Happily Never After:
A comparison of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Once upon a time, romance was a bestseller. A devilishly handsome man sweeps his beautiful lover off her feet and they live happily ever after. However, the phrase “happily ever after” is now questionable in modern literature. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the feelings and thoughts of the females are suppressed under the weight of their male counterparts. Are the women truly happy with whom they are spending the rest of their lives? In both short stories, Hemingway and Gilman portray female characters who succumb to the demands of their masculine significant others, causing the distressing demise of their relationships.
The powerlessness and vulnerability of women, brought upon them by men, is one major comparison between these two works. In “Hills like White Elephants”, the girl, called Jig, and her boyfriend, the American, are contemplating an operation, believed to be an abortion. First, Hemingway demonstrates to the reader how much Jig relies on the American. She could not order her own drink without him. He knew Spanish, which allowed him to interact with the only other character in the story while Jig sat by wondering what was said (Hemingway, 145-147). In addition, Hemingway describes Jig as not “the woman” or “the lady” but “the girl”. This infers that she is too young to make such life-changing decisions on her own. The American is a strong, static character who knows what he wants and provides the girl with promises of being happy and going back to how they used to be. Because Hemingway’s “iceberg theory of friction” detracts most information from the story, including the ending, the reader can infer whether Jig gave into the American’s pleas or kept her baby (Magnum).
The relationship between Jig and the American in “Hills like White Elephants” is very similar to the relationship between the narrator and her husband, John, in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Just as Jig could not speak her mind to the American and make her own decisions, the narrator could not speak against her husband. On paper, the narrator feels safe to write that she “personally disagrees with their ideas” and she “believes that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do [her] good,” (Gilman, 367). But in reality, she does not dare disagree with him because she knows he is “a physician of high standing,” (Gilman, 367) and her dear husband. In an essay titled “In Control”, Adam Leed discusses how John controls even her inner thoughts. He states:
John attempts to control even her inner life, her writing. She says that "he hates to have me write a word" (482). He says the writing is not good for people who are sick. He tells her that it will slow down her healing. Writing is the only thing that’s keeping her sane, but she is unable to do it freely. She has to hide her words so John does not find them. This shows that John has mental control as well as physical control.” (Leed).
This also shows the extremity of John’s domination of the narrator’s life. However, she does not realize the hold John has on her until the very end of the story, when she is free from constraint. Thus, she continues to accept his prescriptions and avoid writing in front of him. Her susceptibility to believe her husband’s opinionated diagnosis and strict rules is one of her major flaws.
A second comparison between the two short stories is the stubbornness and selfishness of the male. In “Hills Like White Elephants”, the American carries on about Jig only having to do the operation if she really wanted, but he “knows it’s perfectly simple” (Hemingway, 369). His insistent tone of voice suggests that the American has an ulterior motive behind the girl’s happiness. If she got the operation, he would not be tied down to the relationship. He cares very much for her now, insisting that he loves her. If he truly loved Jig, he would be settling down and starting a family with her. But his selfishness drives him to push Jig to get the abortion, because as he mentioned to Jig, “ ‘[The baby’s] the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy,’ ” (Hemingway, 369). Is he saying it has made both of them unhappy, or just himself? The selfish statements and pleas of the American suggest that he cares only for himself, and not Jig or his unborn baby.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, John is as stubborn and selfish as the American in “Hills Like White Elephants”. He is confident that his diagnosis is just “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency,” (Gilman, 367). However, John is oblivious to how his wife is truly feeling, just as the American was oblivious to the girl’s true feelings about the abortion. Moreover, John’s constant input on how his wife is faring worsens her condition. He states that “you know the place is doing you good,” and then threatens to send her to Weir Mitchell, the inventor of the rest cure (Gilman, 369-370). If John had taken the time to listen to his wife, he would see her mental instability and conclude that the acclaimed “rest-cure” was not efficient. In addition to his selfishness, John is concerned with what his family and friends, or the society outside the house, will think about his wife’s condition. He reassures them that it is not serious, to the disappointment of his wife. She writes in her diary:
It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. When I get really well, John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now (Gilman, 369).
As a result, John can be seen as the antagonist of the story, and perhaps, the strongest force holding the narrator back from true happiness and self-realization.
Though there are many other comparisons in these two short stories, one contrast is most prominent. The greatest contrast is the difference in the conclusion, or resolution, of the story. In Gilman’s work, the narrator succeeds in tearing off the yellow wallpaper and finally regaining control of her own life. In Hemingway’s work, his use of the “iceberg theory of fiction” takes away most of the information given in the story, such as the name of the American, his job, or their history. Hemingway explained his use of the iceberg theory of friction in an interview with Paris Review:
If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story (Magnum).
Therefore, Hemingway allows the reader to decide what happens to the couple. Maybe the American changes his mind, and marries Jig. Or maybe they go their separate ways. Anything is possible, and that is what makes Hemingway’s work, and especially this short story, so popular. Nevertheless, if both of these short stories were adapted into screen plays, the American audience would most likely choose “The Yellow Wallpaper” over “Hills Like White Elephants” because of the lack of resolution in Hemingway’s work. Hemingway’s conclusion is more imaginative rather than factual, while “The Yellow Wallpaper” gives a definite conclusion to the protagonist’s conflicts. The difference of a resolution is a central contrast between these two short stories.
Though the phrases “once upon a time” and “happily ever after” are great for children’s stories and romantic films, they are not the realities of a relationship. Hardships, loss of sanity, arguments, and the occasional creeping along a gross yellow wallpaper are the definitions of a relationship. Because both these short stories were written before the feminist movement, the authors, knowingly or not, portrayed males as dominant, demanding characters who controlled every aspect of their females’ lives. In both stories, the reader can only imagine what happened with the couples. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” are interesting examples of women succumbing to the demands of “a man’s world.”
Bryant Mangum, "Ernest Hemingway," in Critical Survey of Short Fiction," ed. Frank Magill. Salem Press, 1982. pp. 1621-28. Reproduced from Critical Survey of Short Fiction. 1981. Salem Press, Inc.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing Compact sixth edition. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner, Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 366-368.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Literature. Reading, Reacting, Writing Compact sixth edition. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner, Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. 144-147.
Leed, Adam. "In Control." Virginia Wesleyan College.. GL Greene. Web. 26 Feb. 2012
< http://facultystaff.vwc.edu/~cbellamy/dream%20child/Gilman-%20Greene,Leed.htm >
Meyer, Michael. "Critical Thinking and Writing." The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2005. Print.