The Hemingway Heroine: Study in Female Characterization in “Hills Like White Elephants”
Ernest Hemingway is well known as a man’s man. In his life and in his writing, he occupied an extremely masculine world—a world of war, hunting, and bull fights. Hemingway’s macho characters are so strongly drawn that critics created a new prototype to define them: the “Hemingway hero.” This hero has almost always been a man.
But what are readers to make of Hemingway’s women? Many feminist literary critics find Hemingway hostile toward woman. Women, they argue, are portrayed as a corrupt influence on men, somehow diluting their masculine powers.
In Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” we discover a female character, Jig, who contradicts this conventional theory. In this essay we will argue that Jig, “a mere girl,” and not the American man, conducts herself more truthfully to the characteristics of the traditional Hemingway hero. We will define the supremely heroic, distinctly Hemingway concept of “grace under pressure” as courage, honor, and the ability to cope with pain and suffering in the most difficult situations.
No doubt, the man and the girl are in an extremely tense situation. She is pregnant and he wants her to have an abortion. They are discussing a life and death situation, literally for the unborn child, and figuratively for their relationship. Hemingway has set a stark scene at a remote train station on a hot afternoon.
Courage to Face Challenges
True heroes demonstrate courage in all aspects of their lives, not just on the battlefield. In this story, Jig is the courageous one. She is willing to call the situation what it is, to speak out, if sarcastically, about their shallow relationship. “That’s all we do isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?”
It seems that she is brave enough to go through with the pregnancy while he is too selfish and afraid, “But I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want anyone else.” He cannot face up to the change and challenge that life brings them. Ironically, he’s the one trying to build up her courage to have the operation.
Honor—In Word and Deed
To speak and act honorably is another important trait of the Hemingway hero. The American man appears devoid of honor. Throughout the story he is nagging the girl, practically begging her to have the abortion because he doesn’t want to deal with it. He returns again and again to the subject despite her objections. Even after her famous line, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”, he persists.
He also tries to manipulate her with passive-aggressive rhetoric: “Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”
Further, a man of honor would act honorably. He would accept and not shirk his responsibilities to the girl and their child. He would own up to what he has done and do the right thing. Instead, the American man is not only not honoring his commitment to the relationship and the life he helped to create, but he is also placing the burden of both the decision and the physical procedure squarely on the girl’s shoulders.
Ability to Cope with Pain
In the end, it is the girl, not the American man, who has to deal with the repercussions of their joint action. She will suffer the pain of the loss of her child, the regret of what could have been. She will have to go through with a procedure that is not as simple and risk-free as the man claims, especially if it is to be performed in Catholic Spain, where abortions were illegal.
When the girl realizes that they can’t “have everything,” that their relationship, her dreams, the world is slipping away, she resigns to the situation and copes with quiet resolve. She knows that once the opportunity is taken away, “you can never get it back.” Ironically, she is the one to speak the words every Hemingway hero was supposed to be thinking, “I don’t feel any way,” the girl said. “I...
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