Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “Hills like White Elephants” has lately become an important short story, despite being ignored for more than 50 years due to its lack of conventional literal characteristics. From a critical view, the story has several in-depth meanings that were previously ignored. In particular, the feministic view of Hemingway’s society is evident in the story. Hemingway attempts to express the feministic movement of the mid 20th century.
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Using Jig as an example, the author has attempted to show how the early 20th century European and American societies viewed females. The story provides an example of male dominance over females in all aspects, which makes women unable to make their own decisions. Arguably, the author uses Jig to portray the development of women rights and feminist movements against the male-dominated world, which is demonstrated by the American boyfriend.
Jig is probably 19 or 20 years, judging from her perceptions and expression of ideas. She seems to be naïve but ready to settle down for marriage or bring up her children. On the other hand, she is afraid of her American boyfriend, and cannot express her ideas, fearing to disappoint him. However, her character changes significantly towards the end of the story.
According to Renner (1), the development of Jig’s character and perception is a representation of the development of women through feminist movements and can be divided into four basic stages. The first step concerns the submissive and passive presentation of Jig’s behavior, which was a social expectation of women before the early and mid-20th-century feminist movements. In this particular situation, the author portrays the gender roles of the time. In particular, the dominance nature of the male is evident.
While Jig realizes that she is not ready for the “small operation” that the American suggest and insists, she is unable to express her concern and decision not to take the “small operation.” She is submissive right from the first time. For instance, the story starts with Jig asking the American boyfriend, “what are we going to drink?” (Hemingway 572).
The American replies by ordering drinks for the two without asking what Jig wanted. This proves the dominance of males at the beginning of the story. As Hemingway continues with the narration, the audience is introduced to several other aspects that show how males dominated females in society.
For instance, Jig wants to try ‘Anis del Toro,’ her favorite drink for the day. However, she cannot order it without the man’s approval or permission. Thus, she requests him for permission to try the drink. In reply, the man takes the responsibility of asking the drink from the waiter. This further proves that Jig, as an example of female plight before the 20th-century feministic movement, is respecting the man such that she cannot order the drinks of her preference.
Moreover, when Anis del Toro is brought, the waiter asks whether they would like to take it with water. The American asks Jig whether she wanted it with water, but she replies that she did not know. She asks her boyfriend whether “it is good with water,” to which the man replies, “It is alright.”
Thus, the man seems to be responsible for what the young girl drinks. This is a further reflection of the character of the society at the time when males influenced or dictated even the simplest decisions that women were supposed to make about their welfare.
It is also evident that the American man does not give Jig a chance to express her answers to the waiter. He dominates the conversation, which is meant to let every customer express his or her preferences. The man is deciding for Jig, even without considering her preferences.
From a critical view, it is clear that the man’s behavior is a step towards the analysis of his behavior towards the girl when it comes to more important issues. The author uses the first section of the story to show that the man was dominating every decision the girl makes right from the beginning. In the second step, the man expresses his oppressive and dominating nature when the issue of abortion is placed on the table.
He also seems to have a chauvinistic attitude regarding the “operation,” which is most likely used about abortion, which the girl is being made to consider. According to Renner (3), the American is so high-handed about the “procedure” that he pretends to know everything about it. Despite being a man and unable to know the procedure, he tells the girl that it “…is a really simple procedure…like letting the air in” (Hemingway 573).
He seems to ignore the risks involved in taking abortions, especially at the time when it was a risky, illegal, and unethical act. He does not consider the trauma involved or the possible mental, moral, legal, and religious conflicts likely to arise after the operation. It appears that all that he wants is to have the Jig maintain her girlish status. He also wants to avoid children to have her on his side as he makes leisure trips around the world. He attempts to downplay the procedure in all aspects.
In the second step of Jig’s personality evolution, Jig expresses her attitudes but avoids invoking a conflict or disobeying her boyfriend. She says that she will take the procedure because she “does not care about me.” Hemingway attempts to show the selfishness in the man and Jig’s ability to show her attitudes. She wants to express her feelings towards the procedure and the man’s continued dominance in decision-making, even those that concern her more than him.
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In this case, she seems to have evolved a step further because she has realized that the man is forcing her to take a risky procedure, which she knows is not only risky but also morally, socially and ethically illegal. At this stage, both individuals are portrayed as happy. However, Jig has only agreed to the man’s decision to please him. She seems to be happy, yet she is still aware of her boyfriend’s selfish behavior.
In the third step of Jig’s evolution of personality, she mentions that the hills above the railway line look like white elephants. From a shallow perspective, she was referring to the hills that were surrounding the area. It seems that the setting was in summer in Spain, which made it possible for the couple to move around for leisure. Nevertheless, a deep examination of the meaning reveals that Jig was using the phrase to symbolize her perceptions of the man’s decision to take an abortion.
She was making him note that the procedure is a difficult task to her, despite his constant argument that it is a small process. Also, it is possible that the “white elephant” was used about an unborn child, which is rare, precious, and sacred. In the normal terms, “white elephant” is a term that means a rare, precious and sometimes sacred animal.
To Jig, the unborn child she is probably carrying is a rare and precious thing to her. She expects to have her child in the normal way and lead a normal life. She is also in love with the kid and holds to the belief that an unborn child is sacred and should not be killed.
Towards the end of the story, the author describes the fourth step in the evolution of Jig’s feministic personality. Here, she seems to have come to a decision not to take an abortion, regardless of the man’s reaction. The man says, “I want to take the bags to the other side of the station” when the train was almost arriving. It seems that he has realized that Jig has refused to accept his suggestion. It seems that Jig has decided not to talk about the issue anymore, probably after making her own decision.
Therefore, the evolution of Jig’s character in this story signifies the evolution of female roles and feministic movements up to the mid 20th century. Like Jig, women were initially submissive and unable to express their concerns. Later, a conflict between them and males arose when females realized that males were using their dominance to force them to take certain decisions. The arising of feminist movements placed pressure on males, making them admit that females have the right to make important decisions.
Hemingway, Ernest. Hills Like White Elephants. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2006. Print.
Renner, Stanley. “Moving to the Girl’s Side of Hills like White Elephants”. Hemingway Review 15.1 (2009): 27-42. Print.