is unclear. Maybe that’s how Italians saw Americans. Why she can’t have long hair even more so: in the mid-20s? In Europe? Finally, the cat presented to her by the Italian maid may not be the one she’d seen, though given the incessant rain, it seems a quick check of her fur would reveal whether she’d been outside or not. The ambiguity seems more literary than meaningful, although isn’t it so with  child: you never know what you’re going to get until it’s delivered. Or didn’t, anyway, back then, before the era of grotesque-dimensional ultrasounds.

This is too much: “Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.” This is the sort of paragraph that makes Hemingway disciples swoon. This is the sort of paragraph that does not make me swoon. It just makes it clear how much of a one-trick wonder Hemingway was, and how much he demolished generations of writers who tried to be the next Hemingway. At least Camus had something to say in his minimalism. With Hemingway, the iceberg below the surface is hollow.

Eudora Welty, “The Key” (1941)

Ellie and Albert Morgan are a simple minded deaf and dumb couple from Yellow Leaf, Mississippi, in a train-station waiting room, on their way to Niagara Falls, a trip intended to possibly rekindle, if not merely kindle, their love for each other. A wanting love: Albert is hopeful. She seems less so. A red-haired man is playing with a metal key that falls to the ground in a rattle and drifts to Albert’s feet. He picks it up. He doesn’t return it. It becomes a symbol of everything that may happen between him and Ellie, cause of what may be wrong between him an Ellie. They speak on their fingers, in sign language, perhaps a detail intended to suggest isolation. The disrupting element is the red-haired man, whose presence is arrogant, presuming and ultimately insulting: he drops another key in Ellie’s hand, to a hotel room, and walks out.

I found the story a bit contrived, heavy on the symbolism. Funny what role Niagara Falls keeps playing in fiction. Or keys.

Harper’s Bazaar, August 1941.