Tag Archives: short story

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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“The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” by Edgar Allan Poe

HansPfaall

This is a cool short story by Poe that I would place in the science fiction genre. It’s the story of a man who decides to travel to the moon by means of hot air balloon. The bulk of the story is written as an epistle, a letter from Pfaall that was delivered to the city leaders in Rotterdam. But the genius of this story is that Poe also incorporates a satirical critique of the intellectual bourgeoisie as well as some great symbolism regarding the subconscious mind.

The first and most obvious clue that Poe is poking fun at the bourgeoisie is the names of the characters; for example, burgomaster Mynheer Superbus Von Underduk and Professor Rubadub. And then, at the beginning of his letter, Pfaall compares his trade of mending bellows (which are used to blow hot air in a forge) with the “hot air” emitted by the self-important politicians and business-persons of that time.

It is well known to most of my fellow-citizens, that for a period of forty years I continued to occupy the little square brick building, at the head of an alley called Sauerkraut, in which I resided until my disappearance. My ancestors have also resided therein time out of mind—they, as well as myself, steadily following the lucrative profession of mending of bellows;

There are many passages where Poe incorporates writing that comes across as very scientific. I cannot attest to the accuracy of the information, but it is presented in a very methodical and technical manner which aids the reader in suspending belief.

The gas to be formed from these latter materials is a gas never yet generated by any other person than myself—or at least never applied to this purpose. I can only venture to say here, that it is a constituent of azote, so long considered irreducible, and that its density is about 37.4 times less than that of hydrogen. It is tasteless, but not odorless; burns, when pure, with a greenish flame; and is instantaneously fatal to animal life.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this story is the symbolism depicting a shift in consciousness. The moon is a symbol of dreams, the imagination, lunacy, and so forth. So after Pfaall initially takes off, he experiences an abrupt shift in his consciousness.

I gasped convulsively for breath—a shudder resembling a fit of the ague agitated every nerve and muscle in my frame—I felt my eyes starting from their sockets—a horrible nausea overwhelmed me—and at length I lost all consciousness in a swoon.

As he continues his ascent, he passes through a cloud, which represents his entering into the realm of the subconscious, where lightning symbolizes flashes of imagination and insight while he gazes deep into the hidden and mystical regions of the psyche.

At twenty minutes before seven, the balloon entered a long series of dense cloud, which put me to great trouble, by damaging my condensing apparatus, and wetting me to the skin. This was, to be sure, a singular rencontre, for I had not believed it possible that a cloud of this nature could be sustained at so great an elevation. I thought it best, however, to throw out two five-pound pieces of ballast, reserving still a weight of one hundred and sixty-five pounds. Upon so doing, I soon rose above the difficulty, and perceived immediately, that I had obtained a great increase in my rate of ascent. In a few seconds after my leaving the cloud, a flash of vivid lightning shot from one end of it to the other, and caused it to kindle up, throughout its vast extent, like a mass of ignited charcoal. This, it must be remembered, was in the broad light of day. No fancy may picture the sublimity which might have been exhibited by a similar phenomenon taking place amid the darkness of the night. Hell itself might then have found a fitting image. Even as it was, my hair stood on end, while I gazed afar down within the yawning abysses, letting imagination descend, and stalk about in the strange vaulted halls, and ruddy gulfs, and red ghastly chasms of the hideous and unfathomable fire.

While this may not be Poe’s best work, and at times it plods along rather slowly, it is certainly worth reading. There are some interesting passages and moments of brilliance which makes it worthwhile.

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“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

This falls into the category of classic Poe stories. I’ve read it several times, but it had been quite a few years since I last read it. Reading it this time, I discovered some interesting things.

The story opens with juxtaposition between the common and the supernatural. This sets a tension between the two views of reality: the actual and the perceived.

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

The next thing that struck me was the name of the black cat: Pluto. Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld who is also a judge of the dead. This is important since the narration is presented as a confession for the narrator’s sins.

Pluto — this was the cat’s name — was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.

The narrator describes his slip into alcoholism. This leads to a degradation of character until he reaches the point where he is fascinated with engaging in evil for evil’s sake. He essentially revels in doing that which he knows is wrong. This is the ultimate manifestation of sin, rebelling against what is good in spite of knowing better. It is intent that constitutes an evil or sinful act.

