Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” like “Cat in the Rain,” illustrates the relationship of a couple who cannot communicate with one another. But rather than paint his picture through a character study as he did in the earlier story, this time Hemingway uses the tools of allusion and innuendo.
It is no accident that the woman is named Jig; this word can mean a happy dance, but it is also used in the phrase “the jig is up,” meaning it’s all over. This is ironic, since for Jig things should be just beginning; she’s pregnant. However, her partner—identified only as “the American”— very much wants Jig to have an abortion, because he doesn’t want the responsibility of a child. The title bears this out; a pregnant woman looks like she has the stomach of an elephant— certainly not the way most men want to see their lovers—and “white elephant” is a euphemism for something nobody wants, in this case the baby. Their symbolic communication is similarly shown by the way they tiptoe around real names; they never call the operation Jig is going to have an abortion, they simply call it an operation; they never call the fetus a baby, the man never calls the woman anything but Jig, and the woman never calls the man anything at all.
It is clear that Jig does not want to have an abortion—not from what she says, of course, but from the pressure the man applies to talk her into it. He tells her it’s “really an awful simple operation…not really an operation at all.” He tells her she “wouldn’t mind it.” He tells her “it’s the best thing to do” and “it’s perfectly simple” and she doesn’t “have to be afraid.” Once one realizes what type of operation he’s referring to, his side of the conversation becomes perfectly plain.
On the other hand, Jig’s side of the conversation is terribly vague. It is filled with indefinite articles, pronouns without antecedents, and a general sense of depression and despair. Even Jig’s last remark—“I feel fine”—is ambiguous. Is Jig saying she feels fine about her own situation, and her lover is the one with the problem? Is she saying she feels fine, but obviously is not fine at all? Or is she just lying to prevent any further confrontation on the matter, since it’s clear she’s going to lose?
Jig knows that although she’s going to have the abortion, she doesn’t want the abortion, and the American essentially neither understands nor cares what she wants. Consequently, as a defense against his pressure, she asks him to just “please please please please please please please stop talking.” Talking in this story is not a source of real communication; it’s a way of asserting or defending the self. Consequently, we learn less from the literal words the characters use than the allusions that build up around them.
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