“Dominance and the Quest for the Self in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’ and Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’” Essay
“Dominance and the Quest for the Self in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’ and Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’”
Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” both feature characters, disparate in gender, who are trying to attain a sense of identity and individuality. In “Everyday Use,” it is the character of Dee who is trying to carve her own niche away from the faceless and indistinct communal nature of the traditional African-American communities. On the other hand, in Hemingway’s literature it is the character cryptically known only as “the man” who tries to find his true, masculine self. Both their sense of belonging and self is derived through a near-ruthless desire to make everything and everyone conform to their beliefs and desires. Yet, as seen in the conclusion of both short stories, there will always be cases when things do not turn out the way they want them to, no matter how much they force it to happen their way.
Dee’s nature is seen most in her mother’s daydreams, a subliminal message that shows just how much the mother knows about her daughter’s controlling tendencies. Her mother, while waiting for Dee to arrive, daydreams about her and Dee being brought together in a tearful reunion on a TV program (Walker 273). Yet, the mother, even in the fictional world she has created, knows that she cannot appear as herself on the show. She must appear as Dee wants her to become: “a hundred pounds lighter, [her] skin like uncooked barley pancake(273).” Dee wanted to show a better version of her mother and not the “large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands…[who] wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day (273).” She wants to be associated only with people who reflected the image she wanted to project of herself, as a woman of style and sophistication.
On the other hand, the man in “Hills” is like Dee, a person who is also seeking to find his true self. However, identity for him is not so much as being separate from the faceless community but rather it is a want to establish and define his masculinity. Note the irony in him being called “the man,” for in fact, this man is not at all comfortable with who he is, choosing instead to manipulate and control Jig in order to gain a sense of being a man. Even if the man kept saying, “I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to,” he instantly adds, “But I know it’s perfectly simple (Hemingway 330).” It shows that he is not sincere that he wants Jig to not do it (the abortion) but instead is trying to force her to see his way. This streak is very much distinctive of a typical macho character.
This longing to carve a niche for them is not at all deplorable. What is deplorable is the insensitivity and selfishness with which Dee and the man pursue this quest. Both Dee and the man do not seem to care about the feelings and emotions of the people closest to them, showing a willingness to step on others in order to get what they want.
For Dee, her insensitivity is seen in how she just decides to change her name from Dicie to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo (Walker 276). Dicie, the name bestowed on her at birth, is her link with her ancestors, for it is also the name of both her grandmother and auntie (276). Yet, Dee’s behavior was not because she was ashamed of her culture. On the contrary, Dee wanted to wear her past like a badge, though in an updated fashion. After all, she got the churner and dasher explicitly as display items for her house without knowing their cultural and emotional significance for her mother and sister. She shows her insensitivity most when she tries to control both her mother and sister in the fight over the quilts, insisting on having them since “Maggie can’t appreciate [them] (278).” Maggie, who “thinks her sister has held life in the palm of one hand (272),” is afraid and gives in to Dee’s wants. What is most striking in this exchange is that the quilts were reserved for Maggie’s wedding (278), which symbolizes a new change in her status and life. They also symbolized the final link the family has with their past, as the quilts were made of bits and pieces of cloth cut from dresses worn by their relatives and ancestors (278).
On the other hand, the man was showing his insensitivity when he kept trying to manipulate and force Jig to carry through with the abortion by saying that the baby is not anything, and that the abortion process is really “an awfully simple operation (Hemingway 329).” Instead, the man is worrying about himself, saying, “I love it but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry (330).” Here he is not worrying about Jig or the baby. Instead, he is worrying about himself and how he can maintain his relationship with Jig without having to worry about the baby. The man is not even considering how Jig is feeling, who is worried over the operation and whether she will be fine after it. The man, insensitive to her concerns, chooses instead to say “I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple (330).” He does not foresee the effects losing the baby might have on Jig, or how Jig might actually be worrying about their unborn child.
Finally, both Dee and the man are very much alike in that both of them are caught in the grips of change. In fact, it is perhaps because of their situation that both of them are trying to come to terms with their own identities.
For Dee, she was caught in the upheavals that were changing the African-American communities at that time. This is according to Dee’s final words to Maggie as she was about to depart: “it’s really a new day for us (Walker 279).” Dee knows just how much things have changed and will continue to change based on her education and travels. Indeed, she feels more refined than them, having gone to Augusta to study (274) and driving around in a car (275). By espousing a new way of holding onto traditions – displaying common objects as artifacts instead of putting them to “everyday use,” as her mother and sister insist on doing (278) – Dee is already losing touch with her roots, which honors tradition by continually making them a part of everyday life. As her mother snatches the quilts from her and places them on Maggie’s hands, it is seen that Dee has already lost the battle to establish her own identity. Her identity, symbolized by the quilts, was once in her grasp, only to slip away from her. Her mother, representing the past and traditions, reminds Dee that only by respecting her roots will she be able to find her true sense of self.
For the man, drastic change is in the guise of Jig’s pregnancy. Having been so used to having Jig all to himself, he now has to contend with the fact that those days might soon be over. The constant emphasis of Hemingway on the number two indicates that the man wants to keep the status quo that he should not have to share Jig with anyone else. Furthermore, when Jig points to the hills of Ebro and exclaims how they look like “white elephants (Hemingway 329),” and now the man would never have seen one, the man turns defensive: “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything (329).” What the man and Jig were discussing is not so much the appearance of the hills as what they symbolize – Jig’s pregnancy. As the narrative is ending, Hemingway inserts an extended metaphor, depicting the man as he picks up two heavy bags (332), which stand for his current situation with Jig, and carries them to the station and looks for the train but does not see it (332), symbolizing the elusive solution to his problems. Returning inside the bar, the man is restless (332) – he has not solved anything but might even have complicated matters more. Like Dee, the man fails to define himself. He has not become his ideal man, which for him is going to be realized if he is able to get Jig to agree with what he wants.
In the end, these two characters emphasize that identity is a slippery thing. They portray the feeling of alienation in a world that is rapidly evolving. The quest to know one’s self, to follow the outcome of both stories, starts not by looking to others but by a close examination of the inner self and accepting it, no matter what it may be. It is only through this self-realization and understanding can one overcome the feeling of alienation.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” American Voices: Culture and
Community. Ed. Dolores LaGuardia and Hans P. Guth. California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000. 328-332.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” American Voices: Culture and Community. Ed. Dolores
LaGuardia and Hans P. Guth. California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000. 272-279.