The national debate over abortion usually centers on the legal and political controversies.
But it is in the human heart where the greatest conflicts over abortion arise, both within itself and in its relationship with others.
These conflicts create a void, an absence of love, which severs the moral, emotional, and psychological ties connecting human beings to one another including their unborn children. Alienation, estrangement, guilt, a sense of loss, and loneliness are the consequence. In this very personal, private realm, literature often provides greater illumination than polemics.
One of the most profound descriptions of this spiritual desolation is presented in Ernest Hemingway’s searing short story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which abortion is never mentioned explicitly.
This story originally appeared in Hemingway’s 1927 collection, Men Without Women, fourteen stories representing some of his earliest and most compelling writing. Dorothy Parker, who reviewed this volume in the New Yorker, said that it showed Hemingway’s influence to be “dangerous” in that “the simplest thing he does looks so easy to do. But look at the boys who try to do it.”
This collection also contained “The Killers,” which was translated to the screen in director Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film noir improvisation starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.
“Hills Like White Elephants” opens with a man, described as an American, and a “girl” sitting just outside a bar at a train station somewhere between Barcelona and Madrid. Within view are the hills across the Ebro River valley which, according to the narrator, “were long and white.”
At the outset the conversation between the two characters is maddeningly banal, focusing on their drinks and the heat. The girl, looking at the hills, which were white in the sun, the country brown and dry, says, “They look like white elephants.”
The American says he never saw one to which the girl replies, “No, you wouldn’t have.”
“I might have,” says the man. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”
The girl returns to her concerns: the next round of drinks, whether to take them with water, and how they tasted. At this point the conversation becomes testy when the girl says that everything taste likes licorice. The man tells her to cut it out, and she retorts that “You started it! I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”
“Well, let’s try and have a fine time,” says the American.
They agree that the girl’s observation that the hills looked like white elephants was “bright.” After a bit more, back and forth, about the hills and drinks, the conversation takes an abrupt turn:
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“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 afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. 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.”
The girl wonders aloud if they will be all right, be happy, and the man assures her that they will be fine afterward, just like they were before. To the girl’s question as to what makes him think so, he replies, “That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.” He tells her that he knows lots of people that have done it, to which the girl assents, “So have I.”
“And afterward they were all so happy,” she says.
The man, detecting some doubts on the part of his companion, assumes a passive-aggressive posture:
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it is perfectly simple.”
“And you really want to?”
“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”
The man assures her that he will love it, when, in the future, she says things like the hills looking like white elephants; but he can’t think about that when he gets worried.
When the girl asks if he will stop worrying after she does it, he indicates he won’t worry because “it’s perfectly simple.” In response to her protest that she does not care about herself, he says that he cares about her. Again, he tries to soothe her concerns: “I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”
The conversation swerves sharply as the girl claims, “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”
They argue. Yes, they can have everything. No, they can’t. They can go everywhere. No, it isn’t ours any more. “And once they take it away, you never get it back,” says the girl. Again, the man tells the girl that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do.
“Can’t we stop talking?” says the girl. After more assurances from the man that he doesn’t want anyone else, that it’s perfectly simple, and that he would do anything for her, the girl pleads, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” When he tries, once more, to comfort her (“I don’t care anything about it.”), she responds, “I’ll scream.”
With the train coming in five minutes, the dialogue begins to wind down, returning to the routine concerns of gathering up the luggage, finishing two more beers brought by the barmaid who “smiled brightly at the woman, to thank her.”
The conclusion of the story finds the couple reverting, again, to the quotidian banter of a troubled relationship:
“Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”
Paul Johnson has described Hemingway as “a writer of profound originality” practicing brevity, economy, simplicity, using strong verbs, short sentences, nothing superfluous or for effect. All of these traits are present in “Hills Like White Elephants” as it brutally, honestly, and sadly depicts the crisis of a woman and a man considering the possibility of destroying their unborn child.
Hemingway had no use for his own mother (always referring to her as “that bitch”), families, or religion. But his integrity as an artist did not fail him in portraying the emotional and psychic wreckage inherent in the act of abortion. Whatever Hemingway’s personal view of the matter, his short story rings true while casting a dark shadow over it.
An example of Hemingway’s ruthless honesty, is his unsparing portrayal of abortion as being the result of a male imperative for convenience and control, disguised as solicitude for the girl. Clearly, it is the man who is encouraging the girl to have the abortion in the face of her very evident misgivings. This may just be the way of a heartless world in the author’s grim view.
“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale,” said D. H. Lawrence. This advice is well taken in the case of Ernest Hemingway and his bleak tale, “Hills Like White Elephants.”