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Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” A Feminist Text by a Father of Patriarchy

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Elizabeth Velez discusses an unlikely story about abortion in Hemingway's body of work.

 
 

During childhood, I read books by mostly women; many of the books were chosen for me by my mother, my grandmother and my feminist-before-her-time great aunt.


Before college, I was “educated” in public schools in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. College was Texas (including a much needed junior year in Dublin), and graduate school was New York and Washington DC. Not once during college and graduate school did I have a professor who was also a woman.


When I began high school, the authors were mostly male and I was taught that Ernest Hemingway was the “great American writer.” I was taught to admire his style; as a fourteen-year-old girl who aspired to be a writer, I paid attention. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, I learned that good sex for a woman was “when the earth moved.” Well, ok, but the point was that only Robert Jordan, a soldier and hero, could make that happen; it was out of Pilar’s control. So who could I identify with? It was confusing. It got more confusing with A Farewell to Arms, when Catherine, a beautiful blonde nurse and the beloved of lieutenant Henry died in childbirth along with the child, and the lonely heartbroken Lieutenant had to walk back to his hotel in the rain. Wait, what? So I guess I could imagine myself as him? Well no, not really, and as a woman, I couldn’t see it as particularly romantic to die in childbirth.


More confusing still was the text for senior year—The Sun Also Rises. (I’d like to note that both of my sons also read this during their senior years in a public school in Washington DC).

Okay, Jake has some war wound, I wasn’t sure exactly what until he began to hang out with Lady Brett Ashley, and I realized that they couldn’t actually be together because of his “problem” caused by that war wound. Who would choose this as a novel for 18- year-olds? Well, I guess it made us see Jake as a “tragic” hero, but again, there was no character for me. Lady Brett was out of reach—aristocratic, beautiful and, the “perfect” woman by Hemingway’s standards. (Sadly, Jake could not make the earth move for her.)


In college, grad school, and even Dublin, Hemingway was still taught reverently. The truth is that I did admire his style, and along with many others, was probably influenced by it. But men were always the center; women barely existed on the margins. So I stopped reading him and moved on.


But years later when I encountered this one short story about abortion and began to teach it to college students, I was both surprised and delighted to see that Hemingway offers us a woman’s point of view and a rare critique of patriarchal power, in particular the power that men have and exert over the bodies of women.


Hemingway opens the story with a lovely description of the setting. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro' were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.”


A couple is waiting for a train in a foreign county; the power dynamic is immediate. He is introduced as an “American” and a “man.” She is a “girl” named Jig.


The story is told almost entirely through dialogue between the two. When she notes that the hills look like “white elephants,” he barely responds because he is focused on his desire for her to have an “operation” that he describes as: “It’s just to let the air in. Lots of people have done it.” This is a profoundly male and rather peculiar view of abortion; it’s important to note that the word itself is never used in the story.


As they wait for the train and order multiple drinks, the man returns to the subject over and over.


“They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural. It’s not anything.” It is “natural,” and, at the same time, it is nothing. Hemingway shows us this man’s inability to hear or to see this almost invisible girl—to care about anything but his own desire to be “free.” Never once does he acknowledge that what he wants, and what he ultimately describes as “nothing,” could have any effect on her body or her life. Hemingway makes it clear that he has erased her as a human being.


As he continues to argue for the operation, we see that the girl will do what he wishes but knows that the consequences of this decision will destroy their relationship and any sense of agency in her life.


She tries to be heard: “Doesn’t it mean anything to you? We could get along.”


She wants her pregnancy, the white elephant between them, to at least be acknowledged, but his response underscores her powerlessness while pretending to love her: “Of course it does. But I don’t want anybody but you.”


She finally agrees: “I’ll do it because I don’t care about me.” Hemingway wants us to see that she is verbally battered throughout, that there is no choice available for her and her final resistance only acknowledges acquiescence and her own erasure.


"Would you do something for me now? Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” Yes, she asks him to stop, and he does, but Hemingway defines her fate in the last line of the story.


"Do you feel better?" he asked. "I feel fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with me. I feel fine."


Hemingway shows us the terrifying power of patriarchy; her sense of self has been destroyed in four short pages.

 

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