How does an unnamed topic work in "Hills Like White Elephants" and "Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat"?

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Ross Leckie calls these stories "Plot-resistant narratives," which is a paradox and an oxymoron.  Both stories are told in a bare-bones, plain/tough style: a volley of intimate conversation with few dialogue tags.  Baker and Hemingway are masters of subtext: what is not said is more important that what is said.  Both stories are told in medias res: the reader is propelling into the middle of them.  What's happening is just as important as what has happened and will happen.  We, the readers, want exposition and resolution, and these authors are reluctant to give it to us.  We are eavesdropping on major conflicts, discussed in very subtle ways.

How many times did you have to read them to figure out what they were about?  In fact, as Leckie points out, the topic is not as important as the language used to avoid it:

Banks, however, refuses to narrate them [the sexual encounter or abortion], and, as events alluded to only in passing, they remain events that cannot be talked about, too pregnant with possible meaning to be controlled by the conflicting plots of social constraint that the black man and the white woman alternately wish to apply. The result is that the sexual encounter and the projected abortion are represented as little more than another instance of trailerpark mundanity. It is not, in fact, the sexual episode that interests Banks; rather it is the manner in which the black man and the white woman respond to a potentially explosive violation of trailerpark complacency, or better, the manner in which each fashions a plot that will secure him or her a satisfactory relation to a conventional social network.

Focus in the dialogue below is on the woman's body:

"Im already putting on weight," she said.

"It doesn't work that way. You're just eating too much."

"I told Mother."

The man stopped rowing and looked at her.

"I told Mother," she repeated. Her eyes were closed and herface was directed toward the sun and she continued to stroke hercheekbone and lower jaw.

"When?"

"Last night."

"And?"

"And nothing. I told her that I love you very much."

"That's all?"

"No. I told her everything."

"Okay. How'd she take it? As if I didn't already know." (99)

The body, not the topic, is the topic.  Abortion, as you know, is a topic that has been hotly debated since time immemorial, and both sides use loaded language and pathos (highly charged emotional language) that brings out the worst in the speakers.  So, Baker and Hemingway are too smart to have their lovers fall into the topic's trap.

So, Baker and Hemingway subvert Aristotle's classic logos (text), ethos (author), and pathos (audience) triangle.  The topic, or text, is never mentioned, but the couple is so intimate with each other, and the story so thinly narrated, that the audience must play the role of author.  As we read the subtext, we must fill in the text.  Or is it: as we read the text, we must fill in the subtext?  It's confusing.  It puts the audience in a predicament.  It makes us feel like we're vested in this conversation, like we're one of the two characters (depending on our gender), like that baby might be ours.

I suspect that the gender differences are polarized in your class discussion of both stories.  Good luck, and if your girl/boy-friend is in the class, be careful what you say...

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