How does gender influence the direction of the conversation in "Hills like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The short story that Hemingway puts forth is a challenging one.  It is so because the reader is pulled into the piece, almost like a viewer or listener at a table adjacent to Jig and the American.  Accordingly, we, as the reader, bring our own biases into the piece and this is what makes it so difficult for us to render any sort of objective judgment.  It becomes impossible to do so and perhaps this is the point that Hemingway is trying to make.  I see the woman as desperately trying to cling to a relationship that she sees as impending on permanent change.  The "operation," which we can take to be an abortion, is serving as a watershed moment for the couple.  Again, my bias comes out here because I envision an abortion as such a moment for any couple.  As I am listening to their conversation, my thoughts on lines such as "It's really an awfully simple operation" causes me to reflect that the American wants her to have the procedure.  I am struck by the level of emotional distance of the American, which again is my bias.  It seems as if he is emotionally distant from her and while she seeks emotional contact and touch, this is something that is not in his vision.  Again, capitulating to my own vision of the gender based situation of the couple, I think that she being the woman understands the gravity of the situation both medically and emotionally more than he does.  In the end, it is her problem.  He can leave, and this distance is something reflected in his speech and demeanor.  She is stuck with this- the child, the relationship, the feelings of doubt.  I think that this is a reflection of gender at the time, and perhaps now, in that he can leave and she is in it.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is interesting that Hemingway does not mention the name of the man and that he also refers to Jig mostly as merely the "girl."  While there is an impersonalization to both characters, nevertheless, the American's sang-froid in discussing the disposal of what is his baby as well as hers certainly affects the reader's perception of him.  Added to this, of course, is the natural tendency of the reader--especially female readers--to sympathize with the girl who must bear the burden of pregnancy and, if she aborts, all of the emotional trauma to her body as well as much of the psychological and spiritual ramifications.

As the previous post has so cogently remarked, the reader's involvement with the narrative makes it difficult to objectively determine the direction of the conversation.  But, it does seem substantiated that the girl bears the burden of their pregnant act (excuse the pun).  For, she, better than the American, foresees the consequences of the "perfectly simple" operation:  "Then what will we do afterward?"  Also, in her desire to keep the man that she loves, she tries to agree with him:

"And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?..But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?"

But, the girl's practical sense overcomes her emotional wish, and she realizes that if she has the abortion, things will not be the same:

"No, it isn't.  And once they take it away, you never get it back."

In his minimalist method, Hemingway does not mention what the "it" is.  However, the reader understands that the girl means that they can never return to their more innocent state.

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justintneal | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

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Describe Hemingway handling of the dialogue.Stylistically,how does Hemingway make it plain who is speaking, without the many "he said" and she said" statements that you might find in other stories?

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