Relationships between genders and classes

Ernest Hemingway

The author Ernest Hemingway specialized in what is known as naturalistic writing. He tells the reader only the basic information about what is going on in a particular short story or novel. Much is told about the natural settings of the stories, but very little is given about the characters in his stories. Instead, the facts about the people, including their personalities and characteristics, have to be inferred by close readings of the texts in question. In addition to this, Hemingway’s novel and short stories the interactions between characters show the underlying relationships between genders and classes which were present in the society during the time Hemingway was writing. This idea of naturalism both in terms of the landscape and in terms of the interactions of characters can be seen throughout Hemingway’s various writings, including “Hills Like White Elephants,” “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” “The Killers,” and “The End of Something.”

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Ernest Hemingway’s life was filled with adventure; most of the stories that appear in either his short fiction or novels are semi-autobiographical and discuss his own experiences, including his war stories. Hemingway began as a journalist and an ambulance driver during World War I. In 1918, at the age of 19, Hemingway was seriously injured and honorably discharged (Oliver 140). He would use his experiences in the war to write his first novel, A Farewell to Arms. This would prove the pattern of the rest of his life. He traveled internationally and covered everything from the “Lost Generation” of expatriates living in France, bullfights of Madrid, the Spanish Civil War, to people he met which would inspire his various fictional characters such as the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was present at some of the most important moments of twentieth century American history including the landings at Normandy and the liberation of Paris during World War II (Oliver 192). Personally, Hemingway became obsessed by his passions and continually went hunting, even big-game shooting on safari in Africa. “Papa” as he was often called became consumed by alcoholism in his later years and after dealing with years of crippling depression finally ended his life by shooting himself in the head in his den in the summer of 1961, at age 62.

Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” is about a despondent woman who cannot escape her oppressive relationship because the period in which she lives is dominated by men. A man and a woman are in a foreign land, stopping at a small cafe while they wait for a train to pick them up and take them to their next destination. It is evident from their realistic dialogue that the two are not getting along and are in fact in disagreement over something serious. When the young woman says that the hills look like the elephants, the man responds that he wouldn’t know. “I might have,’ the man said. ‘Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything” (Hemingway). This is a strange thing to say in response and indicates a feeling of anger wholly unrelated to the context of the mountains in question. Immediately the girl changes the subject, unwilling or unable to disagree with him about anything because she does not have the right as a woman to challenge the man. Additional information is provided regarding this couple’s relationship. After reading in between the direct dialogue, a whole additional level is added to the story. It is later made clear that the woman is pregnant and the young man is eager for her to abort the fetus, although that is never explicitly stated. He boyfriend tries to get her to abort by saying, “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig…It’s not really an operation at all” (Hemingway). The desires of the young man are more important to their dynamic than her wants and he presses her on the topic. Later, he assures her that the procedure is natural and that they will “just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural” (Hemingway). From Jig’s demeanor, it is obvious that she is very reluctant to abort the child and in fact may want to keep it. She stares at the hills, she sips her drink, and she does everything else she possibly can to distract the man from his harassment. Jig knows that having the abortion would drive them apart but the man assures her that everything will be good once she does this and is unable to hear her. The way he states his request is designed to cause Jig guilt and enforce his domination and her socially-imposed submission. He says, “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’s perfectly simple” (Hemingway). It is obvious that the girl does not want to have an abortion but instead has become changed by this pregnancy from the type of woman she was before. Travelling and drinking no longer holds the same wonder for her, but she feels conflicted. By having the abortion, she can keep the man in her life and he promises things will return how their relationship was before. Although she knows this to be false, it is apparent from the girl’s last words what she will do. She says, “I feel fine…There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m fine” (Hemingway). As a woman in the Victorian period, she has no voice and so whatever her partner decides for her is what she will ultimately do. Jig will have the abortion because the decision has been made for her. No matter what the two had been fighting over, Jig would have given in because of the implicit character of their relationship. She is the submissive and he the dominant, thus his will is the one that will be done. Now, all that Hemingway has told his reader is that the guy wants the girl to get an operation and she is reluctant. He never explicitly states what kind of procedure. Everything from the girl’s demeanor however tells the reader that a pregnancy is behind the arguments between the man and woman. It is background information which is neither explicitly stated nor completely important.

In Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” he writes about the conversations that take place within one evening among a group of strangers in a small cafe. The main characters of the story are an old man who has gone mostly deaf and two waiters who are very familiar with his habits. The old man is an alcoholic, but not a violent one. The waiters have to watch him or else he will go home without paying his bar tab. As the waiters look on at the old man, they reflect on what matters in their own lives: to the young man all that counts is leaving work early to be with his wife and thus enjoy his youth; for the old man, his life is solely about his time in the cafe and his bed at night. The waiters stand around chatting about how the old man tried to kill himself the week before. One waiter says that the reason for the suicide attempt was that old man was in despair over nothing. When the second waiter asks how he knows the old man was despairing of nothing, the first responds, “He has plenty of money” (Hemingway). This indicates that to this waiter, the only people who can be depressed for any real reason are those who are without money. Hemingway does not give any concrete reasons for this attempt. The waiters show their emotions through their insults towards the old man. The younger waiter is particularly disdainful towards the elderly man in the corner. He says, “I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing” (Hemingway). The author makes it clear that this waiter should be the subject of disdain, not the drunken old man. The young waiter rushes the old man out of the cafe because he is eager to go home. He doesn’t care if the old man has nowhere to go. As a young man, his life consists only of his own desires and no one that stands in the way of the attainment of those desires can be tolerated for any longer than is absolutely necessary. To that end, he watches the old man drink his liquor only until the point when he can rush him out of the cafe without risking his employment. The older waiter chastises his younger counterpart and asks him, “What is an hour?” The selfish young man replies, “More to me than to him” (Hemingway). A single hour would allow the old man to relax in his favorite location instead of being thrust out onto the street. For the young man, he does not see this hour in the same context. He only sees the hour as time that could be spent with his wife, doing activities that interest him. For the older man, Hemingway shows far more sympathy than his younger counterpart and tries to instill in him some of the wisdom of the aged. “You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older waiter said. “You have everything” (Hemingway). In this small cafe, the older waiter is able to see himself in the old deaf man, but the younger waiter simply cannot. He has not reached the point in his life where he can sympathize with others because he has not yet experienced any kind of misery himself. After the young man leaves, the older waiter contemplates his own life and the desire to be in a clean, well-lit place. The younger man had said that the old deaf man could go into any of the bodegas that are open at night if he wanted to continue to get drunk. Only the older waiter understands the difference between the two types of locations. The older waiter understands from this night’s discussion that he is in the middle of his life, no longer in the youth of the other waiter but not yet isolated and deaf like the old man, with only liquor to fill his days. All these things are left implicit rather than explicitly stated.

This minimalist style is found even in Hemingway’s earliest published works, such as “The Killers.” In the story, a young man and his coworker in a restaurant are tied up and interrogated by two paid killers who are looking for a man named Ole Andreson. Using just dialogue and very little narrative devices, he explains what it was like for the two young men, an experience that is incomprehensible for most people. When the story begins, two men enter the restaurant and order something to eat. A good portion of the story is focused on a dialogue between the men who then seem to be plain customers and the waiter about what to order and whether or not the food is available. Eventually the killers leave and the young man Nick goes over to Andreson’s in order to warn him about the men and, to his surprise, not only is Ole unsurprised, he feels no need to protect himself or to run away from his impending death. He says, “No. I got in wrong.” He talked in the same flat voice. “There ain’t anything to do. After a while I’ll make up my mind to go out” (Hemingway). Again no background information is provided to the reader. We have no way of knowing what it is Andreson did to get the gangsters angry at him nor do we understand the relationship that would allow Nick to put himself in danger to help this man. All that is known about the characters or the back story must be inferred from the text. By applying reason and logic, it is evident that Ole has been running from the gangsters for quite some time and that he has become emotionally and physically exhausted. His decision to go out is simply stated but there is a sadness and finality about that. When he goes out, he will likely be murdered and he is not afraid of this, but rather looks on it with a level of eagerness because he will finally be able to stop running. Although he is to die, it also means he can stop running. Nick returns to the restaurant and tells his co-worker George, “I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful” (Hemingway). George’s only response is to tell him not to think about it. There is nothing either man can do to change the situation so they just need to accept that a man they know fairly well is going to be murdered and there is absolutely nothing they can do to prevent this outcome for Ole. This simplistic writing style which can be found in all of Hemingway’s writing makes the reader do a lot of the work but also allows the reader to feel more emotionally rewarded in the reading because of the involvement.

