Like White Elephants.
In Hemingways Hills Like White Elephants I found many layers of symbolism, and a fascinating psychological underplay afoot between his two characters. It begins with the girls comment about a line of white hills seen in the distance, which she compares to white elephants. The man responds with the comment Ive never seen one.
The symbolism of a white elephant is widely known as something very large or apparent that no one wishes to acknowledge or speak of in American society. It is an interesting opening to a very strained conversation concerning an apparent pregnancy, and the mans wish to terminate it. The couples careful avoidance of actually naming the problem, or the proposed solution, suggests the situation in which a mate, reluctant to assume responsibility, or unprepared for the task of parenthood, is lobbying to prevent it.
In her next comment, No, you wouldnt have. the girl returns a very passive aggressive riposte, perhaps suggesting that the man cannot, or will not, recognize an unpleasant issue. His defensive reaction to her response suggests that she is correct. She then changes the subject casually, as though retreating from his irritation. He plays along with it in a placatory manner, seemingly eager to avoid an escalation of the tension that obviously exists between them. Clearly, the woman in this story is reluctant to abort her pregnancy, while the man is strongly committed to making it happen.
After he orders them a new drink, the girl remarks on its licorice taste. Then perhaps attempting to hide her pain over his rejection of the baby, she responds to his comment Thats the way with everything. by agreeing with him and adding bitterly Especially the things youve waited so long for, like absinthe. This, I assume, is a reference to the base ingredient of absinthe, which is the aromatic herb called wormwood, once considered a remedy for intestinal worms. As an interesting note, the name wormwood derives from the German word Wermut, which translates as grievous in the English language.
The mans response to her bitterness is one of irritation and he snaps at her, whereupon she promptly blames him for his lack of appreciation for her clever metaphor about the white hills; referring , most likely, to his distracted attitude. It seems likely she is accustomed to him complimenting her for her intelligence and wit, which is now not happening due to his worry over her pregnancy. He again placates her, this time by agreeing the metaphor was a bright comparison.
When she softens her reference to the hill with an explanation, he makes small talk for a moment, then launches into his campaign to convince her of the banality of an abortion. At this point, Hemingway inserts her name, which suggests empathy for the girls position. By giving her a name, while leaving the man without one, the reader might find her to be a more personalized character. She has a name, which in human society is a symbol of individuality and importance, while someone that remains nameless, or worse, someone no one speaks of, is accorded little or no importance. I infer that Hemingway disapproved of the mans behavior, which certainly seems dishonest and craven in the face of his selfish arguments.
As the girl talks about her feelings of sadness, and her fear that nothing will ever be the same, the man keeps dismissing her feelings by insisting that everything will be as before. He then repeatedly tells her that he doesnt want her to go through with it, still not naming what it is, if she doesnt want to. Clearly, the man either wants to keep his relationship with the girl, or is heavily invested in maintaining his influence over her until he can insure that she terminates the pregnancy.
At the end of the story, the girl appears to realize that the man is not going to change his mind, despite his assertions that he doesnt care if she wants to have the baby. When she asks him if it means anything to him, he says that it does, then completes the sentence with a statement that he only wants her, not anybody else. She gives up trying to communicate her feelings at this point, and asks him to stop talking about it. He responds to this nervously, repeating that he doesnt want her to do it, it doesnt matter to him. The girl then threatens to scream; one might think she is tired of his craven disassembling.
At that point, the waitress tells them the train is due in five minutes. The man escapes with the bags, carrying them to the other tracks. This portion might suggest another symbolic element in the story. Just as the two have switched their life course, they are now switching trains, heading down a set of tracks carrying them towards a different outcome. He retreats to the bar inside, where he has a drink alone while looking at the people waiting reasonably for the train, then rejoins Jig, who smiles at him.
And so the struggle between Jig and her lover is resolved. He has won, and she has given up her dream. The elements of the story suggested a carefree couple that traveled and drank their way across foreign landscapes together, with no responsibilities, until suddenly, they faced one of the biggest responsibilities of all. Hemingways depiction of their conflict is in my opinion a stunning expose of a scenario that is all too common in the human tradition, rife with assumptions and masterful in its inferential depiction.