illustrated portrait of American author Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

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Compare the women protagonists in The Sun also Rises and "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway.

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The women protagonists in The Sun Also Rises and “Hills Like White Elephants” have a few similarities and considerably more differences. In part because one work is a novel and the other is a short story, the way that Ernest Hemingway establishes the characters in each work is significantly different, which in turn affects what the reader can learn about them.

Aside from being female, one similarity between Brett in The Sun Also Rises and Jig in "Hills like White Elephants" is that the author presents them in relationship to male characters rather than to other female characters. In addition, it is clearly established for Brett and implied for Jig that the women are or have been sexually active. One difference is that Lady Brett Ashley has a complete name; the woman in “Hills” is generally called “the girl” and the man calls her “Jig,” which is probably a nickname, and the reader does not learn any other name. Additional differences include their likely relationships: with several men for Brett, and with one man for Jig, and their marital status: Brett is getting divorced and considers herself engaged to another man, and a former lover has died, while Jig’s situation is not stated but it seems likely that she is not married to the male protagonist.

The most notable feature that Hemingway imparts to Lady Brett Ashley is that she has numerous, complicated relationships with men. Like the others in her social set, she seems to have no fixed purpose in life, and has enough money to live well—in Paris and Spain—without working. Curvaceous but with an androgynous haircut, this “damned good looking” woman in her thirties is separated from Lord Ashley and, once their divorce is finalized, plans to marry Michael Campbell.

Nevertheless, Brett considers herself in love with an American writer, Jake Barnes—a situation complicated by a physical injury that left him impotent—and he loves her. Yet another man, Robert Cohn, falls for her and she sleeps with him. Then Brett also has an affair with a Spanish bullfighter, Pedro Romero, and Robert fights jealously with him. During the bullfight, Brett shows herself as Pedro’s beloved or muse, and then sees a temporary respite in running off with him. She quickly realizes that things will not work out and turns to Jake for help. While she values his companionship and assistance, she tells him she still plans to marry Campbell. Brett also drinks a lot of alcohol, as do most of the men.

Jig and the American are the two main characters in “Hills like White Elephants,” a story that is heavily weighted with ambiguity. A third character, a waitress, is called “the woman.” Hemingway reveals almost all the information about the couple's situation and their personalities through their dialogue. The reader is left to infer everything else. Neither one is described. What is clear is that the two have been a couple and it is likely that soon they will no longer be together. The man patronizes the woman, more than once telling her what she does not know or will or will not feel. The situation in which they are presented, conversing in a railway station café, relates to a medical procedure that she may or may not undergo. The reader infers that this is an abortion, which the man wants her to have, and about which she may be unconvinced or resistant, or even have already decided against it.

Jig seems to be defending herself against the man’s domineering personality, often through sarcasm or asking questions that he cannot or will not answer. She looks outward at their surroundings, perhaps to distract herself from the intense interiority of the decisions at hand—the implicit question of whether she should continue her pregnancy, and the explicit one of whether they will stay together. As the dialogue progresses, she increasingly disagrees with his statements, telling him “no” several times. Her attitude seems to shift, as she asks him rhetorically to stop talking, repeating “please” over and over. Again, the resolution after the story’s end is open to interpretation, but it seems likely that her decision to oppose his wishes is indicated by finally saying twice, “I feel fine.”

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