Hemingway’s Elephant in the Room

…The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is so stripped down and minimalist. Reading his work always gives me the feeling that he did not waste a single word. Because of this, nothing is placed in a story accidentally, and everything has an implied meaning. Hemingway never spells anything out in plain terms, so the reader is always left trying to decipher the clues left behind.

This is definitely the case with Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants from the Seagull Reader Stories volume. The story starts off with “The American and the girl with him” sitting at a train station between two tracks in the middle of the desert in Spain. They are drinking and talking while waiting for their train to come in. The majority of their banter back and forth is very terse and they spend the entire story debating whether or not the girl will have an operation. Hemingway never says what kind of an operation she is thinking of having, but it is fairly plain that they are talking about an abortion.

It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.

Just in this quotation alone, it is apparent to me that not only are they discussing her imminent abortion, but also that she has doubts about going through with it. As the story progresses the man continues to escalate his insistence that it is not a big deal and that she should go through with it. The girl continues to go back and forth, never really committing to having an abortion. At one point the man’s prodding starts to irritate her so she tells him to quit talking or she will scream. After the waitress tells them the train will be there in five minutes, the man goes to move their bags to the other tracks. When he comes back (after getting a drink on his own) he asks her if she feels better and she tells him she feels fine.

Did anyone else find it telling that the girl’s name was Jig? I think that her name was alluding to the way they were artfully dancing around the giant elephant in the room (Another metaphor in the story maybe?). The couple’s relationship was clearly over. Neither one of them said as much, but throughout their flippant discussion of the matter at hand, it is painfully obvious that they don’t even like each other any more.

20130201-013223.jpg

Some people can relate, if not to the abortion itself, then to the relationship between the two main characters. Have you ever been in a relationship that is over long before it ends? It is miserable to be in each other’s company, but you continue punishing yourself because you think you still love them. Either that or you are hoping that it will go back to being as fun as it was in the beginning, and somehow it never happens. Such is the case with the American and “Jig”.

I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?

This passage is the girl trying desperately to cling to a relationship that has already slipped out of her hands. She has lost him even if she decides to have the abortion, like he would obviously prefer her to. Perhaps one less thing to tie him to her, so he can feel less guilty about the relationship ending?

Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

The ending of the story seems to be the girl coming to terms with the ending of the relationship, and also her decision about the abortion, whatever that may be.

19 thoughts on “Hemingway’s Elephant in the Room

  1. I agree that these are definitely two people that are no longer in love. You can tell that just by how incredibly insensitive he is being. I like that you point out he may want her to get an abortion so he doesn’t have something holding him to her. It seemed to me like she was desperately trying to recover their relationship ( even considering abortion when she obviously didn’t really want to do it) and he was just trying to make things easier for him to split.

  2. I love your thoughts on the name “Jig”. I personally thought that Hemmingway called her “Jig” as in the term “the jig is up”. Their relationship was clearly on the verge of collapse. For such an imortant topic, the conversation was very superficial and lacked the depth you’d expect. One thing which puzzles me is why Hemingway gave the man an American nationality. Hemingway doesn’t tell us what nationality the woman is; though we know she doesn’t speak Spanish, but does speak English. Why give the man a nationality but not the woman?

    • I think maybe the reason why Hemingway simply calls her, ” the girl with him” is in order to help cast her as the young, inexperienced subordinate (at least in the beginning). Look at the way that she talks and he seems bored or irritated with her inane banter – it could definitely be used to show the age gap. Also, she doesn’t speak Spanish so she can’t even order her own drink. They are in a foreign country and she is totally dependent on him. Even the way she grovels and tries to appease him speaks to her dependence. What’s fascinating about the story is that you almost watch this woman grow up and come into her own.

    • That is funny because when I read her name was Jig, I thought of a dance, like they were dancing over the actual issue that they no longer love one another. I felt like both were talking, but neither was really listening to one another. I agree that heis called the American and her girl to show how much she relied on him and that she was too young to have a grasp of what was going on. I felt so sad for her.

      • It really did feel like they were both just kind of talking to talk, and not because either one of them had anything important to say (though clearly they did and just weren’t voicing it). It almost was like they were sitting in the same room talking on the phone to other people, nothing fit together quite right.

