Midterm – Part II
The Path Home
I am going to look at Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants and Hurston’s Sweat. Both of these stories feature two similar themes, or at least events, which are somewhat related. First is the scenario of a woman in each who is faced with a less-than-desirable situation. There exist two solutions for each woman, but both of them (both solutions) seem ‘not quite right’; neither would result in a completely satisfying resolution. The women are also faced with an imperfect, self-centered lover. Both women change from submissive to assertive, gaining a newfound resolve that seems to come from a strong urge to guard what they desire or need. And what both of them want is a simple, stable life.
Both stories show a woman who sees two possible ways out, but neither way seems perfect. First, Delia in Sweat has the problem of constantly being harassed and abused by Sykes, her cruel husband. He’s been cheating on her, and he hopes she’ll get fed up and leave. That’s her one option: to leave Sykes, thus removing herself from the constant abuse, but she’d be giving up her house—which she paid for and kept up all those years. Alternatively, Delia can choose to take her chances and hold her ground. She’ll get to stay, but she’ll never know what Sykes might try next; in the past, he has beaten her. Ultimately, Delia chooses the latter, fighting back on at least three occasions, and filled with a new resolve: “Delia’s habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf.” She shouts back at Sykes, threatens to hit him with a frying pan, and finally tells him outright that she hates him, the old good-for-nothing who never lifted a finger to help her.
In Hills, Jig doesn’t know how to feel about the pregnancy. She doesn’t necessarily want an abortion, but she does recognize what she’d be giving up if she kept the baby. Some of the old, free way of life appeals to her, but if she does get the operation, she might never be able to become pregnant again. And she wouldn’t get to have the family she longs for. Her lover, simply referred to as “the American,” says of the baby and the pregnancy, “That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.” At this point, Jig realizes that her lover isn’t quite the person she thought he was. He calls the operation “perfectly simple” and “the best thing to do,” suggesting he is either the dominant partner in the relationship or wants to be. Jig starts to get crafty, though, and she says, “I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.” She adds, “And we could have all this. And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”
Both Delia and Jig wish for a simple lifestyle. Delia’s choice not to give up her house is driven by the fact that she’s not only paid for it but made it her own: “Her little home … She’d built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.” She even loves the work she does, because at least it’s a routine. She even has white might be called her own surrogate “child”—the cleaned laundry. It’s “white folks clothes,” but she puts hard work into it, just as she has done with her marriage. Blood, sweat and tears. Delia’s home and laundering job are plain, but she is content.
Jig also wishes for a new lifestyle with her lover. Their luggage is full of labels “from all the hotels where they had spent nights,” suggesting a traveling, wandering, almost nomadic lifestyle. The railway station is “between two lines of rails in the sun.” On one side, off in the distance, is a parched, desolate land; on the other side, trees, fields, mountains, grain, a river. The barren side could represent abortion and sterility, and the other side is the opposite—fertility, like the growing trees and flowing river.
Near the beginning, Jig had said of a drink (that looked better than it tasted), “Everything tastes of licorice.” The line suggests something that one eagerly anticipates but ends up disappointed with. “That’s the way with everything,” her lover replies, suggesting that he blames the baby for jeopardizing his happy-go-lucky lifestyle. “Everything tastes of licorice,” she repeats. “Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.” She wants her lover to see her as more than just a means for having a good time; she wants him to be a husband and a father. She is tired with life as it is now. All we do, she says, is “look at things and try new drinks.”
The American, by calling the procedure “perfectly simple” and “the best thing to do,” oversimplifies things. He disagrees with Jig’s remaining skepticism about not having “everything,” which she mentions as she looks at the fertile half of the scenery. In both instances, her lover acts as he does partly to reassure her. He tries asking her to come back into the shade—he is sitting near the barren side—but she doesn’t feel like it. He realizes he can’t force a decision on her, or she will resent him for it later. If she’s going to have the abortion, she has to make the decision herself. The man finally appears to yield: “I’d better take the bags over to the other side of the station.”
So Delia’s story ends with an ironic twist. The snake that Sykes brought to terrify her ends up biting him, and he gets done in by his own evil device. Does Delia get one final scene of self-empowerment when she chooses not to try to get Sykes to the doctor (though she knew she wouldn’t make it in time anyway)? The snake has given her a way to escape convention: She’ll be freed from marriage because her husband is gone, and since she paid for the house, she’ll get to stay.
Jig, similarly, ends the story satisfied. She says she feels just fine—she doesn’t regret the decision she made. In both stories, a woman comes to realize that to overcome a selfish lover, she has to become self-empowering and take matters into her own hands. Delia wants to keep her house and stay safe from Sykes, and she’ll do whatever it takes. Jig wants to settle down and have a family, and she’ll do whatever it takes. In Delia’s case, all she has to save is herself and the simplicity that she loves. Jig risks the future of her relationship because of the relationship itself—she wants it to be meaningful. She wants stability, a family and nurturing love, not a carefree lover who wants physical intimacy but won’t take the associated responsibility. Both women are driven by the intense desire to preserve or ensure that which is vital to them.