When I saw a few months ago that Kate had selected Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants for the January discussion at A Curious Singularity, I was excited. This was a story I was familiar with and one that I would have something to write about. And then I read the story a few days ago and I realized that there is still more to understand about this story.
I knew before I read Hills Like White Elephants for the first time that it dealt with abortion. I first read it in a Women’s Studies class in the late ’70s, not in a literature class. I recall being a little confused — how did they know it was about abortion? — but I understood why it was a valuable text for discussion in the context of that class. It was not the type of discussion that was likely to have happened in any of the American lit classes in the the male-dominated, Western Canon-oriented English Department at Conservative Midwestern State College.
The next time I read Hills Like White Elephants was in the early ’90s, again as part of the assigned reading for a class. This time, it was a literary theory class (this time at small urban public univ with non-traditional students), and Hills was assigned for the portion of the class where Reader Response theory was to be discussed. And what a discussion it was! The class was small — 3 strong feminists, 1 ardent anti-abortion proponent, and 1 woman desperately trying to become pregnant. In retrospect, I realize what a great selection this story was for discussion of Reader Response theory; Hemingway’s sparse text does not give up it’s secrets easily to a careless reading. But, I’m sure the professor never imagined the impassioned discussion that this story provoked. The discussion did not focus on the abortion issue as you might guess. Rather, the discussion was intense because the infertile woman believed that the ‘operation’ the girl and the American discuss in the story referred to a procedure to unblock the fallopian tubes, one that would ‘just … let the air in’ as the text states.
The class argued for 2 hours whether this was a valid reading; if the text means what the reader experiences is there such a thing as a ‘wrong’ reading? I firmly believed that it was wrong. Unequivocally. Obnoxiously, I planted my flag and stood my ground. That was not what the text supported. Or did I mean it was not what Hemingway meant? I could never believe that one could correctly read this story in this way. And what kind of parents would the girl and the American make anyway? They are sarcastic, bitter, manipulative people whose lives consist of looking at things and trying new drinks.
Fast forward to this week when I last read Hills Like White Elephants. This time reading the story, I couldn’t help but read it without thinking of that woman’s reading from 15 years ago. The language in the story is vague. Jig and the American talk as a couple might in public if they were avoiding the topic, or if they didn’t want an eavesdropping outsider to know why they would be taking the train heading towards Madrid. But, the fertility angle still seems to me like an inaccurate reading. I then read some of the posts and comments on the Curious Singularity’s site. Some had commented that they didn’t understand what was going on and welcomed the information presented in the posts. As much as I don’t like the ‘here’s the key to unlock the secret of the text’ approach, I do understand how some readers might be confused and how having the context explained would allow them to re-read the story and consider it in a different light.
I re-read the story one more time, this time considering it strictly in terms of the dialogue. How would this play out if two people were speaking the lines as if it were a play? When reading the story in this manner, one can understand the passage of time. The action comprised in less than 2000 words didn’t take place in 5 minutes. There are long periods of silence when Jig and the American drink their beers and later order the Anis del Toro, where they look at the landscape and try to say clever things about it, when they wonder about the train’s arrival time, or if they will board the train when it pulls into the station. If one hears the stretches of silence, Jig’s utterances can be seen as attempts at making conversation and at placating the man. It doesn’t work and his attempts at persuading her regarding the abortion seem manipulative. He is domineering; she submissive, eager to please him, though she jabs and pokes him with her sarcastic verbal sparing.
Stark. Pared down. Long silences instead of narrative description. These things aid in creating the atmosphere of the story, present a backdrop, and develop a tension between the characters that not only fills in the blanks regarding the ‘action’, but also suggests the inevitable unhappiness between Jig and the American no matter what they decide regarding the abortion. No matter which direction the train they board is going, they have a ticket heading in the direction of more unhappiness.