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The phrase “there’s an elephant in the room” is used when, in a social group, there is a major issue—an elephant—that is on everyone’s minds, and yet nobody will discuss it until someone becomes the first to acknowledge it. Hemmingway’s iceberg principle is fitting for this concept as, under his principle, the immense mass of the iceberg is hidden, and must be acknowledged and found to truly gain an understanding of the story. Hemmingway, in his story “Hills Like White Elephants”, depicts the American’s manipulation of Jig, as well as Jig’s inner conflict and how it helped her to block out the American, by using a great amount of symbolism without overtly stating the subject of the conflict, Jig’s pregnancy and the American’s desire for Jig to have an abortion.
When Hemmingway was 18 and volunteering in the Red Cross during World War I, he was injured by shrapnel from some mortar fire. The experience at first had him traumatized until he “figured out that nothing could happen to me that had not happened to all men before me.” When he was recovering, he fell for an American Red Cross nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, but they soon separated and in 1921, he married Hadley Richardson, who became the first of his four wives. “Hills Like White Elephants”, which was published in the same year of Hemingway’s divorce–1927, depicts an empty relationship, based on little more than trivial physical pleasure, with the man attempting to manipulate Jig toward a decision that would keep her under his control.
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As a part of Jig’s subjection to the American, he craftily suggests her having the “simple operation” during their time at the station. The American subtlety manipulates Jig toward his desired outcome of not becoming parents to this unborn child. Although not specifically stated, it is likely given the American’s apparent manipulative skill and Jig’s naivety that the American is significantly older than Jig, and therefore has more life experience and the upper hand regarding manipulation. The American’s stance on the issue of the operation is one of the few aspects of Hemmingway’s story that is not shrouded in symbolism; for example, on page 3, he says “I think it’s the best thing to do” (Hemmingway). Besides his outright saying his stance, the American’s manipulations are very clear from an outside perspective. On page 2, he describes the operation saying “They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural” (Hemmingway), and he repeatedly hints at the advantages and the “simplicity” of the operation while never seriously acknowledging the option of not performing the operation, which when the nature of their relationship is understood, is shown to be an abortion.
Furthermore, the nature of the couple’s relationship is shown to be physical and shallow. They drink a lot of alcohol at the station (of note, at the time that Hemmingway wrote the story, it was not widely known that alcohol would cause harm to a baby during pregnancy), they engage in fruitless small talk about nothing, and their bags had labels from all of the hotels at which they had stayed. The probable outcome of such a reckless relationship is a pregnancy, and that is the hidden subject of the conversation at the station and the operation. Jig’s pregnancy created a rift between the desires of Jig and those of the American, which the American would like to eliminate by eliminating the pregnancy. The American’s attitude toward the child is hinted at in the very title of the story, “Hills Like White Elephants”. When Jig looks out on the landscape, she comments that the hills “look like white elephants” (Hemmingway, 1). A white elephant is a possession or object that, while considered desirable, entails a great cost which is not proportional to the benefits. This is how the American views the pregnancy and is part of why he wishes for Jig to terminate it.
Contrary to the American’s wishes, Jig does not wish to end the pregnancy; however, this desire to have the child conflicts with her desire for the American to be happy with her, and it is this inner conflict that ultimately frees her from the American’s manipulation. Jig’s desire for the American’s happiness is stated multiple times throughout the story, but she does not make any similar statements in the final phase of the conversation. Just before that point, she looks out at the landscape, first observing “fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro” (Hemmingway, 3), and a short time later observing “the dry side of the valley” (Hemmingway, 3). These two observations symbolize her two options, to have the baby and experience the fruits of her decision, or to proceed with the operation and potentially miss out on the joys of parentage forever, and the observation helps her to prioritize her own happiness over the happiness of the manipulative American. At the conclusion of their conversation, she tells the American to “please please please please please please please stop talking?”. She had made up her mind to keep the baby and wished for the American to end his governance over her. The final line of the story, “’I feel fine.’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’” (Hemmingway, 4), is perhaps the most literal line in the story. Jig is at peace with her decision and no medical operation is required for her to be happy. She realizes, contrary to the American’s perspective, that the happiness and joy that the baby would bring her, would greatly outweigh the burden and cost of raising their unborn child.
The elephant in the room, Jig’s pregnancy, may have been a white elephant in the eyes of the American, but for Jig, it represented a source of great joy later in her life. By skillfully utilizing his iceberg principle and symbolism, Hemmingway simultaneously showed the pregnancy as a source of conflict, and as a catalyst for Jig’s future happiness. After Jig addressed the “elephant in the room”, she realized that her feelings and the American’s feelings toward the baby were unreconcilable; and through that revelation, she freed herself from the American’s subtle subjugation.
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