Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hills like white elephants

The story takes place at a train station in the Ebro River valley of Spain. This particular day is oppressively hot and dry, and the scenery in the valley is barren and ugly for the most part. The two main characters are a man, who is called American and his female companion, whom he calls Jig.
While waiting for the train to Madrid, the American and Jig drink beer and liquor. Their conversation is mundane at first, but quickly drifts to the subject of an operation, which the American is attempting to convince Jig to undergo. Though it is never made explicit in the text, it is made clear through phrases of dialogue such as "It's just to let the air in" and "But I don't want anybody, but you," among numerous context clues that Jig is pregnant and that the procedure in question is an abortion.
After posing arguments, to which the American is largely unresponsive, Jig next assents to the operation, while saying: "I don't care about me." However, he then responds, "You've got to realize that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to." He continues, "I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you." She attempts to drop the subject, but the American persists as if still unsure of Jig's intentions and mental state. She insists, "Would you please please ... please stop talking?" He is silent a while, and repeats, "But, I don't want you to," and adds, "I don't care anything about it." She interjects, "I’ll scream."
The barmaid comes out through the beaded curtains with two glasses of beer and puts them down on the damp felt pads. She notes, "The train comes in five minutes." Jig was distracted, but then smiles brightly at the woman and thanks her.
He leaves the table and carries their bags to the opposing platform, but still no sight of the train in the distance. He walks back through the station, and everyone else is still waiting reasonably for the train. Pausing at the bar, he drinks Anis, alone, before rejoining Jig. He then asks her, "Do you feel better?" She again smiles at him, "I feel fine. There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine." The story ends.
Symbolism and setting
Jig's reference to white elephants could be in regard to the baby. The American could see the baby as a white elephant and not want to raise it because of the cost, while Jig could see the child as an extraordinary addition to her mundane life of drinking and mindless traveling.
"Hills Like White Elephants" shows Hemingway's use of iceberg theory or theory of omission: a message is presented through a story's subtext; for instance, in "Hills Like White Elephants" the word 'abortion' is never uttered although the male character seems to be attempting to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion.
The title of the story, "Hills Like White Elephants," is an allegory of the innocence of what seemed to be but is not Jig's lust towards an American man from Jig's perspective in regards to her affair with a man, who simply sees the pleasure in being with her in the flesh. Innocence is revealed when Jig orders a drink that she has never had before, and does not know the taste of. This is an allegory, which develops into mixed feelings as the story unfolds. Jig muses, "Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe." This clearly reflects that, in her innocence, she is confused. She does go on to express his immorality towards her as she expresses that everything to her tastes like licorice. This reflects her intoxication which goes beyond the physical, as he abused her physically, and also emotionally. The American answers, "Oh cut it out", which is a pun intended as a nod toward abortion, and goes on saying, "Well, let's try and have a fine time."
The title of the story refers to an aspect of its setting which is symbolically important in many ways. Jig draws a simple simile by describing the hills across the desolate valley as looking like white elephants. The implication is that, just as Jig thinks the hills in the distance look like white elephants, the American views the couple's unborn child as an approaching obstacle, a hindrance to the status quo or status quo ante. To avoid this impending responsibility, he attempts to manipulate Jig into having an abortion by presenting the operation as a simple procedure that is in her best interests, a panacea for all that is ailing her and troubling their relationship.
Furthermore, this symbolism combined with Jig's question "That's all we do, isn't it--look at things and try new drinks" and her statement that even exciting new things she has waited a long time to try, like absinthe, sometimes valued as an aphrodisiac, merely end up "tasting like licorice," implies that the couple's perpetually ambling, hedonistic circus-like lifestyle has become something of a metaphorical white elephant to her. It appears that she seeks more stability and permanence in life; "It isn't ours anymore," she states of the carefree lifestyle she and the American have been pursuing from one hotel to the next.
The symbolism of the hills and the big white elephant can be thought of as the image of the swollen breasts and abdomen of a pregnant woman, and to the prenatal dream of the mother of the future Buddha, in which a white elephant, in this case, a symbol of prestigious leadership, presents her with a lotus flower, a symbol of fertility. The reference to the white elephants may also bear a connection to the baby as 'a valuable possession, of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost, particularly cost of upkeep is out of proportion to its usefulness.'
Apart from the eponymous hills, other parts of the setting provide symbolism, which expresses the tension and conflict surrounding the couple. The train tracks form a dividing line between the barren expanse of land stretching toward the hills on one side and the green, fertile farmland on the other, symbolizing the choice faced by each of the main characters and their differing interpretations of the dilemma of pregnancy. Jig focuses on the landscape during the conversation, rarely making eye contact with the American.
At the end of the story, the American takes the initiative to pick up the couple's luggage and port it to the "other tracks" on the opposite side of the station, symbolizing his sense of primacy in making the decision to give up their child and betraying his insistence to Jig that the decision is entirely in her hands.
Some have noted the similarity of the two damp felt pads, on the table, and nursing pads. Meanwhile, Jig is the one who is pregnant, and in the end, she concludes, "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine."

"They look like white elephants," she said.
"I've never seen one," the man drank this beer.
"No, you wouldn't have."
"I might have," the man said. "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything."
The girl looked at the bead curtain. "They've painted something on it," she said. "What does it say?"
"Anis del Toro. It's a drink."
"Could we try it?"
The reader must interpret their dialogue and body language to infer their backgrounds and their attitudes with respect to the situation at hand, and their attitudes toward one another. From the outset of the story, the contentious nature of the couple's conversation indicates resentment and unease. Some critics have written that the dialogue is a distillation of the contrasts between stereotypical male and female relationship roles: in the excerpt above, for instance, Jig draws the comparison with white elephants, but the hyper-rational male immediately denies it, dissolving the bit of poetry into objective realism with "I've never seen one." She also asks his permission to order a drink. Throughout the story, Jig is distant; the American is rational. While the American attempts to frame the fetus as the source of the couple's discontent with life and one another, the tone and pattern of dialogue indicate that there may be deeper problems with the relationship than the purely circumstantial. This ambiguity leaves a good deal of room for interpretation; while most critics have espoused relatively straightforward interpretations of the dialogue with Jig as the dynamic character, traveling reluctantly from rejection to acceptance of the idea of an abortion, a few have argued for alternate scenarios based upon the same dialogue.
D.N. Aloysius

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