Artifact 1a

Communication within a relationship steeped in patriarchal values is often painfully one sided. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall Paper” use the subject of women’s reproductive rights to explore what makes communication impossible, and further, why it is impossible. Women’s reproductive rights has been the subject of debate for decades and in many ways the debate rages on to this day, unfortunately showing no signs of reaching any sort of resolution grounded in fairness and equality. As both Hemingway and Gilman’s stories unfold, the topic of women’s reproductive rights takes center stage, abortion and postpartum depression, and the core of the story becomes clear; there is an unhealthy power dynamic resembling patriarchal stereotypes of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. While Hemingway offers a more implicit insight into the struggle between the characters, Gilman goes a bit further, still offering insight into the patriarchal issues plaguing a married couple’s relationship, while also highlighting structural issues outside of the relationship that ultimately lead to the problems within the relationship.

Within the first few moments of “Hills Like White Elephants” the patriarchal nature of the couple’s relationship is established through the titles Hemingway gives the two central characters. “The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building” (Hemingway 229). While it is grammatically correct to capitalize “American” and leave “girl” uncapitalized, I suspect names that follow these grammatical rules were chosen for a reason. They tell readers there is a disparity in both the value given to each character and their status within their relationship. This sentence also shows readers how the couple are seen, perhaps by other travelers or casual onlookers; the American, or man, has arrived with his girl in tow. The female character is not described as the woman, lady, or some other title that would denote respect, instead she is referred to as the girl. This apparent lack of value placed on her is further expressed through the actions of her character. Throughout the story she appears confused and indecisive about her surroundings and her impending decision. The male character is called the American and is shown to be more knowledgeable than the girl, pressing for control throughout the story. Given the monikers applied to these characters, one must question if they are even capable of approaching the issue at hand as equals.

The setting in which the couple find themselves is also important. The train station further emphasizes the unequal nature of their relationship. After the couple finish struggling through an emotionally charged conversation fraught with manipulation and disrespect, the man “picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks” (Hemingway 232). These “other tracks” underscore the couple’s inability to effectively communicate due to the American’s need to control the outcome. I see a picture of two train tracks running right next to each other, incapable of intersecting or meeting in the middle. Furthermore, the train station begs readers to ask if the girl and the American can even ride the same figurative train given the unequal nature of the relationship. If Hemingway was questioning whether men and women can even ride the same train, Gilman was showing readers that while on the same train, it is only men that drive the train, women are but passengers.

Gilman uses John, the physician and husband to the narrator, to show readers how women were seemingly just along for the ride, in multiple ways. In a time when the primary purpose of women in a marriage was to live a life of domesticity, John also acting as her physician allows for a blending between the subservient role of women within a marriage, and the structural issues of the patriarchy present in 19th century society. John acts as both husband and doctor to the narrator, and as this mother and wife deals with what we now know to be postpartum depression, John diagnoses her with hysteria; with this diagnosis comes the ability to limit her both physically and psychologically. This issue is present within the wife’s mindset as she writes, “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.” (Gilman 139). This blending of marital and societal subjugation does not solely allow John to control the relationship even more so, it has a manipulating effect on his wife as she too blends her relationship with her husband with that of a physician. This life of domesticity the narrator is supposed to be living already impacts her ability to speak freely and openly with her husband, but another layer is being added to this as his position as her physician, and a well- respected one at that, further silences her voice. This form of manipulation within a relationship can also be seen in Hills Like White Elephants, although in a more direct manner.

As the girl and the American converse at a bar, small talk about their surroundings turns to a more serious conversation about an impending operation planned for the girl, an abortion. Rather than discuss the topic as equal partners, the American attempts to not only force what he wants on the girl, he also tells her, "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" (Hemingway 231), attempting to manipulate her into thinking his wants are also hers. The American is not simply stating, ‘I will support you and your decision no matter what,’ he is implying he knows what is best and attempting to convince the girl that she too thinks it is for the best. The conversation, if one could call it that, is rooted in a deep division between the couple, yet completely dominated by the American as he tries every which way to control the girl’s decision. When attempting manipulation as a tool to control someone, aggressors will often resort to a tactic used by the male characters in both stories, gaslighting.

Gaslighting is a prominent theme in “The Yellow Wall Paper,” taking center stage as the narrator’s “hysteria” evolves into actual insanity. Her descent into madness is the most obvious form of gaslighting. That said, Gilman shows readers that women are often gaslit both domestically and societally. The woman in this story knows that something is wrong with her but is forced to contend with a husband and doctor telling her, not only how she should feel, but how she does feel. As the narrator is told, “you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know” (Gilman 139), she begins to question her previous belief that she was ill, even as her mental state degrades. The fact that she loves the person gaslighting her worsens things as it causes her to begin looking inward for the cause to her problems rather than continuing a pursuit of the actual cause. Once again, Gilman shows readers how the patriarchy burns bridges to what could be effective communication, instead leaving destruction in its wake. If Gilman’s goal was to illustrate the final destination of a woman being gaslit, Hemingway shows us the beginning of that road.

Throughout “Hills Like White Elephants” readers can observe the American’s attempts at persuading the girl to go along with his desires by reshaping her reality. He brushes aside the very real potential for danger the girl was facing, abortions at this time were not as safe or as straightforward as simply letting air in. He insists that if she goes through with the abortion, “We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before” and “We can have everything” (Hemingway 231). The American has made his decision and is attempting to paint a picture so inviting the girl cannot resist. While readers do not see the end result of the American’s attempts, as depicted in Gilman’s story, we can piece together one potential path it could take if the girl ultimately decided to placate the American.

One of the first casualties within a patriarchal relationship or society is communication rooted in equality. Rather than approaching tough topics or discussions as a team, control and manipulation are used by one side as a tool for coercion and subjugation. Hemingway and Gilman paint an unflattering picture of the patriarchy, among other aspects exploring communication within a patriarchy, and why real, honest, communication is not possible within a system where one sex holds power and sway over another. Both explore this topic through the lens of women’s rights, specifically reproductive rights. While each story approaches the topic from a different perspective, one pointing a microscope at a couple and a single conversation while the other almost screams for readers to look outward at society as well, both stories show readers what women have historically been forced to contend with, using communication as an example of the unequal power dynamic that has plagued modern society.