  3. I’ve never been a Hemingway fan, but this story is an interesting piece. I wondered about the nationality thing too, since Hemingway naming the man to be an American implies that the girl isn’t. Interesting also is the specific choice of “girl” over “woman”. I got the feeling this was a young girl he was having a fling with in his travels who happened to get pregnant, and this story is the end of the fling with him wanting to rid himself of the baby, and ultimately, her. The way the man slips around in conversation–always trying to console or command–reads of someone who’s is desperately trying to appease the other party while simultaneously steering things towards his preferred outcome. Funny enough, it’s the girl that utimately behaves like an adult, and the man that seems to be leaning towards childish irresponsibility.

  4. Like Tim, I get the feeling that this is a fling, a momentary relationship. Hemingway’s usage of man and girl alludes to this.

    Though the implied age gap plays a part here, on a more general scale, this story is telling of how heterosexual men and women interact; like there’s a discrepancy in empathy, as much as one tries to understand the other. Like when the man says, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” or “You don’t have to be afraid I’ve known lots of people that have done it.” These comments are very offensive.

    Of course, part of this was his persuasion for her to have an abortion, but the overall tactic is telling of gender discrepancies because there’s a lack of authentic communication. Jig didn’t get to express her feeling as much as she would have liked. Though this story was written in 1927, this gender dichotomy still holds true.

    • I think that perhaps Hemingway did intend to show lack of communication between the sexes. Either way, it is a bit of a generalization. I think people just really don’t understand other people and their motivations and hopes and dreams -what makes them tick. I don’t understand women any more than I understand men, and maybe I even understand them less…

      The man in the story probably treats everyone the same way that he treats the girl, simply because that is his character. When he speaks to the waitress, he never says more than two words to her, almost like she is no more than the background (which could be part of the point so that your focus doesn’t leave the main characters for too long).

    • Vone, and Megan, these comments lead me to wonder if, at least in part, this plays to the fact that the girl probably does not have many options as far as taking care of the child without the compliance of the man (which she obviously does not have)? So, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” becomes a way to diminish her experience — of the pregnancy, the impending operation, and her status as a mother-to-be as well as a lover of the man — as well as highlight her her lack of choice?

      • You bring up a point that I did consider. This wasn’t a time where women had a lot of options when it came to their own bodies. This was before widespread birth control and when it was shameful for a woman to become pregnant out of wedlock. If she truly did leave the man, she would be left with few viable options. The way the man talks to her definitely feels like it is meant to diminish her.

  5. A superb analysis here. Thanks so much. Your close reading of the text is fantastic. Your point on metaphor is one I have not considered in regards to Hemingway. I wrote on Indian Camp not long ago, and could forward it along your way if you would like. I have not found any collaborators in regards to Hemingway, so it came as a wonderful surprise for me to find your post. Hemingway has provide much solace and counsel over the years, I listen very closely to his voice.

    • I was about halfway through The Sun Also Rises when the term began, and I haven’t had two seconds to go back to it. That is the one downfall to being an English major, lots to read, and not much time for personal reading. I have actually never read Indian Camp, so I would be very interested to read what you have written. The Old Man and the Sea is still my personal favorite.

  6. I do realize that it’s a generalization; and I did think about it before writing my reply, but for me (and my experiences based on close friends and family), I do find that this generalization (unfortunately?) holds true. In any type of gathering, I find that men gravitate towards men and women gravitate towards women. On several occasions (out of my own curiosity), I have asked why this is the case, and the most common response from women are: “Because I have more in common with women” or “we have a lot more to talk about,” and vice versa for men. Megan, maybe you’re an exception to the rule. I do have some friends who have said the same thing you’ve said – which is awesome!

    I personally gravitate towards women because of my own interests and sensibilities – though, my sexuality probably plays a part in that. But we won’t get into that.

    You’re right when you say that the man is consistent in his treatment of women, but it doesn’t take away from his lack of empathy for Jig. A big part of that might have been because it was 1927; and in spite of his motives, I still think gender played a part. It would have been interesting to see Hemingway develop a conversation between the man and another man for comparison’s sake, and maybe a conversation between Jig and another woman.

    • I think you are probably right. The majority of people tend to do exactly what is expected culturally, which includes splitting amongst the sexes just like wallflowers at a middle school dance.

      Hemingway is definitely not considered a misogynist for no reason. He had tumultuous relationships with women and most of his female characters were kind of written similarly. I think it was more a statement of the times, and his own inability to relate to women that influenced his work.

      • I really enjoyed your last paragraph, Megan – especially the part about “a statement of the times.” A lot of the stories that we read for class are transcendent (I guess that’s why they’re classics), but it’s always important to put it in the context of their time. I didn’t quite weigh that into my earlier comment when I should have. It’s a relevant aspect that I should have explored more.

