Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Look at Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" / Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"

Started/Finished: January 12th, 2015

Today I am going to be briefly discussing two short stories I was assigned for my literature college course: Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" and Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." I enjoyed both, but today's blog post is going to be pretty short due to me needing to do other things tonight. Huzzah.

The first story I am going to talk about (I wanted to say "analyze", but let's be real here!) is Walker's "Everyday Use." It's a story about an African American family -- two daughters and a mother -- dealing with the circumstances they've been dealt in their lives. The story is told in first-person perspective from the aging mother's point of view as she fills the reader in on the little, modest (and difficult, too) life she and her less-successful daughter, Maggie have built for themselves. Mother has no husband, and he is not mentioned at all in the story. Instead, mother describes herself in this way within the first few paragraphs:

In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. . . .

From the beginning, we see this aging woman has always been independent, strong, willful. Maggie, her stay-at-home daughter, is the opposite: she is nervous, reserved, and ashamed of her ugly body with its burn scars on the arms and legs, especially when her successful and beautiful sister, Dee, comes to visit. The two offer a deep contrast but they care about one another -- they've both seen hardships, and they only have each other.

Unlike her sister and mother, Dee seems rather prideful and arrogant, but that's understandable -- she's left home, gone to boarding school, and made something of herself. It's totally acceptable to be proud of one's accomplishments, but Dee seems to only want to rub her wealth and husband in her sister and mother's faces. Still, Maggie and Mom can't help but be proud of the one who got away from the homestead and made her own way in the world. It's their pride that makes it so heartbreaking when Dee claims she doesn't want her name anymore, because it is a name that has been passed down in the family. A name is very important, and to want to change one's name is significant. What right does Dee have to change her name? One of the biggest motifs in "Everyday Things" is heritage and becoming one with where you come from, and a name is exactly that.

The awkward visit goes on for a little while, and while rummaging through some things Dee discovers old quilts that were knit by her grandmother and insists that she have them. Mother tells her no, telling those are for Maggie whenever she moves out. Dee protests this, claiming Maggie won't know how to treat the old things, but Mother defends Maggie's honor, and that's when the silent sister comes out of hiding and tells Dee -- the sister she's always been afraid of, the one she's always compared herself against -- that she can have the quilts, because Maggie knows what it is to love and cherish the little things.

"She can have them, Mama," she said, like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her. "I can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts."

It was in this moment Maggie became my favorite character in the piece -- I was rooting for her. I wanted her to feel a smidgen of the love for herself that Dee, mighty successful woman from out of town, felt for her self.  I knew it wouldn't happen because the two sisters are worlds apart, but I can't help wanting it all the same.

Dee and her husband begin to leave, and it's at this moment -- the end of the story -- that things are turned just a bit and the reader see things ever-so briefly through the aloof Dee's eyes, and we sympathize with her and can completely understand why she's made the choices she has.

"'What don't I understand?' I wanted to know.
'Your heritage,' she said. And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said, 'You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it.'"

With that, Dee lives, and the world turns on. "Everyday Use" is a story about not forgetting where we come from or where we've been, but also not getting stuck in the past -- at least that's how this guy sees it. What's important is realizing history and heritage is us -- it's who we are and why -- but we mustn't fear living life to the fullest, even if our relatives didn't do that. We don't have to answer to the sins of our ancestors, nor should we.

Started/Finished: January 10th, 2015 

Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" was a story I had to read a couple of times to really mine the meaning and catch the subtleties of the short three-page piece. It focuses only a man, simply called The American, and his companion/lover, Jig, a younger girl.  The two are waiting on a train in Spain, and the conversation they have in the train station over glasses of beer make up almost all of the story. The two have been traveling together for a while, and they're off to somewhere else. Where to? Hemingway never lets the reader in on that; the only hint he gives is The American's insistence of Jag getting an unnamed "operation" -- telling her she will feel so much better after, and things will be "normal again."

After reading this story a few times, I realized the "operation" is an abortion. Wow-ee. In today's world an abortion isn't unheard of, but this thing was written in 1927 -- a time when abortions were most definitely frowned upon and done on the sly. It really shows that Hemingway was advanced as a writer and not afraid to tackle taboo subjects.

So, the operation the American wants Jig to get is an abortion. Okay. That revelation adds a certain depth and sadness to the couple's conversation, in which he is insisting that the younger woman "have the surgery" and "let the air in."

One thing I thought was rather interesting about this short story was Hemingway sticking to rather strict gender stereotypes -- the man is stoic, strong-willed, and assured, while Jig is submissive and reserved -- she even needs help from the man when ordering her drink. This offers an interesting contrast to "Everyday Use", a story that seemed to hint at breaking down pre-conceived social barriers. Walker's characters long for something more; Hemingway's characters are mostly content to stick to the parts they are expected to play.

And what, exactly, are the hills like white elephants? Jig is the one who actually uses the phrase -- at the story's beginning, she tells the man the hills surrounding the train station they are currently waiting at look like white elephants, but what does that mean? It's never really elaborated on -- the conversation is soon turned toward the operation again. There are several ways one could interpret this, but I guess I'll go with the one my literature teacher pointed out: the elephants could represent the "elephant in the room", i.e. the impending abortion. It's a theory, but it's good 'nuff for me.

Overall, I really enjoyed "Hills Like White Elephants" after reading it a few times. It's a grower, for sure. Hemingway's over-abundance of dialogue and spare language becomes a bit tiresome, but it was well worth the read. It's an imaginative portrait of a moment in time -- the young, doubtful couple; the sense of innocence lost and time not well-spent. The reader never finds out if they end up going through with the abortion -- that's for the audience to decide. One can only hope all ends well for the doubtful woman and wooden man.

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