Tag Archives: Hemingway

Symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

Over the years, I’ve read Hemingway’s classic short story several times, each time in awe of how he masterfully uses conversation to drive the narrative. The subtlety of the text allows the man and woman to dance around the topic of abortion, without ever mentioning the proverbial elephant in the room.

For years, I have seen the hills like white elephants as a symbol for a pregnant woman’s body, while also representing that elephant in the room which the couple does not want to mention out loud. But recently, I realized there is a third level of symbolism that I had not been aware of.

During the past holiday season, I went to a holiday gathering that has a white elephant gift exchange. This prompted me to wonder why these gift exchange events were named after white elephants. A quick online search provided the answer.

The term white elephant refers to an extravagant but ineffectual gift that cannot be easily disposed of, based on the legend of the King of Siam giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs. While the first use of this term remains a matter of contention among historians, one theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into the popular lexicon through his frequent social gatherings as early as 1828.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of Hemingway’s story. The pregnancy is a gift, albeit one that was not actually wanted and one that “cannot be easily disposed of.” Despite the talk of it just being a simple operation, it really was not that simple. In addition to the emotional and psychological considerations, the procedure was risky in 1927 when the story was written.

I love uncovering new layers of symbolism in literature. It is why I reread certain pieces, because each time I do, I bring more knowledge and life experience to the story. And who knows, maybe next time I read this masterpiece in short fiction, I will discover yet another layer of meaning.

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“In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway

This story was published in Hemingway’s second book of short stories: Men Without Women. It’s a first-person narrative about an American soldier in Italy who is undergoing out-patient treatment at a hospital for war injuries. He feels alone and an outsider in the country, like he doesn’t really belong there and he is not wanted either.

The protagonist had received medals as a result of his injuries. I confess, having never served in the military, I felt that earning a medal as a result of combat injury was a sign of valor. The narrator points out, though, that this is not really the case at all.

I was a friend, but I was never really one of them after they had read the citations, because it had been different with them and they had done very different things to get their medals. I had been wounded, it was true; but we all know that being wounded, after all, was really an accident. I was never ashamed of the ribbons, though, and sometimes, after cocktail hour, I would imagine myself having done all the things they had done to get their medals; but walking home at night through the empty streets with the cold wind and the shops closed, trying to keep near the street lights, I knew I would never have done such things, and I was very much afraid to die, and often lay in bed at night by myself, afraid to die and wondering how I would be when I went back to the front again.

He then has a discussion with a major who is also receiving treatment. It is a short dialog regarding marriage where the major stresses that a man should never marry.

“Why must not a man marry?”

“He cannot marry. He cannot marry,” he said angrily. “If he is to lose everything, he should not place himself in a position to lose that. He should not place himself in a position to lose. He should find things he cannot lose.”

As I read this, I considered what it is that a man may lose by getting married. Some of the possibilities I came up with were a man’s freedom, his vitality, and his sense of adventure; basically, what Hemingway would consider manliness. But it is then revealed that the major had a young wife who had recently died suddenly.

The doctor told me that the major’s wife, who was very young, and whom he had not married until he was definitely invalided out of the war, had died of pneumonia. She had been sick only a few days. No one expected her to die.

Essentially, it seems that the major had lost everything, except his will to continue living, because his wife has kindled that desire in him. But then upon her death, it appears that he had also lost that. Had he never married, he would have maintained the hope that one day he might fall in love, but having had his love torn from him, he now has nothing left. He has truly lost everything.

Hemingway was incredibly skilled at creating a powerful and moving story using very few words. This certainly falls into that category. It’s definitely worth reading.

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Traveling in England and France

So, I know what you’ve been thinking: “It’s been a long time since Jeff posted.” Well, that’s because I was traveling in England and France with my family. I have to say, I had an amazing time. Now, I could write about my travels, but this is Stuff Jeff Reads, not Places Jeff Visits. That said, I did poke around in some interesting bookstores and picked up a couple books.

The first bookstore I visited was The Tiny Book Store in Rye, which is in southern England. Rye is a beautiful old city and was home to Henry James. Going there is like stepping into a different century. Here is a picture I snapped in the cemetery.

RyeCemetery

Anyway, while perusing the Tiny Book Store, I came across an old, hardcover copy of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Since I had never read this before and I was in James’ hometown, I figured I would buy it. It has now taken its place in my stack of books waiting eagerly to be read.

My other book purchase was at the famous Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.

Image: Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

This was one of the most amazing bookstores I have ever visited. This bookstore has a rich history and served as a central gathering point for writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound. In addition, James Joyce used the bookstore as an office. While I was weaving my way through the crooked aisles of books, I chanced upon Turning Back the Clock, a book by Umberto Eco which I had never heard of before. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It’s now keeping Turn of the Screw company atop my dresser.

TurningBackTheClock

So, while I have your attention, I thought it would be a good time to give you a heads-up on what I am planning for the near future. I mentioned the connection between James Joyce and the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. Well, I’ve decided to reread Ulysses, beginning in a couple weeks. I plan on going slowly and posting my thoughts after each chapter. If you are interested in reading (or rereading) what is arguably the greatest modernist novel ever written, you are welcome to do so along with me. I’ll be posting when I begin the book, for those who wish to follow along.

Until then, happy reading!!

