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“For this essay, I chose to write about “The Birth-Mark” and “Hills Like White Elephants”, focusing on the characters in these stories that are searching for a sense of belonging and how they arrive at this feeling. Personally, I hold the view that no one should change who they are for another person or do something they are against. I have been through a similar experience; I had an abortion just to please another person. In the end, the experience brought me nothing but pain and a lasting scar. In some ways, it may have been the right choice for me. However, it has also caused an echoing absence in my life, much like the characters in these two narratives.
In “Hills Like White Elephants”, the girl strikes me as the character that is yearning to belong, evident in how she strives to please her boyfriend by getting the abortion, despite her desire to keep the baby. The story commences with an American man and a young woman, presumably named Move, patiently waiting for the express train from Barcelona. They are situated on the patio of a small station-bar and seem to be headed to Madrid. The events unfold subtly, with the narrative primarily focused on detailing their conversations and interactions during their forty-minute wait for the train. The woman gazes at the hills across the Ebro valley, suggests they order a drink, attempts to engage the man in light banter, then reacts quickly and sadly to his assertion that the procedure she is due to undergo is “really nothing… it’s all perfectly normal”. Frustrated, she stands up, walks to the far end of the station, gazes at the hills again, speaks angrily, sits down, asks him to “stop talking”, drinks in silence, and finally assures him that she feels “fine”. The man also has his moments of action, most noticeable when, after she asks him to “stop talking”, he moves their bags “around the station to other tracks” and stops over at the bar to enjoy an anisette alone.
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Obviously, little happens and very little is expressed. However, just underneath the surface of these mundane and dull events, a quiet yet vital struggle between these two characters has been resolved. The future course of their relationship seems to have been charted in these moments, and the destiny of their unborn child decided. Their very first words expose tension between these two, suggesting that there may be essential differences between them. The woman is captivated by her surroundings, concerned with being friendly, empathetic, and creative. The man, on the other hand, is self-involved, indifferent, and literal. “They look like white elephants,” she said. “I’ve never seen one,” the man replied as he drank his beer. “No, you wouldn’t have.” “I might have,” the man said. What is significant in this story, as in Hemingway’s fiction overall, is the startling disparity between appearance and reality. The seemingly trivial dialogue about hills and drinks and an unspecified operation is in fact a discreet yet explicit dispute about whether they should continue living the neat, liberal, decadent life favoured by the man or have the child that Corner is carrying and settle down to an ordinary yet, in Corner’s view, enriching, worthwhile, and tranquil life.
Despite his direct assertions, regardless of what may be normal (“I don’t need you to do it if you would genuinely prefer not to”), it’s clear the man wants her to have an abortion so they can return to their previous way of life. Their relationship so far seems to have been mostly composed of exploration and thoughtless self-absorption: “That’s all we do, isn’t it—look at things and try new drinks?” “I guess so.” The woman apparently appreciates his unspoken request for her to have an abortion; to do so, however, she must sacrifice her dignity and her visions of a prosperous life: “I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” She doesn’t seem to have the strength to oppose his demands, but she is conscious of the significance of her submission. She looks at the beauty, the life, the prosperity on the other side of the tracks—fields of grain, trees, the river, mountains. “‘We could have this,’ she said. ‘And we could also have everything and every day we make it more impossible.'” The abortion is not just a “perfectly natural” or “necessary procedure” for her; it’s a symbolic act too, which will potentially cut her off from everything that is good and alive in the world: “It’s not ours anymore.” The man disputes her profoundly negative outlook on their situation, but she has heard enough: “Can you please stop talking?” He stops, adjusts their luggage, and wonders while drinking his anisette why she can’t behave “normally” like other people, then resumes their conversation as if nothing had occurred. It’s possible that her realization of their sterile lives and the fact that the man does not truly love, understand, or care for her will allow her to leave him and strive to lead a meaningful life. However, Hemingway provides no concrete reason to believe she will do so. The story ends with an unambiguous lie: “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.” Presumably, they board the train; she has the abortion; and their relationship continues its downward spiral into emptiness and indifference.
