Here is my late post on Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” for A Curious Singularity; I couldn’t quite find the time to read it when everybody else did (short as it is), but I taught it in my Composition and Literature classes this morning and so thought I could write about it now. I’ve taught this story in many freshman-level literature classes and I like it for teaching; there are so many things to talk about in such a short short story — the symbolism of the white elephants, the significance of the setting, the exterior point of view, the concision of language, the troubling dynamic between the two main characters.
Invariably students are confused by the story and they don’t figure out on their own that it’s about an abortion — which I wouldn’t have figured out either most likely; they tend to think it’s about the two characters deciding whether or not to have sex — although the textbook I’m using this semester gives this information in the discussion questions following the story and sometimes students look up the information on the internet. A couple of students, upon hearing that it’s about an abortion, got a look of enlightenment and relief on their faces — it does make sense after all! — and said they would now have to re-read the story.
I ask students in this class to give a short presentation in small groups and to lead class discussion for a while, and the student who was responsible for this story wrote me a slightly panicked email last night saying she couldn’t understand what was going on, and so we met this morning to talk about it and she ended up doing a fabulous job in class. She’d spent some time thinking about white elephants and led the class into a good discussion of their various meanings. My early morning class was a little reluctant (or too sleepy) to talk much, but my later class did such a good job with the story that I kept telling myself to keep my mouth shut and let them do the work of figuring out the story, because eventually they cover pretty much everything on their own. When that happens, I have the fun of sitting in the back of the class and just taking it all in.
Anyway, one of the textbook’s discussion questions was about the significance of the number two in the story — the number gets mentioned ten times, apparently (I didn’t count) — and my students had a great time playing around with the meaning of this. Two is important, of course, because the couple has to decide if they will remain only two or if they will add another person to become three, but also we have the two parallel train tracks that don’t meet and the two strings of beads that Jig holds, both illustrating the two main characters traveling together, side-by-side, but never meeting, never really communicating.
My students can be fairly quick to personalize their readings and to make sweeping generalizations as they’re grappling with the story — about gender in this case; as some students began to describe how weak and pathetic the man comes across in this story, some of the men in the class began to get a bit uncomfortable and wanted to defend their gender from what they felt was an attack. I start squirming in my seat when the conversation takes this kind of turn, wanting both to let students have the fun of discussing what the story means to them but also to step in and point out that we can talk about the character’s weakness without making broad claims about human nature that are distressingly vague and that distract us from the story itself.
I’m happy when students make a personal connection with what we’re reading, but I’m often unsure what to do when their personal connections lead them into interpretations of the story I don’t agree with or toward conclusions I’m tempted to argue with. Figuring out how and when to correct students when we’re talking about something as complex as a short story is difficult.