In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the young woman called “Jig” is being pressured by her older male companion, usually called simply “the man,” to have an abortion. Although it is obvious that Jig would prefer to keep the baby, she never directly and emphatically tells the man that this is her desire. Instead, she often uses sarcasm to imply her reluctance to go through with the abortion.
Why does Jig rely on sarcasm rather than openly and forcefully stating her mind? Several possible explanations suggest themselves, and some of them reinforce one another. Among the possible reasons for Jig’s indirectness are the following:
- She seems dependent on the man and may fear that if she resists him too strongly, he will simply abandon her.
- She may not completely know her own mind and may be genuinely ambivalent, at least to some degree.
- Women during the period in which the story is set were far less likely to express themselves forcefully than women today. Women today take for granted that they are the equals of men; Jig was raised in an entirely different and less “liberated” era.
- Jig may be reluctant to argue openly with the man in a public place, in front of other people. She may not want to cause a “scene.”
- Apparently Jig has not been in the habit of openly challenging the American. He seems to set the terms of their relationship. It might therefore seem inconsistent of her to begin openly challenging him now.
- Jig may feel that if she does express herself explicitly, she will lose her temper, alienating the man and potentially embarrassing herself. After all, at one point she threatens to “scream,” and when the man does push her too far, she utters perhaps her most memorable line:
“Would you please, please, please, please, please, please, please stop talking?”
Clearly, Jig is increasingly agitated as the story evolves, and her decision to use sarcasm is a passive-aggressive strategy rather than an assertively aggressive strategy.
The fact that Jig’s motives for using sarcasm are so plausibly various is testimony to the complexity of the characters Hemingway has created even in such a very brief tale.