In “The Birth-Mark,” I believe the character trying to find their way is Georgiana, primarily because of her birthmark. The author presents Aylmer as an exceptional specialist and natural researcher who had set aside his research for a time to marry the captivating Georgiana. At one point, Aylmer asks his wife whether she has ever considered removing the skin pigmentation on her cheek. To his surprise, she casually dismisses the idea, only to respond with seriousness when she realizes he posed the proposition genuinely. She tells him that many have told her the mark is a charm, and she has always thought that perhaps they were right. Aylmer retorts, commenting that given her otherwise flawless face, any blemish is abhorrent. At first, Georgiana is shocked, then she becomes upset, questioning how he can love her if he finds her repellent. For clarification, the narrator elaborates that the pigmentation being referenced is a small red mark shaped like a hand on her left cheek. This unique mark disappears whenever she blushes. Many of Georgiana’s male admirers are taken by it, with several stating they would risk their lives just for a chance to kiss it. A few women feel the mark detracts from Georgiana’s beauty, but the narrator dismisses this as nonsense.
Aylmer becomes obsessed with the birthmark, viewing it as a symbol of mortality and sin, it soon overtakes Georgiana’s beauty in his mind, consuming all his thoughts. One night, he shares a dream he had, where he spoke about removing her heart to banish the pigmentation. He even envisioned himself using a knife to remove the mark, slicing so deep that he reached his wife’s heart, which he removed. Upon hearing this, Georgiana agrees to risk her life to have the birthmark removed. Aylmer, thrilled, concurs with her decision, expressing complete confidence in his abilities, even likening himself to the mythical Pygmalion. After this profound conversation, he tenderly kisses her unblemished cheek, and together they move to the lofts where he keeps his research lab. His previous work had led him to make monumental discoveries about volcanoes, fountains, mines, and other natural wonders. Now he resolves to resume his investigation into the mystery of life.
As the couple enters the lab, Aylmer shudders at the sight of Georgiana and she passes out. Aminadab, Aylmer’s odd accomplice, comes to the rescue. He confesses that he would not remove the skin hue if Georgiana were his loved one. Georgiana wakes up in sweet-smelling rooms that have been immaculately prepared for her. Aylmer comforts her with some of his unmistakably secretive signs: “vaporous figures, highly inadequate thoughts, and kinds of unsubstantial perfection.” He shows her moving scenes that mirror reality. He then presents her a rapidly blooming flower that wilts upon her touch. Aylmer attempts to make a portrait of her using a metal plate, but upon seeing the depicted hand, discards it into acid. Aylmer enlightens Georgiana about theoretical science between trials. He considers the possibility of converting base metal into gold and creating a potion for eternal life, but shares his understanding that it would be wrong. He disappears for days and upon return, introduces Georgiana to his cupboard of wonders. Among these wonders is a vial containing an enchanting perfume and a deadly poison that could kill immediately or over an extended period of time, depending on the dosage.
Georgiana appears horrified, but Aylmer insists the poison is necessary under certain circumstances. He shows her a remedy capable of removing imperfections, but argues that her skin pigmentation requires a deeper cure. Georgiana suspects that Aylmer has been modifying her meals or infusing something in her atmosphere, as her body begins to feel odd. She delves into the scientific literature in his library and studies his personal experimental records, only to discover that his results fall short of his initial goals. Nevertheless, the records exult her admiration for him. Aylmer finds her weeping over his records and although his words are comforting, his expression tells of anger. She serenades him, lifting his spirits. A couple of hours later, she visits him in the lab only to be reprimanded for her intrusion and commanded to leave the premises.
She holds firm and insists that he ought to trust her and not attempt to conceal his fear. She promises to drink whatever he offers her. Touched, Aylmer confesses that the mark permeates deep into her body, and its removal will be perilous. In her room, Georgiana ponders how unfortunate it is that Aylmer cannot love her as she truly is, opting instead to create his ideal version of her. He presents her with a concoction he claims is infallible and demonstrates its effectiveness by purging a geranium of its blemishes. She consumes the liquid and falls asleep. Aylmer watches her with tenderness but also as though witnessing a scientific experiment unfold. Gradually, her skin color fades. Aminadab laughs. Georgiana awakens, catches sight of herself in the mirror, and tells Aylmer not to feel guilty for removing “the best the earth could offer.” Then, she perishes. The moral of the story is that Georgiana loses herself in her husband’s idealized perception of her, eventually despising her own appearance because of his inability to appreciate her natural beauty—the very mark he had married her with. “
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