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Hemingway’s Elephant in the Room

…The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
“They look like white elephants,” she said.
“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.
“No you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.

Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is so stripped down and minimalist. Reading his work always gives me the feeling that he did not waste a single word. Because of this, nothing is placed in a story accidentally, and everything has an implied meaning. Hemingway never spells anything out in plain terms, so the reader is always left trying to decipher the clues left behind.

This is definitely the case with Hemingway’s short story Hills Like White Elephants from the Seagull Reader Stories volume. The story starts off with “The American and the girl with him” sitting at a train station between two tracks in the middle of the desert in Spain. They are drinking and talking while waiting for their train to come in. The majority of their banter back and forth is very terse and they spend the entire story debating whether or not the girl will have an operation. Hemingway never says what kind of an operation she is thinking of having, but it is fairly plain that they are talking about an abortion.

It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.

Just in this quotation alone, it is apparent to me that not only are they discussing her imminent abortion, but also that she has doubts about going through with it. As the story progresses the man continues to escalate his insistence that it is not a big deal and that she should go through with it. The girl continues to go back and forth, never really committing to having an abortion. At one point the man’s prodding starts to irritate her so she tells him to quit talking or she will scream. After the waitress tells them the train will be there in five minutes, the man goes to move their bags to the other tracks. When he comes back (after getting a drink on his own) he asks her if she feels better and she tells him she feels fine.

Did anyone else find it telling that the girl’s name was Jig? I think that her name was alluding to the way they were artfully dancing around the giant elephant in the room (Another metaphor in the story maybe?). The couple’s relationship was clearly over. Neither one of them said as much, but throughout their flippant discussion of the matter at hand, it is painfully obvious that they don’t even like each other any more.

20130201-013223.jpg

Some people can relate, if not to the abortion itself, then to the relationship between the two main characters. Have you ever been in a relationship that is over long before it ends? It is miserable to be in each other’s company, but you continue punishing yourself because you think you still love them. Either that or you are hoping that it will go back to being as fun as it was in the beginning, and somehow it never happens. Such is the case with the American and “Jig”.

I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?

This passage is the girl trying desperately to cling to a relationship that has already slipped out of her hands. She has lost him even if she decides to have the abortion, like he would obviously prefer her to. Perhaps one less thing to tie him to her, so he can feel less guilty about the relationship ending?

Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.

The ending of the story seems to be the girl coming to terms with the ending of the relationship, and also her decision about the abortion, whatever that may be.

19 thoughts on “Hemingway’s Elephant in the Room

  1. I agree that these are definitely two people that are no longer in love. You can tell that just by how incredibly insensitive he is being. I like that you point out he may want her to get an abortion so he doesn’t have something holding him to her. It seemed to me like she was desperately trying to recover their relationship ( even considering abortion when she obviously didn’t really want to do it) and he was just trying to make things easier for him to split.

  2. I love your thoughts on the name “Jig”. I personally thought that Hemmingway called her “Jig” as in the term “the jig is up”. Their relationship was clearly on the verge of collapse. For such an imortant topic, the conversation was very superficial and lacked the depth you’d expect. One thing which puzzles me is why Hemingway gave the man an American nationality. Hemingway doesn’t tell us what nationality the woman is; though we know she doesn’t speak Spanish, but does speak English. Why give the man a nationality but not the woman?

    • I think maybe the reason why Hemingway simply calls her, ” the girl with him” is in order to help cast her as the young, inexperienced subordinate (at least in the beginning). Look at the way that she talks and he seems bored or irritated with her inane banter – it could definitely be used to show the age gap. Also, she doesn’t speak Spanish so she can’t even order her own drink. They are in a foreign country and she is totally dependent on him. Even the way she grovels and tries to appease him speaks to her dependence. What’s fascinating about the story is that you almost watch this woman grow up and come into her own.

    • That is funny because when I read her name was Jig, I thought of a dance, like they were dancing over the actual issue that they no longer love one another. I felt like both were talking, but neither was really listening to one another. I agree that heis called the American and her girl to show how much she relied on him and that she was too young to have a grasp of what was going on. I felt so sad for her.

      • It really did feel like they were both just kind of talking to talk, and not because either one of them had anything important to say (though clearly they did and just weren’t voicing it). It almost was like they were sitting in the same room talking on the phone to other people, nothing fit together quite right.

