"Hills Like White Elephants" and "A New England Nun"
Ernest Hemingway's short story "Hills Like White Elephants" follows two conflicted and ambiguous characters - Jig and the American. Though their primary struggle and conflict is never explicitly mentioned, it is heavily implied that these two characters were or are in a relationship, Jig is pregnant, and the American wishes for her to have an abortion. In Eleanor Wilkins Freeman's "A New England Nun," a similarly contentious relationship is shown, between the happily-established Louisa and the selfish, disruptive Joe, who comes into her life because of a promise which nearly tears both of their lives apart. Both stories feature conflict-ridden relationships that are extremely taxing on both parties, and demonstrate the need to communicate about dissatisfying aspects of their lives together.
In Hemingway's story, the silent treatment Jig gives the American and the passive but pleading requests made by the American are indicative of their personalities, as well as other context clues strewn throughout the short story. The reticence for both characters to talk about the issue at hand shows the often delicate nature of relationships when unexpected but traumatically preventable circumstances face them. The short story itself is a treatise on the importance of communication in a relationship, as well as the powerlessness men and women often feel in communicating with each other.
In Freeman's story, an arranged marriage proves to be disastrous for both Louisa and Joe Dagget. Louisa, on one hand, has her own particular routine and her life set up exactly the way she wants it; with the arrival of Joe, who tracks dirt on the floor and messes with her meticulously arranged apartment (and life). On the other hand, Joe's genuine romance with Lily is disrupted by this arrangement to marry, which neither party wants. Therefore, by the end of the story they make the logical choice to break off the arranged marriage so that they can both live happily. Like Jig and the American, the two have irreconcilable differences and understandable motivations for making this difficult decision.
The American is portrayed as a young man, masculine but aware of his problems, wanting to run away from the responsibility of the child but not on her. In the conversation, it is the American who wants to get the abortion - it is only after Jig reluctantly agrees to the abortion that he begins to back off and state that "I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you" (Hemingway, 1927). The American himself is always confident, focused, always feeling as though he has the reasonable, logical opinion. While this allows him to stay practical and quick on his feet, it makes him frustrated when he has to deal with Jig's seeming abundance of emotion. This issue in particular confuses him, and so he reacts to it by shutting down and pretending to not care whether or not she gets an abortion. At the end of the story, he asks, "Do you feel better?" (Hemingway, 1927). In this way, he feels like the issue of the baby, and of the abortion, was just a conversation topic, and anxiety that she needs to 'let out,' and not a real concern that they must both commit themselves to. He feels trapped just like Joe; it is clear to him that Louisa's tidiness was repellant to him, and Joe could not live that way. Furthermore, he fell in love with Lily, but did not want to back down from his promise. Therefore, he intended to go through with the marriage until Louisa gracefully let him off the hook.
Jig, on the other hand, is the quintessential wallflower - she is indecisive, weak-willed, easily coerced, and unwilling to make strong decisions for herself. Jig always tries to communicate in a way that will ingratiate herself to others, especially the American - she tells jokes and shares her emotions to get him to open up. However, any time she tries to start a new conversation, the American shuts it down with a cursory, short sentence that cuts it off. Jig's mindset is always to talk about her feelings and emotions, as well as her dreams of what life should be. The American contrasts this with his own focus on the tangible, the concrete and the provable - these are attempts to control the conversation and Jig as well. These conversational tactics, among others, help to strongly establish the different personalities and desires that they have. Louisa, on the other hand, is somewhat stronger; she is soft-spoken but adores her independence; she is the "uncloistered nun," but happily so - she gives up a relationship to have her autonomy and live her life the way she likes it (Freeman, 1891).
In the case of Freeman's work, it is not a case of a couple that is has already made mistakes together and is wearing down; this particular partnership is one that was made on the condition of distance, and has not even really started yet. When Louisa made the promise to Joe, she was extremely young, and their relationship had not truly been tested; here, they are attempting to follow through on very traditional marriage customs that they feel more or less committed to: "They were to be married in a month, after a singular courtship which had lasted for a matter of fifteen years. For fourteen out of the fifteen years the two had not once seen each other, and they bad seldom exchanged letters" (Freeman).
However, in the interim Louisa had gotten so used to being alone and having her own life set up just the way she liked it: "Her life, especially for the last seven years, had been full of a pleasant peace, she had never felt discontented nor impatient over her lover's absence" (Freeman). In this way, the long-held promise of their relationship could not hold up to the independent paradise she had set up for herself, which is further complicated when he actually returns and neither of them can stand it. The story, in this way, reflects the unrealistic nature of such long courtships, and notes the disastrous nature of long-distance relationships - sometimes people get too used to being without that other person.
The actual conflicts these couples have are very difficult to talk about, making solving them quite hard to accomplish. The American and Jig are both fully aware that this is a controversial issue they are discussing, and as a result speak about it in hushed tones, avoiding the actual word "abortion" since they are both so uncomfortable with it. The American simply wants it to be done and over with, while Jig does not know what to do whatsoever, which seems to confuse and frustrate the American all the more. Louisa and Joe similarly refuse to talk about it; distractions galore keep them from actually discussing the issue, until she learns about Joe and Lily's affair. They were both as stubborn about their relationship as Jig and the American were about the abortion; this singular issue threatens to destroy the happiness of each of these couples, and Louisa and Joe are the only ones to come out relatively unscathed and happy.
In conclusion, these two short stories show us two couples who are fundamentally incompatible, facing an issue that virtually guarantees to rip them apart. One couple discusses whether or not to have an abortion, and the other stubbornly tries to follow through with an arranged marriage that would clearly make them unhappy. Discussing these problems is difficult for them, due to their varying issues and personality flaws. Unlike Hemingway's couple, who are clearly driving themselves apart and will likely go through a protracted and miserable breakup, Louisa and Joe manage to free themselves of their burden and both separately live happy lives. This lack of communication about a serious issue, either due to masculine stubbornness or feminine indecisiveness, is what cuts to the heart of the message of these stories: People must open up and listen to each other if they are going to relate; Louisa and Jim decide to break off their relationship to save their happy lives, while Jig and the American continue the downward spiral of their relationship, tumbling towards its inevitable demise.
Freeman, M.E.W. (1891)."A New England Nun." A New England Nun and Other Stories.
Hemingway, E. (1927). "Hills Like White Elephants." Men Without Women.