And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart — one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself — to offer violence to its own nature — to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only

After first gouging the cat’s eye and then later hanging it in dual acts of cruelty, the narrator gets another cat to try to ease his guilt. The new cat only serves as a reminder of his cruel acts and it is implied that the animal is the resurrected version of the first cat. As his perception of the animal shifts, he sees the animal differently, as the second cat becomes a symbol of judgment for his actions.

This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil — and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own — yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own — that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimæras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees — degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful — it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name — and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared — it was now, I say, the image of a hideous — of a ghastly thing — of the GALLOWS! — oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime — of Agony and of Death!

He then attempts to kill the resurrected cat with an axe, his wife attempts to stop him. He then turns on her and in a drunken rage, kills her with the axe. He seals the body in a wall in the basement and is content that the cat is gone.

The ending is a masterpiece in both horror and short fiction. In an act of hubris, while the authorities are investigating the wife’s disappearance, the narrator taps on the wall where his dead wife is entombed, which solicits a screeching howl from within. The officers open the wall to uncover the god of the underworld sitting in macabre judgment.

Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!

This is a great piece about morality and can be interpreted in an number of ways: as a treatise against alcohol abuse; as a piece addressing animal abuse; as a statement against domestic violence; or as a warning against hubris or engaging in cruel behavior for the sake of folly. The story works on so many levels for me, and of course, it is perfect to read during the Halloween season.

Cheers!

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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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“The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft

ColourOutOfSpace

There is so much that could be said about this story, I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose I could start by saying it’s one of the best works of psychological/sci-fi/horror fiction I have ever read. And honestly, the story transcends all these genres. It’s… amazing.

The story was written in 1927 and is set in Arkham, a fictional New England city featured in other Lovecraft tales. In this tale, a meteor crashes and some strange organism or force infects the surrounding land, causing a slow decay. There is a light of indescribable color associated with the other-worldly thing and this light is what affects the surrounding plants, animals, and humans.

The most obvious interpretation of this story is that it predicts the negative effects of radiation or toxic chemicals poisoning the environment. This is certainly a valid interpretation and easily supported by the text.

It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid into the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim.

The next thing about this story that really struck me was the description of the infected plants and their strangeness. As I read it, I had the impression that I was reading an account of someone who had taken hallucinogens. Although this piece predates Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD, there were other hallucinogenic substances that Lovecraft could have acquired. Anyway, this next passage could certainly be the description of one who is under the influence of psychotropic substances.

All the orchard trees blossomed forth in strange colours, and through the stony soil of the yard and the adjacent pasturage there sprang up a bizarre growth which only a botanist could connect with the proper flora of the region. No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth. The Dutchman’s breeches became a thing of sinister menace, and the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion. Ammi and the Gardeners thought that most of the colours had a sort of haunting familiarity, and decided that they reminded one of the brittle globule in the meteor.

I have read that the effects of hallucinogenic drugs are similar to the visions some schizophrenics experience. When one of the character in the story who had been exposed to the to the luminosity slips into insanity, I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It happened in June, about the anniversary of the meteor’s fall, and the poor woman screamed about things in the air which she could not describe. In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds. Something was taken away—she was being drained of something—something was fastening itself on her that ought not to be—someone must make it keep off—nothing was ever still in the night—the walls and windows shifted. Nahum did not send her to the county asylum, but let her wander about the house as long as she was harmless to herself and others.

There is a very powerful symbol that appears in this tale: the well. I interpret the well as a symbol for the passage to the deeper, primordial areas of the psyche. This region of the unconscious mind is often associated with mystical visions, creativity, and so forth. In this story, there is something lurking in the well, something that is the cause of the strange luminosity. I see this as representative of a dark aspect of our primordial minds, which lurks below the surface of our waking consciousness, always threatening to surge upward and overwhelm our fragile state of awareness.

At one point, someone goes down into the well to search for the remains of missing people. He uses a stick to poke around the bottom. This is symbolic of stirring up the primordial ooze of our subconscious, trying to plumb the depths but unable to fathom how deep our psyches go.

No one replied, but the man who had been in the well gave a hint that his long pole must have stirred up something intangible. “It was awful,” he added. “There was no bottom at all. Just ooze and bubbles and the feeling of something lurking under there.”