  3. I’ve never been a Hemingway fan, but this story is an interesting piece. I wondered about the nationality thing too, since Hemingway naming the man to be an American implies that the girl isn’t. Interesting also is the specific choice of “girl” over “woman”. I got the feeling this was a young girl he was having a fling with in his travels who happened to get pregnant, and this story is the end of the fling with him wanting to rid himself of the baby, and ultimately, her. The way the man slips around in conversation–always trying to console or command–reads of someone who’s is desperately trying to appease the other party while simultaneously steering things towards his preferred outcome. Funny enough, it’s the girl that utimately behaves like an adult, and the man that seems to be leaning towards childish irresponsibility.

  4. Like Tim, I get the feeling that this is a fling, a momentary relationship. Hemingway’s usage of man and girl alludes to this.

    Though the implied age gap plays a part here, on a more general scale, this story is telling of how heterosexual men and women interact; like there’s a discrepancy in empathy, as much as one tries to understand the other. Like when the man says, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” or “You don’t have to be afraid I’ve known lots of people that have done it.” These comments are very offensive.

    Of course, part of this was his persuasion for her to have an abortion, but the overall tactic is telling of gender discrepancies because there’s a lack of authentic communication. Jig didn’t get to express her feeling as much as she would have liked. Though this story was written in 1927, this gender dichotomy still holds true.

    • I think that perhaps Hemingway did intend to show lack of communication between the sexes. Either way, it is a bit of a generalization. I think people just really don’t understand other people and their motivations and hopes and dreams -what makes them tick. I don’t understand women any more than I understand men, and maybe I even understand them less…

      The man in the story probably treats everyone the same way that he treats the girl, simply because that is his character. When he speaks to the waitress, he never says more than two words to her, almost like she is no more than the background (which could be part of the point so that your focus doesn’t leave the main characters for too long).

    • Vone, and Megan, these comments lead me to wonder if, at least in part, this plays to the fact that the girl probably does not have many options as far as taking care of the child without the compliance of the man (which she obviously does not have)? So, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” becomes a way to diminish her experience — of the pregnancy, the impending operation, and her status as a mother-to-be as well as a lover of the man — as well as highlight her her lack of choice?

      • You bring up a point that I did consider. This wasn’t a time where women had a lot of options when it came to their own bodies. This was before widespread birth control and when it was shameful for a woman to become pregnant out of wedlock. If she truly did leave the man, she would be left with few viable options. The way the man talks to her definitely feels like it is meant to diminish her.

  5. A superb analysis here. Thanks so much. Your close reading of the text is fantastic. Your point on metaphor is one I have not considered in regards to Hemingway. I wrote on Indian Camp not long ago, and could forward it along your way if you would like. I have not found any collaborators in regards to Hemingway, so it came as a wonderful surprise for me to find your post. Hemingway has provide much solace and counsel over the years, I listen very closely to his voice.

    • I was about halfway through The Sun Also Rises when the term began, and I haven’t had two seconds to go back to it. That is the one downfall to being an English major, lots to read, and not much time for personal reading. I have actually never read Indian Camp, so I would be very interested to read what you have written. The Old Man and the Sea is still my personal favorite.

  6. I do realize that it’s a generalization; and I did think about it before writing my reply, but for me (and my experiences based on close friends and family), I do find that this generalization (unfortunately?) holds true. In any type of gathering, I find that men gravitate towards men and women gravitate towards women. On several occasions (out of my own curiosity), I have asked why this is the case, and the most common response from women are: “Because I have more in common with women” or “we have a lot more to talk about,” and vice versa for men. Megan, maybe you’re an exception to the rule. I do have some friends who have said the same thing you’ve said – which is awesome!

    I personally gravitate towards women because of my own interests and sensibilities – though, my sexuality probably plays a part in that. But we won’t get into that.

    You’re right when you say that the man is consistent in his treatment of women, but it doesn’t take away from his lack of empathy for Jig. A big part of that might have been because it was 1927; and in spite of his motives, I still think gender played a part. It would have been interesting to see Hemingway develop a conversation between the man and another man for comparison’s sake, and maybe a conversation between Jig and another woman.

    • I think you are probably right. The majority of people tend to do exactly what is expected culturally, which includes splitting amongst the sexes just like wallflowers at a middle school dance.

      Hemingway is definitely not considered a misogynist for no reason. He had tumultuous relationships with women and most of his female characters were kind of written similarly. I think it was more a statement of the times, and his own inability to relate to women that influenced his work.

      • I really enjoyed your last paragraph, Megan – especially the part about “a statement of the times.” A lot of the stories that we read for class are transcendent (I guess that’s why they’re classics), but it’s always important to put it in the context of their time. I didn’t quite weigh that into my earlier comment when I should have. It’s a relevant aspect that I should have explored more.

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