This is “End-of-Chapter Assessment”, section 4.9 from the book Creating Literary Analysis (v. 1.0).
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In this chapter, we examined in depth the strategies for writing a paper on literature using feminist and/or gender criticism, which includes masculinity studies. The basic tenets of feminist and gender criticism, we learned, are the following:
Freewriting exercise. Read “Sonnet 130” by William Shakespeare:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.William Shakespeare, “CXXX,” in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609; Project Gutenberg, 2010), http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1041.
Professor Karlyn Crowley
Introduction to Literature
March 23, 20–
Understanding the Complexity of the Feminine Identity Through the Use of Ambiguity:
Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”
Ambiguity plays an important role in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Not only does Hemingway make the subject of the American couple’s discussion unclear, but he also leaves readers uncertain about the girl’s final decision. While it is widely accepted knowledge that the American couple is discussing the option of abortion, critics and readers continue to disagree over the girl’s final decision. From a feminist perspective, the girl’s indecision whether or not to have an abortion is representative of the struggle for women to determine a sense of female identity that is not based on biological or social structures that value males. Although many readers assume the girl submits to the American man’s wishes and goes through with the abortion, a careful reading of the text reveals the significance of the girl’s indecisiveness and Hemingway’s use of ambiguity to understanding the girl’s development. From a feminist perspective, the answer of the girl’s final decision is important not only to the understanding of the plot but also to the comprehension of the female experience and perspective in a patriarchal society. The girl’s decision is complicated by the tension Hemingway establishes between the roles of motherhood and patriarchy in the oppression of women. As a result, Hemingway compels the reader to not only determine whether or not the girl has the abortion, but also whether the decision makes her an empowered or an oppressed woman. The paradox Hemingway establishes between the potential oppressive consequences of both accepting or rejecting motherhood and the relation to masculine influence demonstrates the uniqueness of women’s struggle to establish an empowered, self-defined feminine identity in a patriarchal society.
Initially, the girl does not perceive the ways in which men oppress the feminine identity. However, the girl realizes that the issue of her pregnancy is too important for her to simply comply with the American’s requests to have an abortion. As the American man attempts to take control over the girl’s reproductive capacities, the girl begins to recognize the oppression women experience from males. From a biological perspective, the existence of gender differences, in which “[t]he male body is distinguished by the penis and the female body by reproductive capacity” (Hird 7), acts as a way to oppress females. The biological importance of gender roles, in which “procreation is produced through an ‘active’ male and ‘passive’ female” (Hird 9) results in a passive feminine identity, as “women’s role in reproduction comes to be considered the basis of feminine gender identity” (DiQuinzio 4). The girl’s apprehension to have an abortion illustrates the impact of biologically determined gender roles. The girl recognizes the implications of having an abortion as she states, “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible” (276), revealing that she acknowledges that “reproduction is part of a women’s natural constitution” (Hird 9) and fears the consequences of rejecting this constitution in deciding to have an abortion. Biological theory of gender development “emphasizes the salience of the sexual aim to reproduce” (Hird 9). From this perspective, then, a “girl’s only option for ‘normal’ social development is that she accept her allotted state by transferring her object desire to a man with which she will procreate” (Hird 9). As a result, the girl fears that having an abortion and remaining a childless woman would deem her as “socially undesirable, mal-adjusted, less nurturing, socially distant, and materialistic” (Hird 9). The girl’s recognition of her impending exclusion from the feminine identity if she has the abortion is apparent as she claims, “once they take it away, you never get it back” (276). Furthermore, the girl begins to express her resentment that the American does not have to worry about the importance of motherhood for the female identity, as she states, “Doesn’t it mean anything to you?” (277). The American’s response of “I don’t care anything about it” (277) illustrates how the feminine identity is based on the ability to reproduce, while the masculine identity is based on power and control. As a result, the girl recognizes the oppressive nature of the biological definition of femininity and realizes the need to escape this definition to form her own empowered identity.
As the girl struggles with the biological identification of women as passive, she begins to recognize the social oppression women experience as well. Initially, Hemingway’s characterization of the girl seems to follow the social norms of the patriarchal society which the girl and the American man are a part of. According to feminist theory, “the social construction of gender has historically resulted not only in difference but in inequality as well … masculinity and femininity are not only different but also differently valued” (DiQuinzio 2). At the beginning of Hemingway’s story, the girl relies on this social construction of femininity to determine her role in society as she recognizes that “it is the demands of civilized society that constrain individual identification” (Hird 11). As the American man brings up the topic of the girl’s pregnancy, the girl is passive to the man’s wishes, “not even knowing her own mind, accustomed to following a masterful male for her direction in life” (Renner 28). The girl remains silent as the American makes his argument by claiming “It’s really an awfully simple operation … I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig” (275). In addition, the girl relies on the American to evaluate the consequences of the decision, as she asks, “And you think then we’ll be all right and happy” (275) if she has the abortion. The idea that women are considered as less than men in society is underscored by Hemingway’s characterization of the American as “the expert even on abortion, a uniquely female issue” (Renner 29). The American’s ability to make demands on an issue that is deeply connected to society’s definition of the female identity causes her to realize the oppression created by social determination of gender roles.
