Beneath the Surface: An Analysis of Gender and Cultural Bias in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants

By: Paul J. Lopez

“Beneath the Surface: An Analysis of Gender and Cultural Bias in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

In an interview with “The Paris Review”, Hemingway states “I always, try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows” (qtd. in Bausch and Cassill 883). Such an astounding and clear admission from the author sparked an investigation in the underwater elements of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. When reading with a discerning eye, these elements equate to evidence of gender bias and Americanism. This essay will further evaluate ”Hills Like White Elephants” through Hemingway’s self-proclaimed method of character and story building by looking at the underlying themes in his characters, and how the subtext appeals to the American male conscious by relying on the author’s ability to use clever dialogue openly and covertly when appropriate, and how this challenges the possibility of diverse and intelligent women while simultaneously grandstanding for American male masculinity, and the possible factors that fuel these ideals.

Hemingway uses only three characters in his story “Hills Like White Elephants”, and defines them all with an unequal clarity of depth. The lack of depth in character is mainly represented in the two female characters, as there is little-to-no building of their characterization, other than to separate them and use them to further aggrandize the adjectives used for the American male. The first characters introduced are the young female and the American man that will play the main roles in the tale. Hemingway immediately sets the narrative in his introduction, “The American and the girl with him…” (50) presenting a first impression of the couple which intimates an air of significance in the man being American, while belying any importance to the female character other than to inform that she is neither male, nor American. To further imprint a negligible role to the young female character the author describes her as “the girl with him”. The girl. With this moniker she is immediately not seen as an equal in this relationship shared with the man and is given this less-than-flattering title as a way to openly debase her. Thus, the players are set forth in their roles and the power that they shall be beholden to wield within their assignments is cemented. The only other character in this story is yet another female member, the Spanish waitress. The young waitress is given an assumed nationality, but nothing more to warrant any underlying importance of character, in fact, as is stated later in this essay, her assumed native language is even translated by the aforementioned American. While readers might see an outside character as merely scenery in this tale, the hypermasculinity of the American is further represented by showing him as a well-traveled and learned man who has no equal amongst his present company leaving him atop of the social hierarchy. The only reason for both of the female characters is to further bolster the experience of the American and show them as underlings to the man available at his beck and call. In his conversation with his companion regarding the uniquely named cocktail, the young lady states that there is something painted on the beads and is inclined to ask of the American what the sign reads. The man replies with the name of the drink and he orders them two from the waitress, the reader is to assume, in her native tongue and the American translates the questions from the waitress to the young lady. Hemingway is now using the waitress as an underpinning for the American’s intelligence by flaunting his ability to communicate in languages other than his own with relative ease. The waitress is meant to show just how amazing the American man is, and just how uncultivated and childish the young lady appears. This scene warrants so much more time and attention as this is merely the tip of this iceberg.

Language as a Cultural Bias
“The girl looked at the bead curtain. ‘They’ve painted something on it,’ she said. ‘What does it say?’ ‘Anis del Toro. It’s a drink’” (Hemingway 51). Here Hemingway announces the inability of his companion to be able to read the language of the natives, and how much she needs to rely on his intelligence to get by with something as simple as a drink special, further displaying the apparent intellectual superiority of the man. This moment also further dilutes the intellect of the young lady by the author disallowing her from even making an attempt at a pronunciation of the words in even a simplistic, though incorrect, use of English phonetics, as anyone who had mastery of this would be able to conjure a strong attempt at these words. This is a telling piece of evidence used as another way to show the lack of, not only worldly knowledge, but academic aptitude of the young female character, and very likely an overall feeling of academic aptitude for those of non-American lineage. Referring to the female companion as the girl, creates a description of her as young and unpolished, and continues this affection with the representation of her potential illiteracy. Another potentiality arises with the notion that she is completely inexperienced with the English language as a whole. When Hemingway writes the dialogue between the American and the Spanish waitress, he translates the conversation to the young girl, choosing to leave out any sense of dialect when the two women speak, such as what might be seen as an accent from her native country. This tactic of dialect would better serve as a representation of the companion’s origin, and thus a reasoning behind her inability to understand other languages. This translation of their words into perfect English, barren of any accent, leads to further evidence supporting a vantage of insignificance toward both women and non-American cultures, and the possibility that the man’s companion is bereft of the English vernacular. Not one to miss an opportunity to show the American man’s superiority, Hemingway uses the American as the conduit for all conversation, intellectual or otherwise, and even leaves the man’s request for two beers untranslated as “dos cervezas”. Instead of writing the waitress’ dialogue in Spanish, allowing for a clearer understanding of the dialogue and adding more of an appreciation to the waitress’ cultural significance, Hemingway decides to write her lines in English appropriating the use of her culture as inconsequential, relegating her to one of being used to further the intellectual superiority of the American, and again, limiting the two female roles as merely framework to showcase the greatness of Americanness.

What’s In a Name
While Some readers might take to reasoning that the lack of name given to the American should be noticed as a slight to him, since Hemingway makes a point of naming the American’s young companion, the significance of this action takes on new meaning when viewed with a finer magnification. As to the American, Hemingway does not wish his audience to perceive anything other than the importance of the character being a “man’s man” and American, as is his usual propensity to do with the majority of his male leads. Evidence of this attempt is strewn throughout this particular tale with the way that the author has the man taking the role in leading all conversations and representing him as the one making all situations possible, as well as, the one with whom all other cast members (female of course) need to acquiesce to. These are qualities that are central in defining the role that the American will take in this story, and just as deliberate as the lack of name to the American, so is the naming of the young female character. Taking time to focus on young Jig, as the American addresses her, the audience can also derive that Hemingway refers to her as “girl” to signify a patriarchal sense of ownership and control over her. In fact, if one is to speculate on the use of the name Jig as a mispronunciation of the Malay word “cik”, then this can be seen as another affront to the young lady’s age and immaturity. In English, the Malay word “cik” translates to “Miss” and is used for young ladies and little girls. To suggest Malay as the language of choice is only in reference to the fact that this is one of the few countries in which one would be able to actually see a white elephant with some normalcy, thus making the young Jig’s comment multi-dimensional and relevant, inasmuch as the American is so well traveled, this would not be so far-fetched a theory or speculation. Leaning on this theory, Hemingway is proffering subtle implications to foster a disregard for the opposite sex and patrons from other lands while pointing to the inexperience that must come with being a young girl.

Cause and Effect
The idea that so much effort and focus is put forth into pointing out the inexperience and youth of the female character, may very well be a response to the author’s own life story and romances.

Now after a couple of months away from you, I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart. It’s alright to say I’m a Kid, but, I’m not, & getting less & less so every day.

So, Kid (still Kid to me, & always will be) can you forgive mesome day for unwittingly deceiving you? You know I’m not really bad, & don’t mean to do wrong, & now I realize it was my fault in the beginning that you cared for me, & regret it from the bottom of my heart. But I am now & always will be too old, & that’s the truth, & can’t get away from the fact that you’re just a boy—a kid. – (Villard and Nagel 163)

Ernest Hemingway’s very well-known affair with Agnes von Kurowsky, an older Red Cross nurse that Hemingway fell for in Milan during World War I, is believed to have played one of the most important roles in developing the female characters of his stories, as well as, his outlook in male-female relations. This letter from his first heartache helps to explain the tone of his characters. Agnes was an older woman that the then 19-year-old Hemingway had fallen for, and was eventually rejected by. Ernest Hemingway reverses the roles of experience to make the young girl Jig just that—a girl, meant to be discarded once the allure had passed and reality was to set in. Just as he was once jilted as a boy in love, so would he jilt the female characters of his stories, preferring, instead of the feel of a mother, to evoke the presence of a father-figure to play into the patriarchal sentiment of ownership. Karen Lystra elicits the following: “The amelioration of patriarchy in the middle-class household was full of contradictions and ambiguities. A man would claim that love made a woman his property” (Lystra 235). This idea of patriarchal property would seem to align with the ideals that Hemingway represents and tries to give validation through his menial description to Jig as an inconsequence. The American and Jig do mention love for one another, and as Lystra mentions, this mention of love plays as an understanding of the ownership theory. Jig asks if he will love her if she is to proceed with the operation, not wanting to lose the American’s care of her, to which the American agrees, but only as far as to extract the response that he deems satisfactory. As easily as Agnes once let go Hemingway, so too would the American release Jig from his care citing an immaturity and disregard for his desires, and no less giving an excuse that very much mirrors that of the one Agnes gave a young Ernest during the war. Hemingway has little use for women who do not fit into the roles that he needs them to play, so displayed by the way in which Jig attempts to illicit the response of love from the American, showing her submissiveness to the man, the only way the author would have this role play out.

Meaning Behind Roles
Hemingway has long been accused of being unable to write a strong female character that truly captures all facets of their humanity as an equal gender.

Critics of the novels declared that Hemingway could not depict women or that he was better at depicting men without women (Fiedler; Wilson). It became common for critics to divide his fictional women into either castrators or love-slaves, either “bitches” or helpmates – the simplicity of the dichotomy presumably mirroring Hemingway’s own sexist mindset (Whitlow 10-15). – (Donaldson and Sanderson 171)

These words echo the sentiment of “Hills Like White Elephants” in the way that the author assigns these exact monikers to his female characters. In this story, Jig assumes the role of the love-slave, kept around simply for the pleasure and leisure of the American man, while the waitress is the helpmate, showing that these depictions are not merely coincidental or far-fetched, but rather par for the course when evaluating Hemingway’s depictions and vantage of women. Throughout the history of America, and really the globe, women have been characterized as masters of manipulation destined to create havoc for men through the use of their feminine wiles. Hemingway appears to play upon this with even the young character of Jig, portraying her pregnancy as some type of attempt to further gain control of her lover.

The Role of Patriarchy
When Hemingway addresses the hills in the distance, he does so in a manner that not only broaches the subject of the abortion through metaphor, but also begins the childish demeanor of the female lead. The author takes this moment to address the abortion as a problem that the American takes more seriously than the young woman, who appears to have little concern of anything, speaking with an air befitting a stubborn child throwing a tantrum or pouting. Hemingway continues to paint Jig as someone who obtains her satisfaction from being unappreciative and apathetic towards her benefactor who claims a desire to only do what is best for their relationship. As if speaking with her father who has recently scolded her, the young Jig pouts “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?” (Hemingway 52). Here Hemingway has the young female companion playing the role of submissive child wishing and waiting for the approval of her father, and using the word “love” to demonstrate the patriarchal ownership that Lystra would refer to. Teresa Ebert defines this role of submissive behavior produced by patriarchy writing, “By producing the female subject as complemented and completed by her relation to a male partner, patriarchy naturalizes sexual identity, making the cultural construction of the feminine, thereby continually reproducing women in a subordinate position” (Ebert 19). Hemingway creates this cultural narrative within his characters, “continually reproducing women in a subordinate position. With each available label of Hemingway’s female characters lies an ultimately submissive companion acquiescing to the whims of her male counterpart. In an effort to justify the role given to Jig, the author weaves a subtle layer of manipulation by suggesting fault upon her. Hemingway portrays the young girl’s feelings by spinning and weaving a back-and-forth clever banter between the lovers, allowing the audience to hear out loud Jig’s feelings of what will come with her decision in a way that suggests she is playing with the emotions of the American to further gain his commitment, “’And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more possible.’” (Hemingway 53). The freedom and love that the couple share together will no longer exist in the manner in which Jig would prefer, as she appears to plea for their unborn child as the final piece to their world of “everything and all possibilities” as a family. Here Hemingway shows a naivete in Jig’s dialogue in these lines as she wishes for the baby and sees the child as a missing piece to complete their lives together, even though she must forego her happiness less she be discarded by the wealthy American for having opinions and desires failing to align with those of the American, cementing the will of the author’s male lead to be the only word that will have finality within this same dialogue. Hemingway’s American already is displaying signs that he is uncomfortable with Jig’s affable resistance to his wishes to be free of any parental constraints and duties as he continues to bring the conversation into constant rotation against the wishes of his companion. Hemingway is transitioning Jig’s role from the love-slave to the role of the castrator, seen as putting an end to the freedom that the American has enjoyed for so long up until now. Hemingway invites his audience to examine the American’s growing nonplussed contemplation and leaves the reader to hypothesize as to the course in which the American will take next, flouting the state, or rather the fate, in which he will leave his young companion post operation. Either he will complete the story as he promised, or he will leave the young tainted lover to return to her home alone after he is verily cleared of any doubt as to his immediate future as a father.

Women and War
As one starts the journey through America’s history, little time is needed before discovering that society has not allowed the importance of women to be exponentialized without an inherent need of support from the governing gender. This has often been exemplified during any given war throughout the nation’s history. With each war came an ever-growing need for more female involvement to sustain society and the fluidity of the nation that men abandon for their wars. These added responsibilities for women included all the hard labor works that generally involved long hours and stifling climates within the factories while still expected to maintain the family household playing both mother and father. After these times of need, women were often sent back to their oppressive status with a nominal increase in opportunity awarded them and perhaps a quick pat on the back from their male counterparts. Hemingway’s story was written less than a decade after the end of WWI, which was a huge turning point in American society, with the United States cementing their position as the world’s preeminent super power. The inclusion of women into the workforce during this time would ultimately lead to garnering support of President Woodrow Wilson in what would be a 75-year battle for women’s suffrage. Even with the support of the U.S. President’s proclamation, women’s suffrage would not be completely ratified by all states until the 1980’s (History.com). All of this simply points out just how this line of thought fits into the author’s use of the pregnant woman in his story. She is needed only to fill the role of companion to the American male, and as soon as she is found to be with child, which the American man has helped to create, we are then introduced to the voice of our young female character. The American speaks to our underdeveloped character as if the voice she has is relevant to the decision that he presents before her, all the while asserting his dominance by refusing to truly listen to her words that beg for an alternative fate. Having spent war time in Italy, Hemingway had little reference of what amazing advantage women were taking of their new opportunities back home on American soil. The American woman Hemingway could reference during the war, was that of the older lover who would not return his love. This would ultimately shape the author’s view of what all women would mean to him. Hemingway’s is a tale of American male dominance and privilege that crosses even the borders of North America, and within the lines of this story, throughout the world.

Women and Deceit
Perhaps this traditional belief is so engrained with the American mind because these gender roles are the cornerstone of what America was built upon. Americans have all been taught that the Pilgrims came to America to practice their religious freedom, and this was a religious freedom that defined woman-kind as a companion or even a gift to man from his creator. Within their sacred tome, which early Americans derived their original understanding of life and governance, women can be seen as the bearer of confliction upon mankind, “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Holy Bible King James Version, Gen. 3.6). Here at the believed cradle of humanity, Americans bear witness to the idea of a woman using her position as man’s mate to lure him to his ill-desired fate. This familiar scene has been playing out for centuries and is once again found prevalent in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. The author’s audience are ever so subtlety being asked to witness the furtive, yet fragile, female finding a way to bring her champion and guardian to woe and conflict through a disregard for her owner’s wishes. Such a predisposition summarized by John Milton’s matter-of-fact testimonial that “Eve was Eve” (Milton IV.6.555) – a credo of sorts that so brazenly suggests an inhospitable description of a women’s inexorable gullibility and wickedness. Hemingway’s story, and the story of Adam and Eve long before, gives only distorted glimpses into the female perspective, while campaigning for male heroics and forgiveness, and a perspective that unjustly provides a look into the perceived foolishness, deceitfulness and frailty of women. The perspective ushered forth by Hemingway is of a man who must be known as brilliant in deriving a felicitous conclusion for the predicament that the insensible child has vexed him with. Hemingway continues his support of this narrative by portraying his female as the antagonist who has manipulated the man into a decision that he does not wish to make, akin to the likes of Adam and Eve, that will undoubtedly affect the way the American’s life is to persist without a clear sense of where the next train will take him, though reading into the space of this tale, the conclusion is evident.

Pride and Entitlement
Along with Ernest Hemingway’s background and depiction of characters in “Hills Like White Elephants”, the audience must also account for the time frame in which the story exists, and in which the author himself was living. In fact, during this decade, America was learning and accepting the idea that women desired sexual interaction just as much as men do as a part of the decade’s modernity (Haag 549). Yet Hemingway decided to stick with a story whose characters rely on the archaic gender balance with the man as master to his exotic concubine that wishes to prey on her affluent companion to escape her life with little future. In doing so, Hemingway gives himself away to exhibit a predisposition to preferring a world that is male dominate, with his women being subservient and refusing to align himself with any popular ideals other than those that would appear most propitious to his desires. Referring back to the roles in which Hemingway prefers to give his female characters, the idea of a sexually free women fits nicely into his ideas of a love-slave such as Jig, yet he still has the need for the female to play into the more familiar role of succubus to allow a reason for his male character to be justified in leaving when he has had his fill. During this time, there was little room for a woman to challenge her male companion who had just returned from defending his country in the worst war that humanity had ever witnessed. The end of World War I catapulted America into the class of super power that would last into perpetuity, and along with the might of the United States military forces came an additional badge of pride. This pride is very much represented by Ernest Hemingway in all of his stories post-war, and “Hills Like White Elephants” stands as no exception. Hemingway shows little regard for those non-Americans in this story much like he may have shown during the war to those he deemed foreign in a foreign land. Owing to his service as a member of the Red Cross during the Great War, Hemingway was privy to witness the worst of what war could be, and yet he still chose to create his male characters in the vein of the heroic and macho American soldier. To that soldier, women were just entertainment during the down time, and many of these women considered foreigners to young American soldiers and aides, merely a rung above the level of enemy. This frame of reference and delusion appears to have created the free-and-easy approach that the author chooses to take when creating his American lead. This prideful attitude is represented with a simple title for his male hero-American. This title is shown as a superlative in the story to any other identifying name that Hemingway could bestow upon the man. These foreign women in “Hills Like White Elephants” represent an opposing power that threaten Hemingway’s hero and his freedom.

Hemingway’s use of metaphors and symbolic dialogue have made his story “Hills Like White Elephants” more than just a story of a man and woman speaking in code about aborting their unborn child. This story is a road map to male gender bias, spurred by American male privilege built upon a foundation patriarchal romance and openly practiced cultural bigotry. Hemingway’s is a story that represents women as vulnerable, childish and manipulative, while strongly appealing to keep the American male representative in the position of victim and hero through use of a distorted perspective. The content and context of Hemingway’s narrative forces the audience approach this story in a manner that identifies the author’s undying devotion to female and cultural oppressiveness submersed below the iceberg of a progressive and controversial subject matter. Applying Ernest Hemingway’s own admission of approach and methodology when creating his tales, an assumption must be made that there is more to be unlocked in “Hills Like White Elephants” than that of a young woman who has become undesirably pregnant from her lover. Hemingway’s readers can surely be gratified that the author has written a piece that will continue to appeal to the curious literary mind into perpetuity, and perhaps this reason alone is why, not only this piece, but all literature should continue to be assayed in a manner consistent with the idea of an iceberg.

Works Cited

Bausch, Richard, and R. V. Cassill. “Writers on Writing: Ernest Hemingway: An Interview.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, W. W. Norton, New York, 2015, pp. 883–885.

Donaldson, Scott, and Rena Sanderson. “Hemingway and Gender History.” The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK, 1996.

Ebert, Teresa L. “The Romance of Patriarchy: Ideology, Subjectivity, and Postmodern Feminist Cultural Theory.” Cultural Critique, no. 10, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 19–57, https://doi.org/10.2307/1354105.

Haag, Pamela S. “In Search of ‘The Real Thing’: Ideologies of Love, Modern Romance, and Women’s Sexual Subjectivity in the United States, 1920-40.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 2, no. 4, University of Texas Press, 1992, pp. 547–77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704263.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men without Women, Scribner, New York, NY, 2004.

History.com Editors. “19Th Amendment.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 5 Mar. 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/19th-amendment-1.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments. Authorized King James Version, Thomas Nelson Bibles, 2001.

Kurowsky, Agnes Von, et al. Hemingway in Love and War: The Lost Diary of Agnes Von Kurowsky. Hyperion, 1996.

Lystra, Karen. Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Milton, John, and John T. Shawcross. “Paradise Regain’d, Book IV.” The Complete Poetry of John Milton, Doubleday, New York, 1971.

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on pinterest
Pinterest