Are there theme similarities between "Cathedral" and "Hills Like White Elephants"?

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Alienation is a theme in both Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" and Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." In Hemingway's story, the man and the girl have evidently been unhappy together for some time and have grown apart, to the extent that he no longer listens to her and she longs for him to stop talking. This is understandable, since he uses his words to manipulate her into doing what he wants, rather than expressing any feelings or even trying to have a genuine conversation. As is so often the case with Hemingway's characters, these two people are drifters, traveling round the world, trying new drinks and looking at things, rarely forming any meaningful bonds with each other or anyone else.

The first person narrator of "Cathedral" admits his ignorance, his prejudices, and even his insensitivity. He knows that his views on blind people, for instance, come from the movies, and he is aware that he is being unreasonable when he argues with his wife about playing host to her blind friend, Robert. However, though the theme of alienation is the same, "Cathedral" is a warmer and more optimistic story than "Hills Like White Elephants," because the initial alienation is overcome by a narrator who is self-aware enough to see and correct his own prejudices. There is no permanent rift with his wife, and he ends up forging a bond with Robert and learning from him.

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Two common themes interconnected throughout both "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver and "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway are prejudice and ignorance, which can go hand-in-hand and even play off of each other (insofar as prejudice against a person, ethnicity, religion, etc. may be born out of ignorance of the same, and ignorance of a person, ethnicity, religion, etc. can perpetuate prejudice).

In "Cathedral," the narrator relates assorted sweeping generalizations that reveal the depths of his prejudice against people who are blind. These stem from his own ignorance:

In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. (1)

In the narrator's apparent bitterness against the blind man (named Robert) and even against his own wife, he blatantly and unfairly admits that he holds Robert responsible for giving the narrator "nothing to do but wait" (4). What's perhaps worst of all about the narrator's assumptions is his admission that he has "never met, or personally known, anyone who was blind" (5). Who is he, in that case, to be making sweeping generalizations out of his utter ignorance of what it's like to be sightless?

Similarly, in "Hills Like White Elephants," the American reveals the depths of both his ignorance and his prejudice when he speaks to the girl with him about the reality of an abortion as "really an awfully simple operation," as though it were something of which he had any real notion. His ignorance is made perfectly clear when he goes on to add,

It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in.

His preconceived judgment of the medical procedure, which he himself has never experienced, constitutes prejudice and an attempt to deliberately sway his companion's view of an abortion. Finally, he adds that things will go back to the way they were after the procedure, making a further assumption that the girl's pregnant condition is "the only thing that bothers us" and "the only thing that's made us unhappy," when it's obvious from their earlier attempts at conversation—the girl creatively and imaginatively noting that the hills nearby look like white elephants to her, and the American oblivious to or even irritated by her perspective, so different from his very flat, factual one—that the girl's pregnancy is far from the only thing wrong between them. They are in two very different places in personality and outlook.

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The central similarity that can be identified in terms of theme between these two excellent short stories would be that of relationships. Both stories present us with couples who are struggling or are encountering difficulties in their relationships, for different reasons. In "Cathedral," the narrator seems to present himself initially as a rather selfish, self-absorbed individual who only allows Robert, his wife's friend, to come and stay with them through emotional blackmail. As he reveals later on, it is clear that their marriage is struggling:

Every night I smoked dope and stayed up as long as I could before I fell asleep. My wife and I hardly ever went to bed at the same time. When I did go to sleep, I had these dreams.

Carver presents us with a relationship that is going through a very difficult period through the lack of communication and personal difficulties of the protagonist, but through the arrival of Robert and the relationship that he strikes up with the narrator, the reader is able to see the development of the protagonist that gives hope for the future.

In "Hills Like White Elephants," there is a similar presentation of a relationship that is going through some significant challenges. Through the comments of the American partner, it becomes clear that Jig is pregnant and he does not want her to keep it:

"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said. "It's not really an operation at all... I know you wouldn't mind it Jig. It's realy not anything. It's just to let the air in."

The way Jig ignores these comments and tries to change the subject shows that she does not want an abortion. However, as the story develops, it becomes clear that she is being forced into having one in order to sustain their relationship. The crucial difference between these two tales and the theme of struggling relationships is that "Cathedral" ends on an optimistic note whereas there is no such hope for the couple in "Hills Like White Elephants."

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