Hemingway’s use of ambiguity at the end of the story makes the reader determine the girl’s final decision and the consequences of that decision. Depending upon how a reader understands the biological and social construction of the female identity and the girl’s development throughout the story, the girl can be considered either an empowered or an oppressed female. Both theories of gender development result in an understanding of femininity as “less than fully human” (DiQuinzio 3). Despite the girl’s desire to escape the social and biological oppressive definitions of female identity, these definitions have conditioned her to react passively to male’s demands and, consequently, she “does not know her own mind and … cannot articulate it to her male leader” (Renner 29). On one hand, the girl could be understood as an empowered woman that comes to reject this passive role and assert her own values. From this perspective, readers could ascertain that the girl determines to keep the child. Throughout the story, the girl begins to indirectly express her feelings towards the abortion and assert herself. As a result of the man’s pressure and the girl’s habit of complying with male demands, she states, “Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me” (275). However, the heavy sarcasm in this statement reveals that the girl resents the oppression of the female identity by males. In addition, the girl gets up from the table they are sitting at and moves to the other side of the room, escaping the pressure from the American and “remaining in a position to maintain her own viewpoint” (Renner 32–33). For the girl, the American’s constant pleading to have the abortion hinders her ability to reject the determined biological and social feminine roles and construct an aggressive female identity. Eventually, the girl asserts herself openly, saying, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (277). Through demanding that the American stop talking, the girl not only asserts “that she does not want to have an abortion and will listen to no more of his self-serving pleading for her to do so” (Renner 34), but she also effectively rids herself of his ability to keep her in her biological and social role as a passive female. In a final act of assertiveness, the girl does not allow the American to make her feel guilty about her decision to keep the child. After the girl has implicitly articulated her desire to have the child, the American “turns her sarcasm back on her … as [he] says, ‘Do you feel better?’” (Renner 37). However, the girl triumphantly replies, “I feel fine.… There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine” (278). Through denying the American the ability to make her feel guilty about her rejection of biological and social norms of feminine identity, the girl is fully able to define herself and emerge as an aggressive female character. An understanding of the girl’s character development from a feminist perspective reveals the importance of the girl’s refusal of the American’s power over her in her process of creating a self-confident feminine identity.
Hemingway’s use of ambiguity, however, makes it difficult to determine not only the girl’s decision but also the consequences of her decision. While readers may interpret the girl’s refusal of the American’s demands as empowering in the sense that she rejects the social oppression of women by males, her acceptance of motherhood could be viewed in terms of the biological and social oppressions of motherhood. In order to create a feminine identity not based on traditional biological and social views of femininity, the girl has to reject male superiority. The girl’s rejection of male dominance is only possible through her refusal of the American’s demands to have the abortion. However, most feminist theories agree that female oppression is connected to mothering both biologically and socially. In a biological sense, the experience of motherhood is “grounded in the female body, unmediated by culture or language, and directly accessible to women” (DiQuinzio 10). However, a feminist understanding of this theory argues, “women’s role in reproduction comes to be considered the basis of feminine gender identity” (DiQuinzio 4). Social definitions of the role of motherhood also lends itself to the oppression of women, as “being a mother means possessing and exercising those attributes of personality or character and/or engaging in those activities or practices most closely associated with femininity” (DiQuinzio 10) in a society in which femininity is less valued than masculinity. In this sense, the girl’s decision to refuse abortion and accept motherhood could be interpreted as her acceptance of the oppression of the biological and social constructions of female identity based on motherhood.
On the other hand, readers could interpret the girl’s overall lack of assertiveness of her own values as her decision to comply with the American’s demands and have the abortion. Hemingway’s use of ambiguity is most apparent in his characterization of the girl, making it difficult to discern her own feelings towards the abortion. Throughout the story, the girl acts as the “classic portrait of the deferential female, without a strong identity, an accessory to the male, to whom she has been accustomed to look … for support and direction” (Renner 28). Although the girl’s plea for the American to “please … stop talking” (277) is a moment of assertiveness, she is still unable to articulate clearly her values and attitudes towards having an abortion. As a result of the girl’s inability to state her feelings to the American, many readers determine that she will “have the abortion in order to please and thus keep her lover” (Renner 27). From a feminist perspective, the girl’s decision to comply to the American’s demands and have the abortion, despite her own divided mind on the issue, renders her as a female oppressed by the masculine identity.
Despite Hemingway’s reputation for treating female characters unsympathetically, “Hills Like White Elephants” focuses on the complexity of the female experience in a patriarchal society. Although Hemingway’s use of ambiguity makes it impossible to determine whether or not the girl has the abortion or the consequences of her decision, the ambiguity actually allows for a unique understanding of the oppression of women in society and the feminine quest for an identity not based on social or biological oppression. Readers should recognize the importance of acknowledging and rejecting biological and social oppression of women in order for women to take control over the formation of their own identities. Hemingway’s ambiguous ending causes readers to examine the complexity of establishing an empowered feminine identity within a male-dominated society.
DiQuinzio, Patrice. “Exclusion and Essentialism in Feminist Theory: The Problem of Mothering.” Hypatia 8.3 (Summer 1993): 1–20. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 March 2009.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953. 273–78. Print.
Hird, Myra J. “Vacant Wombs: Feminist Challenges to Psychoanalytic Theories of Childless Women.” Feminist Review 73 (2003): 5–19. Palgrave Macmillan Journals. Web. 13 March 2009.
Renner, Stanley. “Moving to the Girl’s Side of ‘Hills Like White Elephants.’” The Hemingway Review 15.1 (Fall 1995): 27–41. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 March 2009.
Have students conduct peer review on one of the sample papers using the organizational peer-review guide found in Chapter 10 "Appendix A: Peer Review Sheets", Section 10.3 "Chapter 4: Feminist and Gender":
Plan to have your students conduct peer review on the drafts of their papers that they are writing in your class. Use the peer-review guide from Chapter 10 "Appendix A: Peer Review Sheets", Section 10.3 "Chapter 4: Feminist and Gender" and have them work in groups of three and do the following: