Dr. Elizabeth Davies-Stofka
LIT 115 C11
8 March 2014
The Plague of Words
The epidemic of speaking without listening is a toxic wedge in relationships that still plagues our society today. In our every day lives, we are often faced with situations which we have already made our minds up about, and in turn, we refuse to acknowledge or even hear out the feelings and opinions of another. A master of writing using true to life characters and situations, Ernest Hemingway shows us a young couple’s struggle in communication as they tackle a heavy and much debated issue. “Hills Like White Elephants” is an upstanding piece of fiction, because the style is clean-cut, the setting has underlying meaning, and the theme is applicable to current issues today.
The story begins at a train station, and we are immediately introduced to an American man and a woman. The couple is clearly drinking alcohol, and involved in a conversation. At first they start off seemingly nonchalant, as they touch on light subjects, such as how the hills look like white elephants. As the story progresses, the conversation becomes more involved. We learn that they are debating an important matter, specifically abortion. We then watch as the man tries to persuade her towards the operation, and the woman tries to weigh all her options. She ultimately agrees to have the abortion, but says she is only agreeing because she no longer cares about herself. He responds by saying he doesn’t want her to have the abortion if she doesn’t want it. After going their separate ways for a few minutes, upon the man’s return, the woman claims “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine. (p.353)” With the distant gaze in her eyes, and clearly much more on her heart, this ending alludes to an unsettling future.
I have always loved the style Hemingway writes in, because it is simple and to the point, but
still very powerful. He uses a neutral diction that most of his readers will be able to understand. He doesn’t flower the story with unnecessary words, and with the sparsity of his writing you are prone to focus more on the matter at hand. I also found it interesting that he didn’t add a “he said”, “she said” after each dialogue. I found that by doing so, it brought me directly into the story and forced me to dedicate myself to the conversation. The controlled style of his narration is mirrored in the actual dialogue of the characters; perhaps, that was in part because the American and the Girl were discussing controversial topics out in a public place. People today are still somewhat controlled when speaking about sex and abortion in pubic, and in the time and setting of this story, it was even more taboo to speak of such things.
The setting itself took place in the early nineteen-hundreds, at a train station between Barcelona and Madrid. Hemingway cleverly correlated the setting directly to the story. I think the “hills like
white elephants” were in reference to the girl’s pregnant belly, and even more so, the unwanted baby itself. She sees the hills in one light, and he in another. The Girl seems torn between looking out at the hills, and pacing around the present bar of the station. This also implies that she longs for the baby and dreams of what it might be like, but is caught up with the issue of the abortion which is very real and, presently, in front of her. The American gives little regard to the hills, showing us that his only concern is the here and now, and therefore the abortion. He mentions in reference to white elephants “I’ve never seen one. (p.351)”, and she, realizing his lack of awareness to her concerns and feelings, replies “No, you wouldn’t have. (p.351)”. The title also hints at the coined phrase “the elephant in the room”, and implies something no one wants to talk about; the topic of the abortion is exactly that for our characters. The train station is not only a physical crossroad for the American and the Girl on their journey, but an emotional one as well. Making the decision about the abortion was also a turning point for them that could go in many directions.
Although I don’t deny that this story is about an abortion and the turmoil regarding the decision,
I have feel there is an even bigger idea or theme in light of this short-story. A key element throughout the story is their conversation. As you watch it unfold from the third personal view this story is told in, the American and the Girl both talk a lot, but neither really listens to the other. It becomes evident that they don’t even take the other person’s thoughts or opinions to heart. After beating around the bush for a bit, the American loses his patience and brings up the topic that they had been putting off. He is desperate to receive confirmation from the girl that she will go through with the operation. He also wants her to be willing to do so, and agree with his side on the matter. “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 (p.352)”. The girl can’t seem to make up her mind on the matter. She is torn as part of her wants the baby and fears the operation itself. However, she also wants the love and support of the man. “And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you will love me? (p.352)”. It becomes clear that she relies on him and fears losing him
due to making the wrong decision. Both characters use drinking as a crutch and means of avoiding the situation. It alludes to the fact that they rarely talk about matters of such great importance, as both must continue drinking to make it through the conversation and ordeal. Because neither of them are truly listening to logic or opinion of the other, their conversation draws to an abrupt and unsettling close. The girl ultimately gives in, it seems, just to shut the American up. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking? (p.353)”. The American seems to sense this, and to drown out his feelings, takes his time grabbing another drink in the bar before they board the train.
The story’s diction makes is easy to read, but its ideas and themes are very expansive. The topic at hand is something we currently struggle with today. And the theme of communication, or lack thereof, is something that we will always be delving into. That is what sets this short story apart.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Robert Zweig. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2012. 350-353. Print.
Dr. Elizabeth Davies-Stofka
LIT 115 C11
8 March 2014
Alice Munro did a masterful job in creating the coming of age allegory known as “The Found Boat”. With a powerful theme underlying the discovery of sexual freedom and discrimination regarding gender roles, symbolism abounding, and a vivid narration sprinkled with irony, we get to experience a crucial part of life in new-found light.
