Speaking with white elephants

“Hills Like White Elephants” is a pretty awesome short story. In the length of a magazine article, Ernest Hemingway touches several issues common to human relationships: communication, perseverance and abortion. It’s rather incredible he did so effectively.

Most of us know the 1926 piece was a conversation about abortion between a romantically-involved man and woman in a bar in Spain. Apparently, the woman – Jig – recently learned she was pregnant and the man is trying to convince her to have an abortion.

My favorite aspect of this story is its address of communication in human relationships. It almost immediately shares a direct metaphor, white elephants, which is used to describe the hills in the background of this bar the couple is visiting.

“They don’t really look like white elephants,” she later states. “I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

The term “white elephant” had been used for nearly 100 years prior to this story to describe something valuable but burdensome. Since it was one of the first terms she used during her rendezvous with the man and since it was used metaphorically, one can determine the topic she wanted to discuss was the abortion – since the child she was carrying was likely “valuable but burdensome.”

Why not just tell the guy?

Instead, she triggers a metaphoric response from him, which is met with understandable cynicism. Then she asks if she can try a drink; then she asks if it’s good with water. If she cannot try the drink and if that drink is not good with water, the fault will presumably lie with the man for not allowing her to try the drink or for allowing her to try such an awful combination of the drink with water.

They’d been down this road before: she already asked him what they should drink for the meeting. Didn’t she like the beer he’d already ordered? If so, why not tell him?

Feminists sometimes try to say this story is an example of male chauvinism – that Jig was a victim and this man was attempting to “bully” her into a risky medical procedure she didn’t want, but that’s not necessarily true. Jig never states she doesn’t want the procedure and invites her male friend’s opinion. If anyone is guilty of playing head games, it’s her, evident by the “I don’t care about me” lines regarding the procedure. I think she just wants to pin the blame on the man if she does have an abortion, just like she did when it came to drinks at the bar.

It is a recipe for failure. Part of the beauty of “The Hills Like White Elephants,” however, is the open ending: it’s left completely to speculation. Did she have an abortion? If so, did their relationship return to “normal” as the man predicted? Maybe she didn’t have the abortion – was the man a good father? Was she a good mother?

Maybe the matter killed them both, physically and/or spiritually.

One thing we do know is the couple never resolved the matter in the story. Sure, Jig told her lover she’d have an abortion, but she also told him she’d scream if he didn’t stop talking. Her tone changed several times. Her confidence fluctuated. She had too many questions for Jig.

This was her decision, yet she never said she wanted to have an abortion because she didn’t want to have a child.

Annnnnnd here’s where I’m going with this: this same kind of communication – in terms of effectiveness – happens all too often in human relationships. I believe this woman wanted the child because, as she stated, her life didn’t have a lot of consistency. But she saw potential in her relationship with this man and did not want it to end because of an unplanned pregnancy. However, she never shared her true feelings with the man – at least in the course of “Hills Like White Elephants” – and therefore left the issue unresolved.

Maybe he would have been okay with her ambition. Maybe they could have reached a consensus. Maybe they could have spent their time at the bar coming up with a tangible plan of attack.

All too often, we fail to reach our goals and fail to attain the attainable because we do not tell “the other” what we want. We sometimes assume he or she or they already know what we want; we sometimes presume it will magically fall into place once we gather enough intelligence.

But if we don’t take the chance of losing everything, we will never gain anything …

… and the conversation will leave us feeling uncertain or falsely secure.

 

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