The philosophy Boethius once said as he reflected on his life while wasting away in a prison cell, “there is no pain so great as the contemplation of former happiness in present sorrow.” This is a universal theme in literature, looking back at a better time from the vantage point of a deplorable condition. This essay explores this theme and secondary literary tools that help achieve the feeling of lost Eden that Hemmingway employs in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”
In some stories, an unwanted change of loss occurs in one instant. Someone could lose a loved one in a dramatic way as happens in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In “Hills Like White Elephants” the changes in gradual, and on-going, and still avoidable when we encounter the man and the woman in the story—the solution to the pregnancy, abortion, is still an option. What this means is that Eden does not need to be lost. At least according to the man’s perspective the solution is still available. The woman however feels like Eden is already lost.
Scholar William Adair sees loss Edens as a common feature of Hemmingway’s work. His essay Ernest Hemmingway And The Poetics of Loss goes through his body of work and points out the pattern. He does not have a harsh opinion of Hemmingway’s endings and refuses to use the word negative to describe them. As his title suggest, he sees Hemmingway not as an author who sees the bad, but rather one who sees the good within the bad. He begins his essay pointing out a common opinion on Hemmingway that he does not agree with. “One of the standard opinions about Hemingway is that he is a writer preeminently concerned with violence and death”(12, Adair). Though Hills Like White Elephants does not display these items out in the ocean, there is an undercurrent of them since an abortion by its nature is an invasion procedure. At the time and even today many would see it as a violent act of destruction. In order to see the beauty though, one must find beauty in nostalgia.
I would argue that much of art is the silver lining. Though it is beyond the scope of this essay to explore what impels people to art, that is something that helps the pain of loss be less.
In saying things will be nice again, the girl implies that things are not nice currently, they once were nice, and there is a hope that they will once again be nice. The operation is to Hemmingway’s couple as to Fitzgerald’s couple was with reuniting to Daisy was to Gatsby. Hemmingway like Fitzgerald causes the reader to contemplate the idea of a happy past in the midst of an unhappy present. This causes one to ask if it is ever possible to regain something temporally lost. Gatsby’s answer to this was of course you can. Fitzgerald leads his readers to oppose Gatsby’s view.
It seems that Hemmingway’s couple on some level acknowledges that the abortion will not lead them back to time of former bliss. The girl says that “we could have everything” only to later correct herself and say “No we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.” Despite the man’s insistence that things will be better she is forced to admit “once they take it away you n ever get it back.” There present condition is then made worse due to the happiness they once had. Getting rid of the baby would be, in the man’s eyes, returning to normal.
In classic Hemmingway style, Hills Like White Elephants gives us an economy of information. However, the implications of the information that it does contain is what is important. From the start of their dialogue Hemmingway creates mood between the man in the woman of an anxious tension. This is caused by the forthcoming abortion that will come with the train. We can compare the emotion to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby at the stage of his life the novel closes with. He is unhappy with the way things are in the present and therefore are attempting to gain that ‘something’ that seems to have been lost in the past. Speaking with regard to the abortion, the girl says, “But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?” The operative word in this sentence is ‘again.’ It is often the case with Hemmingway a simple sentence or word can often carries with it a vast amount of weight.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald were contemporaries, and so while we can look at they’re writing and learn things without a historical context. It is important to realize that the world of their time was somewhat of a lost Eden. The roaring 20s made fortunes and led people to believe that things would only continue to get better. Wars then put an end to these dreams and made people face reality. Hemminway’s “Hills Like White Elephant” encapsulates that same sense of loss as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. No one has physically lost anyone or anything in either story. They have all actually gained, the man and woman potentially will add a child, and Daisy has added a husband and child and Gatsby a fortune. Yet these gains are seen as losses.
When exploring this ideal dream found in American literature, it is important to be acquainted with the philosophical movements taking place at the same time the literature was being written. It is not to say that either had a direct effect on the other, but would be better stated that both reflect the sentiments of the time. The 20th century saw a strong movement into various schools of idealistic thought and also a movement led by William James into pragmatic intelligence. Herbert Wallace Schneider described the philosophical movement of the early 20th century as, “The passage from orthodoxy to idealism.” He saw this as an almost unavoidable transition. (Schneider, 10). These sentiments reflected a social revolution of the times. Prodigious characters such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller were on hand to test the limits of human ability into realms of financial success previously not contemplated by the country’s everyman. They served as living testaments that anything desired was attainable. Henry Ford can be quoted having said, “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t.”
The theme is constant in all three that portray why seeking the attainment of something greater than present circumstance can be necessary for happiness and purpose but also lead to disillusionment when it is not as advertised. It is when the end sought is greater than the capacity of a person to fulfill it that misery results, for when all of a person’s dreams rest on a removed ideal, reality serves as the antagonist of the dreamer. In American literature, the protagonist is often an ideal objective sought in a realistic world.
Gatsby’s “something commensurate to his [humanity’s] capacity for wonder.” (Fitzgerald, 189). Beginning in approximately the 20th century, there was a trend in American culture and as a result literature to explore the human need and capacity to dream for something more, something greater than current circumstance. That “something commensurate” appears necessary for a man’s happiness while at the same time is capable of leading to his downfall and misery. This downfall and misery is seen as a symptom of a change and a return to the former way of life seen as the solution to present unwanted circumstance, a universal theme fleshed out in different ways in Hemmingway’s short story discussed in this essay.
Hemingway, Ernest. Men without women. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1927. Print.
Blau, Joseph L. Men and Movements in American Philsophy. Columbia University: Preentice-Hall, 1952: 302-312.
Adair, William Ernest Hemmingway and the Poetics of Loss. College Literature Vol. 5, No. 1 winter, 1978 pg. 12-23