The Found Boat is essentially a story about five preteens coming of age and discovering their sexuality. The girls, Carol and Eva, discover a wrecked boat. The boys immediately claim it as their own, and over the next few months repair it. Feeling as though it was their discovery, and therefore their boat as well, the girls stay close by and oversee the repairs. The only help they are allowed to offer is heating up the tar and preparing the food. Eva develops feelings for Clayton throughout this time. They eventually fix the boat that following spring and take it out on the lake. During its first expedition, they discover an abandoned shack with broken glass and crass writings on the walls. This atmosphere leads them to play an increasingly sexual version of truth or dare, which ultimately leads them to all strip down and run out into the water. The story climaxes when Eva, feeling powerful and free, stands in the rushing water, naked from her waist up. Clayton isn’t far away, and in the same stance, he grabs a mouthful of water and spits a bit on each of her breasts. The other two boys notice this, and the three of them start hooting and hollering. At this time, Eva becomes embarrassed and slinks down into the water to hide. Both the girls comment on hating the boys, and hope they don’t tell a soul.
The theme or main idea in this story is sexual freedom and gender roles. Throughout the story we watch these preteens blossom and discover their sexuality. Feelings develop between Eva and Clayton, and curiosity ultimately takes over all of them during the truth or dare game. However, the boys are constantly demeaning toward the girls throughout this story. They are frequently talked down to “Look at the fat-assed ducks in wading. (p.354)”, and only allowed to help with the “womanly” tasks like preparing and bringing the food. “You can go in and heat this on the stove. (p.355)” Clayton commands, in reference to the tar for the boat. The only other female in this story, Clayton’s mother, is also depicted as only doing household work. The story’s climax, with Eva and Clayton standing equally apart and naked waist up, in my opinion, also shows the boys sexual discrimination. Eva is free and feeling powerful at this time and waits, revealing herself to Clayton. To put her in her place, Clayton spits water onto each of her breasts and calls attention to her naked body by rallying the other boys to show off what he had done.
Set in a small Canadian town that experiences annual flooding, which creates a “lake”, the story starts out during the winter time, when the water is frigid and snow is abundant. It then concludes during late May, a warmer and more fruitful time of year. The progression of the seasons seem to tie in to the blossoming sexuality of the characters. Winter being barren and dry, it eventually turns into something new and fruitful in May; perhaps, associating the seasons with the girls’ menstrual cycles. Discovering the boat, and the different takes on the discovery by each gender, correlates to each gender’s reaction to the discovery of sexuality. The girls find it first, but are not that enamored with it. The boys, however, find it after, but are completely entranced from day one, and spend most of their time taking care of it “She’s caught in two places. You got to be careful not to tear a hole in her bottom. (p.356)”. The girls by stand curiously, but do not participate first hand right away. Later once the boat is repaired, they all ride in the boat and climax their newly discovered sexuality by taking all their
clothes off during a game.
Although Carol and Clayton have great significance, Eva is understandably the main character of this story. We get to observe her evolution from a girl to a young woman, and watch as her situations and peers influence her transformation. In the beginning of the story Eva is more irritated with the boys, and determined to prove herself as better than them. With her friend, Carol, being more naive, Eva takes on the role of the leader in her small female group. She dares to experiment with her sexual prowess first by sticking her chest out and exclaiming “This is a Viking boat…I am the carving on the front. (p.355)” Eva is intrigued by the boys’ fascination with the newly discovered boat, and perhaps a bit jealous of the care and attention they are giving it. So she rallies Carol to stick with her and they both linger about during the boat’s repair, offering thoughts and ideas on how to fix it, and making sure other children stay away. The boys don’t ask the girls to leave, and this seems to make Eva and Carol feel accepted by the boys for the first time. When Clayton specifically asks Eva to help for the first time by heating up the tar, she is hit with brand new emotions and her first wave of emotional and sexual attraction. Eva rides on those feelings for most of the remaining story, and those feelings compel her to take off her clothes without hesitation. Caught up in the whirlwind of this new experience, Eva doesn’t experience regret and shame until Clayton spits water on her breasts, hooping and hollering while both of them stand naked in the water. Eva then slinks down into the water while the boys hop on the boat and paddle away. Carol tries to get Eva to tell her what happened, but somewhat jaded by the events, Eva declines. They comment that they “hate” the boys and couldn’t care less about the boat. Eva and Carol decided to deny the events if they ever come up. They giggle at the thought of what has happened though, as they have experienced their right of passage. It’s important to note here that Munro’s characters in this story are kept somewhat two-dimensional as if to prevent them from taking away too much from the power of the allegory.
The point of view is masterfully told in third person narrator. As the narrator is focusing in on one character in particular, Eva, we get to see and understand things from her point of view. This view helps to reinforce the theme by letting us watch first hand as Eva experiences her sexual evolution. As the story is not told directly by Eva herself, you get to objectively watch the events and interactions of characters unfold.
Alice Munro is distinctly involved in her story and narration, filling her work with humor, irony and risk. Her tone has many contrasts, which make the story ironic and entertaining. For one, the story is set a town that is flooded. Floods generally imply ruin, yet the children find adventure and excitement in the wreckage. The narration is very eloquent and descriptive, while the dialogue is more juvenile, and at times crass. The young characters are constantly changing feelings towards the opposite sex, which ties into the roller coaster of emotions you get when discovering puberty and sexuality, and this correlation supports the story’s theme.
All of the literary elements are skilfully woven throughout this story. Through it, Munro allows us to once again experience the emotions, elements, and settings from our own lives and happenings as we look back on discovering our own sexuality. We still experience these thoughts and emotions today, and even in our adult years, the lessons to be learned and reflected upon from “The Found Boat” are essential.
Munro, Alice. “The Found Boat.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Robert Zweig. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2012. 354-360. Print.