Feminism in the Hills In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, Hemingway creates a power dynamic between females and males through the way he uses setting, characterization, and dialogue. Hemingway chooses the setting to symbolize the conflicts and differences between the two individuals. Characterizing the woman, Jig, as being the strong one that is in control while the American man is the character with no power to control the situation reveals this power struggle.
The dialogue Hemingway chose to give the characters also illustrates the power dynamic through the way Jig has the final say but the American can only try to persuade her one way or the other. Before analyzing this poem it is important to first understand what feminism involves because many incorrectly believe it is only about how women are treated (M 1). It began with the first wave feminists who fought for women’s right to vote.
The next wave fought for economic equality between women and men. The third and final wave of feminists is where clearly defining feminism becomes difficult, it isn’t so much about women versus men anymore it is more about equality between differences in people (M 2). “Hills Like White Elephants” is more strictly related with the women versus men issues and how women have been wrongly characterized in the past.
It disproves the general idea that women are not as powerful as men by turning the power dynamic around and portraying the woman as the decision maker willing to give birth even though it will be the more difficult path, while the man selfishly tries to avoid his responsibility by killing the problem (Bray 1). Hemingway uses the setting to outline the conflicting ideals of the two characters but more importantly he uses the situation to empower Jig’s, the females, character. Hills Like White Elephants” is set in a train station where the reader is dropped into a conversation between an American man and his pregnant girlfriend. Although the dialogue never uses the words ‘abortion’ or ‘baby’ it is established that the woman, Jig, is pregnant and considering keeping the baby while the American is trying to persuade her to have the “simple operation” (Wood 2). Hemingway uses the setting as a symbol for the challenge facing the couple.
The barren hills on one side of the tracks are “ long and white” and look like white elephants, just as the American man sees the child as a gift worth less than its cost, while the other side of the tracks is fertile with lush “fields of grain and trees”, just as Jig sees this baby as an opportunity for them to start a new meaningful life that is more than just drinking and traveling (Wood 1). The importance in this setting is that Jig is pregnant and she must decide weather to keep the child or get rid of it. Hemingway uses the baby itself as a symbol of Jig’s power over the American.
It may seem like stating the obvious but Jig will have to make the final decision as to the baby’s fate, the American can only persuade her so much, as he says, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to”, because in the end she has the power because she is the one pregnant. The man will try to sway her to decide in his favor but the baby is inside her making Jig the ultimate judge. So the power dynamic portrayed through the setting illustrates how woman are empowered over men. It seems to me that Hemingway uses the response of each of these characters to the pregnancy to describe a statement he is trying to make about males and females.
By making Jig the courageous one that is willing to face the consequences of their actions the man is portrayed as being selfish because he just wants things to go back to the way they were before (Bray 1). Portraying Jig as the stronger character that is not afraid to accept what has happened empowers her because it shows she is not too scared to face change. It is Jig not the man that calls their situation what it is “That’s all we do isn’t it-look at things and try new drinks”, and Jig who is bold enough to be willing to have the baby no matter what it costs.
Giving Jig the ability to asses the couples situation for what it really is gives her more power because it shows she is brave enough to accept even the hard truth, that their life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Over all Hemingway gives Jig’s character the courage to face challenges, have honor in word and deed, and the ability to cope with pain. These three characteristics are the typical traits Hemingway gives all his heroes and by characterizing Jig as the hero demonstrates that women are not always the weaker sex (Bray 1).
Furthermore, making Jig the hero gives her power over the American who thinks of the child as a “white elephant” gift because he does not want to have responsibilities other than traveling and drinking (Wood 1). Jig represents that women are not always less powerful than men but many times are courageous in their own way. They may not carry a sword into battle but they certainly have courage of their own. Just like Jig was willing to take a leap to get more in life than just drinking and partying.
The relationship may have been unequal at first, him being a man and she just a girl, but the two didn’t act according to traditional roles because of differences between the individuals rather than just their established position (M 2). Furthermore, Jig’s character represents the empowerment of women because she is not weak and is made the hero while the man is the coward. When reading “Hills Like White Elephants” I found that at first it was extremely difficult to understand what the story was about because Hemingway drops in on the conversation and never word for word explains what it is about.
However, I found that this was a strategic movement on his part because the dialogue they use is often meant to symbolize something else describing the power dynamic between the two characters. On reading this story I noticed that only the female is ever given a name while the man is referred to as simply “the American”. By naming Jig and making her the protagonist of the story Hemingway gives her greater agency because by definition she is the advocate of a particular cause.
Another trend in the dialogue is that the American is always very passive aggressive, he constantly says things like “I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to” or “It’s just to let the air in”, to try and make it sound nonchalant (Wood 2). By using this type of persuasion it shows the power that Jig has over him. Even though he may want her to get the abortion, she must make the decision, so all he can try to do is persuade her that it really is just a “simple operation” and the best option for them.
The name of the drink Jig orders, “Anis del Toro” is also a symbol used to represent Jig’s power over the American. In Spanish it means the Spirit of the Bull, the bull representing strength and domination. The symbol of Jig ordering this drink gives her power because since she is pregnant she is now the bull in their relationship with the power to decide where their relationship will go from here. This symbol fits perfectly with the fact that Jig was characterized as the courageous one willing to take charge and the American is characterized as the coward trying to avoid his responsibilities.
Analyzing “Hills Like White Elephants” and the power dynamic created between the American and Jig are even more interesting when one sees that historically Hemingway wrote stories that captured woman as the bad influence in men’s lives, the reasons they didn’t succeed (Bray 1). However, in “Hills Like White Elephants” he did the complete opposite. Why is this? I feel that he was trying to show that he had been wrong in the past by saying that women were the only reason men became corrupt. The story is a great example of reversal of roles with the woman being empowered because she is braver and morally stronger than the man.
This is why it works hand in hand with a feministic lens.
Works Cited 1. Bray,D. “Hills Like White Elephants ? The Hemingway Heroine: Study in Female Characterization in Hills Like White Elephants”. eNotes: Hills Like White Elephants. 17Nov2010. 2. M, Milla. “Understanding feminist beliefs”. Helium/Society & Lifestyle: Ethnicity & Gender. 17Nov2010. 3. Wood, Kerry Michael. “Literary analysis: Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway”. Helium/Arts & Humanities: Literature. 17Nov2010.