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Curtain as an Imagery of Separation in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” Essay

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Updated: Aug 16th, 2022

Introduction

Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is a short story first published in 1927. It depicts a couple drinking at the bar at a Spanish railway station and discussing the possibility of an abortion. The male character, only referred to as “the man” or “the American,” advocates the procedure, even if he does not want to appear doing so (Hemingway, 2017). The woman named Jig has her doubts, and these doubts consolidate as the story progresses. “Hills Like White Elephants” highlights Hemingway’s mastery of short story as a genre and of using superficial descriptions to convey deep meaning lying under the surface of what things appear to be. In particular, this mastery manifests in the imagery of the bamboo curtain that symbolizes and propels the divide between the two characters.

Curtain Imagery: Summary of Ideas

There are several factors indicating that the curtain imagery is important for the story and Jig’s arc as she draws her conclusions and arrives to a decision. First of all, the curtain is introduced as early as the text’s first paragraph – its third sentence, to be exact (Hemingway, 2017). Secondly, the very image of the curtain invokes the associations of separation and division, as it is meant to delineate a clear and sharp border between spaces and things. This image fits neatly within a story about a man and a woman who have fundamentally different perceptions – whether of what the hills look like or of the abortion in question. As a result, the curtain highlights the already-present divide between the characters that solidifies as the story progresses.

Short Passage #1

A suitable passage to illustrate the author’s use of the curtain as a device symbolizing and bringing forward the separation between the main characters is the excerpt when it is first introduced. As one can see by the highlighted part, the author points out specifically that the curtain’s purpose is “to keep out” something undesirable, in this case – the flies (Hemingway, 2017, p. 253). This image magnifies the man’s desire to keep the unwanted baby out of his life as well as Jig’s eventual decision to separate herself and her future child from him. This connection is all the stronger as the main characters are introduced right after the curtain.

Secondary Source Summary

The secondary source sharing and developing similar ideas about the text is Stanley Kozlowski’s article titled “Hemingway’s Hills like white elephants.” The author maintains that the curtain plays an important role in highlighting the divide between the characters and facilitating the story’s demonstration of how Jig presumably arrives to the decision to keep the baby. In particular, Kozlowski argues that the curtain symbolizes Jig’s “excision of the identityless “man” – his bull and seed – from her and her precious child’s lives” (p. 108). With this decision, the separation between the two characters, first hinted at when the divisive curtain appears, is complete.

Secondary Source Appraisal: Reasons to Agree

Several reasons allow agree with Kozlowski’s (1994) interpretation of the image as employed in the story. First of all, as mentioned above, it is hardly a coincidence that Hemingway (2017) describes the curtain in the very beginning of the story and right before introducing the characters. Apart from that, the curtain’s purpose of keeping things out is explicitly invoked in the very sentence it appears, highlighting the motivations and goals of both characters (Hemingway, 2017). Finally, Jig makes up her mind while looking at the curtain and even taking hold “of two of the strings of beads” (Hemingway, 2017, p. 254). This reference makes the association between her decision to exclude the man from her and the ever-divisive curtain life even more explicit.

Conclusion

As one can see, Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” uses deceptively superficial descriptions to convey deeper meaning about the story’s main characters and their conflict. The deceptively mundane image of the bamboo curtain symbolizes the divide between the man and the woman regarding the potential abortion. The explicit reference to the curtain’s purpose of “keeping out” things makes this connection even more apparent. Moreover, curtain as a device propels and signals Jig’s decision to excise herself and her unborn baby from the man, as she is holding the bamboo bead while making up her mind. With this in mind, one can see why “Hills Like White Elephants” may serve as a testimony of Hemingway’ mastery of short story as a genre.

References

Hemingway, E. (2017). Hills Like White Elephants. In S. Hemingway, The short stories of Ernest Hemingway (pp. 253-256). Scribner.

Kozlowski, S. (1994). Hemingway’s Hills like white elephants. The Explicator, 52(2), 107-109.

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"Curtain as an Imagery of Separation in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”." IvyPanda, 16 Aug. 2022, ivypanda.com/essays/curtain-as-an-imagery-of-separation-in-hemingways-hills-like-white-elephants/.

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IvyPanda. "Curtain as an Imagery of Separation in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”." August 16, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/curtain-as-an-imagery-of-separation-in-hemingways-hills-like-white-elephants/.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "Curtain as an Imagery of Separation in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”." August 16, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/curtain-as-an-imagery-of-separation-in-hemingways-hills-like-white-elephants/.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Curtain as an Imagery of Separation in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”'. 16 August.

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