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“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway

OldManAndSeaI read this book a long time ago, so I decided to read it again. Since I had originally read it as a kid, I suspected it would take on a different meaning reading it as an adult.

To start with, I really related to the old man. That’s not surprising, especially since I am not young anymore. Like the old man, I find myself waking early every day, usually around 4:30 or 5:00 am. I enjoy the quiet time, which I use to read, to write in my journal, or to meditate. But maybe, on some deeper level, it is my subconscious attempt at prolonging my days.

“Age is my alarm clock,” the old man said. “Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”

After 84 days without catching a fish, the old man sets out alone in search of the “big fish,” which for me is a symbol of one’s elusive life-long dream. We all have our big fish, that one thing we long to achieve before we die, and as we get older and closer to death, catching that fish becomes more urgent.

That school had gotten away from me, he thought. They are moving too fast and too far. But perhaps I will pick up a stray and perhaps my big fish is around them. My big fish must be somewhere.

In addition to the fish symbolizing the old man’s dream, the fish also symbolizes Christ. There is a strange paragraph where the old man is praying to the Virgin Mary for the death of the fish, which I found to be very ironic.

“Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Then he added, “Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.”

Later on in the book, there is another interesting passage where the old man contemplates how many people the fish will feed and whether those people are worthy to eat of his flesh. It made me think of the eating of the great fish as communion, but that those who are stained with sin are not worthy to eat the body of Christ.

How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.

As the old man tries to bring the great fish back to shore, the sharks begin their attack, tearing away at the old man’s dream as he tries desperately to fight them off, but to no avail. His dream is torn from him and all that remains are the bones of what was his greatest achievement. He then lies down, alone in his shack, and one gets the impression that he is ready to let go and die, that he had his opportunity to attain his dream but it was ripped from him at the very end. And now he must face the inevitable, alone.

No one should be alone in their old age. But it is unavoidable.

I have to say that reading this book at this stage in my life made me feel a little sad, but not overly so. I feel that most of my dreams have been fulfilled, and for that I am grateful. And while there are still things I would like to do before I die, they are things that would be nice and not things which would cause me regret at not having done them. I guess I am pretty fortunate. I can’t help but wonder about Hemingway, though. This was the last book he published before taking his own life. I suspect there was a big fish in his life that was torn from him by sharks.

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“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

HemingwayAlthough I’ve read Hills Like White Elephants several times, I decided to read it again, just because it’s short and it is such a great story. As I’m sure you know, the story is about a man and a woman discussing the possibility of getting an abortion, which is never overtly stated in the text, but only referred to as a “simple operation.”

The most fascinating aspect of this story for me is how the story unfolds through the dialog, which is extremely difficult to do. When I took Creative Writing in school, I struggled with dialog. Hemingway, though, really captures the feelings of the characters through what is said, and what is not said.

What caught my attention on this reading is the way that each character tries to figure out what the other wants and tries to demonstrate the willingness to go along with the others wishes. It creates a powerful back-and-forth tension, but in the end, nothing is resolved. They are left with the proverbial elephant in the room, which like the hills, obscures what lays ahead beyond the horizon.

There is a great passage where the couple discusses what might happen afterwards:

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’
‘Then what will we do afterwards?’
‘We’ll be fine afterwards. Just like we were before.’
‘What makes you think so?’
‘That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.’

I get the impression here that the two are both desperately trying to lie to themselves, to make each other believe that if they go through with the abortion that things will be the same as they were before. Yet they both know that would not be the case. Whatever decision they make, whether to have the child or to get the “simple operation,” they both know that their lives and their relationship will never be the same.

This is a perfect “slice of life” short story and one I never tire of reading. If it’s been a while since you read it, or if you’ve never read it before, I encourage you to take 5 or 10 minutes to do so.

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Antisemitism in “The Sun Also Rises”

This was my second time reading this book. I read it many years ago as a teenager and remembered very little about the book. In fact, the only thing that I remembered was that it had something to do with bull fighting.

The first thing that I noticed while reading this book was Hemingway’s writing style, particularly the dialogs. For me, this is Hemingway’s strong point as a writer, the way he uses dialog to drive a story and makes that dialog appear fluid and believable. I had the impression I was reading an extended version of “Hills Like White Elephants,” where I had to figure out the parts of the story that were intentionally omitted from the discussions amongst the characters.

The aspect of the story, though, that really struck me was the antisemitism, generally directed toward Robert Cohn but occasionally toward Jews in general. Because Hemingway was such a masterful wordsmith, I couldn’t figure out whether he was expressing his feelings about Jews or  just trying to accurately portray the anti-Jewish sentiment of that time. Regardless, as a modern reader, I found it unsettling, particularly since the tale was set in 1920’s Europe just prior to the rise of Nazism.

The passage that best expresses the antisemitic mentality of the characters is one in which Mike expresses his feelings about Cohn having sex with Brett: “No, listen, Jake. Brett’s gone off with men. But they weren’t ever Jews and they didn’t come and hang around afterwards.” (p. 108) So although Brett is depicted as an “easy” woman who has had many amorous relationships, that does not seem to bother anyone, except when one of those relationships is with a Jew. For some reason, that is crossing a moral line in what is socially acceptable.

Ultimately, this is a very well-written book that earns its place among the “classics” of literature, if for no other reasons than the excellent use of dialog to drive the story and the vivid depictions of Europe in the 1920’s.

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