In the end, no one is able to identify the “colour out of space,” because it exists beyond the realm of our comprehension. Whether you want to interpret this as coming from our subconscious or from a different dimension of existence, it is ultimately the same. We can only understand that which exists within our realm of ordinary perception. When we glimpse the other realms, whether through drugs, meditation, or mental illness, we are faced with something that is beyond our ability to express and which can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms where mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

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“Dagon” by H.P. Lovecraft: The Surfacing of the Subconscious Mind

DagonA while back I picked up an anthology of stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Last night, I decided to read one before going to sleep. I opted for Dagon, only because it was short and I was already a little tired. Unfortunately, it took me a little while to fall asleep after I finished reading the tale.

The story is about a man who is addicted to morphine and considering suicide because he is no longer able to deal with the memories of something he experienced as a sailor years back. He was adrift and came to a place where the ocean floor had risen to the surface and exposed dark and hideous things, among them a giant creature from the depths. These images haunted him since.

I immediately interpreted this story as an allegory for the dark recesses of the subconscious mind surfacing and driving a person into the realm of insanity. The boat on which he was adrift represents his mind in a state of isolation as he drifts through reality, until he reaches the point where the dark depths of his subconscious mind are forced to the surface, exposing the horrors that lay hidden below.

Though one might well imagine that my first sensation would be of wonder at so prodigious and unexpected a transformation of scenery, I was in reality more horrified than astonished; for there was in the air and in the rotting soil a sinister quality that chilled me to the core. The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity.

As the protagonist recounts his tale, he recalls wandering the desolation until he comes to an obelisk engraved with carvings of strange fish-like creatures. He makes the connection that these creatures are symbolic of early man, possibly from the stage where life emerged from the ocean. These symbols, then, represent the earliest stages of our subconscious minds that are linked to our prehistoric selves which crawled from the ocean’s slime.

I think these things were supposed to depict men–at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage to some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well. Of their faces and forms I date not speak in detail; for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint.

He then questions whether everything he experienced was just fantasy, but concludes that it was real. He recognizes that within each human lies a dark subconscious, which at any moment may surface. Although he tries to bury this part of him through the use of drugs, he is unable to keep the dark side of himself from surfacing again, which drives him to the point where he sees suicide as the only escape.

Often I ask myself if it could not all have been a pure phantasm–a mere freak of fever as I lay sun-stricken and raving in the open boat after my escape from the German man-of-war. This I ask myself, but ever does there come before me a hideously vivid vision in reply. I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind–of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.

It’s a pretty dark vision of the future of humanity and one that has haunted my thoughts on occasion. It is not difficult to envision a world where our baser instincts gain control over our reason, resulting in the collapse of humanity. I think the key, though, is to acknowledge that part of ourselves and be aware of it. It’s only through awareness and acceptance that we keep the mire below the surface and continue to progress as a society.

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“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

YoungGoodmanBrownI heard that this month is National Short Story month, or something like that, so I decided to reread one of my all-time favorite short stories: “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love a good horror story and this one is about as good as it gets without having to rely on gore. In addition, there are a lot of thought-provoking ideas woven into the story, which makes it all the more interesting to read.

The story takes place in old Salem, where Goodman Brown takes leave of his wife, Faith, to venture into the forest at night for some unstated work that must be done on this specific night between dusk and dawn. On his journey he meets the devil and follows him to a ceremony, possibly a black mass or a witches sabbat, and there he witnesses all the upstanding citizens from his town, including church elders, participating in the dark ritual. He also meets his wife Faith, but before he takes the plunge into sin, he looks upward and prays for the strength to resist the evil one, and awakens unsure whether it was all real or a dream. He then lives the rest of his life as a cynic, distrusting the hypocrisy that he sees around him.

There is so much that I could write about this story, but I’ll try to keep it short. First, I’d like to talk about Faith. Goodman Brown’s wife symbolizes Brown’s own faith and virtue. But his faith is lost when he realizes that all people are essentially evil. At the ceremony, the devil states: “Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness.”

One of my favorite metaphors which is prevalent in American literature is wilderness, representing the dark side of the human soul. This tale takes place in the wilderness, down “a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind.” Goodman Brown plunges into the wilderness, into the darkest corners of his own being, with complete abandon: “The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil.”

In the end he discovers that evil resides within himself, just as it resides within every hypocrite he sees on the streets in his village. He has lost his Faith and no longer finds solace in her bosom. He dies miserably, and “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”

There is not much that is cheerful in this story. It is dark all the way through and ends in cynicism. That said, it is such a great story and it forces one to look around and question notions of morality. Even if this is not the type of story you generally read, I highly recommend it. Click here to read it online.

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