Tag Archives: A Curious Singularity

>Right and Wrong Readings of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants


cross-posted at A Curious Singularity

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.

>The Moment: Joyce’s The Dead

>Cross posted at A Curious Singularity

There is a peculiar feeling that I experience from time to time that I like to think of as ‘The Moment’. It isn’t one moment that stands apart from all others; it isn’t necessarily something profound, maybe not even memorable over time. Yet, it is a discernible present, a second or two that seems to last a little longer than a fleeting tick of the clock. Time seems to hang suspended for just long enough to perceive a difference. And, then, nothing is the same again.

It may happen when I’m reading a book. Or maybe when walking down a street in an unfamilar city. It may be a point during a conversation with an acquaintance. It is a melding of time and space in which I realize something that I did not know before. A moment of complete transformation where there isn’t any going back: the point where a new town suddenly is made familiar; a new concept is learned; or a deeper understanding is gained of what makes your friend laugh or worry or cry so much that you now know them better than just a few minutes before.

Call it an epiphany, eureka, a paradigm shift, or a sudden flash of insight; it is what I call ‘the moment’. It is palpable, perhaps measurable in some strange mathematical system. One’s senses reel as one’s brain steps quickly to rearrange all of the pieces into a new understandable pattern. It is this kind of a moment that is the culmination of James Joyce’s The Dead.

There is so much that you could say about this story. Volumes of criticism have been written about Joyce. A simple Google query for “Joyce The Dead Criticism” returns a mere 1.1 million hits. Just looking at a few of them makes my head spin. I don’t really care about knowing all of the obscure references to people and places in Joyce’s life that are reflected in this story. For me, to think that one can segregate one’s experiences from one’s writing is almost incomprehensible. So, while it may be interesting to know that Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate are based on real people that Joyce knew, or that Mr. Browne, the Protestant guest at that party, was named after a Protestant Irish minister, I don’t think that it is a very useful means to look at a piece of fiction. I think Joyce wanted the reader to get something more out of this story than allusions to things in his life.

While the story does give one insight into Irish hospitality, or a glimpse into the politics of Irish nationalism, or a view of how men and women interacted in Dublin at the early part of the 20th century, I think Joyce’s chief purpose in The Dead is to depict how one man’s view of the world, of everything he knows to be true and real, can change in a heartbeat, a change so profound that he looks anew on his family, friends and life as if he had never seen them before.

The Dead is told from Gabriel’s viewpoint, except for a brief beginning. Gabriel is a man consumed by self-doubt, by his social and familial obligations, and by an unrelenting sense of superiority. He regrets his conversation with Lily; he frets over the correct words for his speech, and he frequently muses over the lack of culture of his aunts and their social circle. These feelings seem disproportionate to the responses of the other party quests. Lily may think the available men in her social class are cads, but she doesn’t seem offended by Gabriel’s inquiry as much as he thinks she might be. Miss Ivors seems initially to be jovial in her talk with Gabriel, but he elevates it to a conflict that is noticed by others. He worries about his toast to his aunts and how others will perceive it, but the guests do not seem critical of his remarks. The Aunts and their friends seem to be versed in arts and in the politics of the day — at least to the point that it interests them — but Gabriel views them as naive, backward, uneducated. He believes that his views are considered, informed, and correct. Despite his self-recrimination regarding what he says and how he may be viewed, he is confident in his assessment of others.

Until the end of the story and the moment of his realization that maybe he doesn’t understand things in his world at all. With Gretta’s revelation that she once loved a young man who was willing to die for her, Gabriel realizes that he has never had –and never will have — such a profound emotional connection with his wife. He realizes that the talk about dead people at the party was more than just chatter about someone from the past. It was a reminiscence of those people who had a profound impact on people’s lives. The Dead are shadows, Gabriel realizes. The memory of the dead continues to influence the lives of the living. Realizing this his understanding of his wife, his aunts and others at the party is transformed.

It is his epiphanic moment that changes his life forever. The known city is now foreign; the once invisible dead are now seen in his world; his lack of love for Gretta exposed. In a moment, Gabriel Conroy realizes for the first time something that was present previously. In a brief fleeting moment he realizes the truth about his life. And nothing will be the same again.