In the story “The End of Something,” Hemingway returns to the issue of male-female relationships and the fight for power which is involved in all relationships, whether they are family, coworkers, or lovers. Set against the background of an unpopulated, abandoned town in Maine, the story tells about the last day of the relationship between a young man and woman named Nick and Marjorie respectively. From the dialogue, it is evident that the two young people once lived in the town called Horton’s Bay when it was a thriving lumber town. She says, “There’s our old ruin, Nick” (Hemingway). The sentence almost seems happy to see the ruins of the town. Note how Marjorie calls it “our” ruin, indicating the importance of their shared upbringing to the couple’s relationship but also foreshadowing what is to come. Marjorie calls it a castle while Nick sees it for its own decrepitude, again showing the different perceptions of the two characters. Marjorie thinks that they are spending the day together doing some fishing. In reality, Nick has planned out the day so that he can break up with his girlfriend which he does first by starting a quarrel by stating that Marjorie knows everything. Instead of saying he wants to break up, Nick just says that “It isn’t fun anymore” (Hemingway). Nothing is fun for him, not even the love they share and therefore he wants to end the relationship. In many stories when a man breaks up with his girlfriend, mistress, or wife, she behaves emotionally and irrationally but this is not the case in most Hemingway stories. Rather, the woman accepts the perspective of the man and just acquiesces to his will. In this case, Marjorie goes off, taking the boat with her. Shortly after, a friend of Nick’s shows up and asks how the breakup went and Nick shows emotion for the first time, telling Bill to go away. This would indicate that Nick is perhaps not really happy to have broken up with Marjorie, but maybe wanted her to make a scene so that he could give in to her emotion and agree to continue the relationship. If this is the case, then it can be understood that the story is really about Nick trying to reclaim the masculine domination of his female companion. If Marjorie made a scene, then Nick could have calmed her and taken her back, elevating himself to the superior station of his gender over the female. Since Marjorie did not behave this way, but rather was unemotional, which is a traditionally masculine trait, and then the power dynamic remained the same. Nick could not dominate his girlfriend and it could be argued that this is what he is upset about when he talks to Bill, rather than the loss of the relationship.

In all of the writings of Ernest Hemingway, the author uses a naturalistic style to write. He does not provide flowery descriptions and does not use any superfluous words at all. Instead, the writing is stark and only the basic information is provided. These writings are difficult in one way because the real meaning of the stories has to be inferred from the dialogue in the story. Every story requires the reader to read between the lines and understand the real meaning of what is going on. Because of this tendency, the true meaning of a Hemingway story is its underlying meaning, which can include class differences and gender dynamics wherein the male dominates the female. Both of these types of stories are explored in the four short works mentioned above.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The End of Something.” Repeat After Us. 2010. N.p. Web. 15 June. 2013.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills like White Elephants Complete Story” Gummyprint. N.p. Web. 15

June. 2013.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Killers.” Sleuth Sayers. 2011. N.p. Web. 15 June. 2013.

Oliver, Charles. Ernest Hemingway A to Z: the Essential Reference to the Life and Work. New York, NY: Checkmark Publishing, 1999. Print.

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