The motifs of life and death in the short stories Hills like White Elephants and the Story of an Hour Research Paper
1. The manner, in which a particular author explores the motifs of life and death, never ceases to remain utterly reflective of this author’s unconscious anxieties, in regards to what accounts for the philosophical significance of how the earlier mentioned motifs interrelate.
Therefore, when it comes to comparing/contrasting two works of literature (within the context of how the contained motifs of life and death define the overall message of the literary pieces in question), it is important to pay attention to how these motifs provide an insight into the workings of the concerned authors’ mentality.
In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while analyzing the psychological implications of how the specified motifs appear to affect the actual sounding of the short story Hills like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway and the short story The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin.
2. One of the most notable aspects of how the motif of death reemerges throughout the entirety of Chopin’s story, is the fact that the story’s main character Mrs. Mallard appears to be thoroughly capable of rationalizing the notion in question.
As the narrator pointed out: “She (Mrs. Mallard) did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance” (Chopin 1). This, of course, implies that, despite having been a fragile woman, Mrs. Mallard used to be an utterly brave person, capable of perceiving even the most disturbing challenges of life, as they are.
Partially, this explains why in the story The Story of an Hour, death is being referred to as something that one should not really be thinking about too much. Apparently, in the psychological sense of this word, Mrs. Mallard was more of a ‘rationally thinking man’ (as opposed to being an ‘irrationally feeling woman’), which is why, upon having heard of her husband’s death, she accepted this news in the thoroughly dignified manner.
Given the fact that, throughout the course of her life, Chopin never ceased promoting the cause of feminism, we can suggest that the character of Mrs. Mallard is largely autobiographical. After all, many feminists do make a point in trying to dissociate themselves from the so-called ‘feminine weakness’, the main of which has always been considered women’s tendency to be utterly terrified by the thoughts of death.
The suggestion that there must autobiographical overtones to how a particular author goes about exploring the motif of death can also be illustrated, in regards to Hemingway’s short story. The reason for this is that the manner, in which the character of the American refers to the death-related topics, implies him being endowed with the strongly defined ‘masculine’ mentality.
For example, while trying to convince his girlfriend (Jig) to consider performing an abortion (which results in death of an unborn child), this character deliberately strives to downplay the associated implications: “It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’… ‘It’s not really an operation at all” (Hemingway 2).
This, of course, betrays the American as a rather arrogant male, who tends to treat women in terms of a trophy. Given the author’s reputation of having been a ‘playboy’, there can be only a few doubts that, by exposing the concerned character’s light attitude towards death, Hemingway was projecting his own attitude, in this respect.
What is also peculiar about how Chopin explored the motif of death in her short story, is that the author appears to have been trying to emphasize the absurdist overtones of one’s passing away. The validity of this suggestion can be shown, in regards to the story’s ultimate conclusion: “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease – of joy that kills” (Chopin 3). As this quotation implies, death is something utterly unexpected.
Moreover, death is also something that can be well ridiculed – contrary to some people’s tendency to mystify it. We can well speculate that such a point of view on death correlates perfectly well with the fact that Chopin was known for her somewhat atheistic attitudes in life. After all, atheists are naturally predisposed to demystify death, as the ‘end of all’, rather than the ‘beginning of something different’, which in turn causes them to think that there is indeed nothing meaningful about how a person dies.
The fact that Chopin used to be an intellectually liberated person is also exposed by what account for the particulars of the motif of life, as seen in The Story of an Hour. The rationale behind this suggestion is quite apparent – this motif implies that life must be appreciated as a ‘thing in itself’.
For example, after having realized that, due to the death of her husband, she no longer needed to lead the lifestyle of an obedient housewife, Mrs. Mallard became instantly appreciative of every small joy that life has to offer: “She (Mrs. Mallard) could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares.
The notes of a distant song which some one was singing reached her faintly…” (Chopin 1). This, of course, implies that, as it was the case with the author, the story’s main character tended to think that there could be no other purpose of life, but the one that enables the concerned individual to enjoy its own existence – just for the sake of doing it. However, an individual can only be in the position of enjoying its life to fullest, for as long as he or she does not need to suffer from being oppressed.
Therefore, there is nothing surprising about the fact that Mrs. Mallard used to think of the notions of ‘life’ and ‘freedom’, as being essentially synonymous: “When she (Mrs. Mallard) abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’” (Chopin 2). Obviously enough, the story’s main character believed that it is namely a life worthy of living, which deserves to be lived, in the first place.
Essentially the same can be said about the attitude towards life, on the part of the American, reflected by this character’s tendency to avoid addressing life-challenges, as opposed to facing them directly. The allegory of the ‘white elephants’, contained in Hemingway’s story, substantiates the validity of this suggestion: “(Jig) I said the mountains looked like white elephants” (Hemingway 1).
Given the fact that the American disregarded this Jig’s remark, this can be well seen as such that that provides us with an insight into the workings of his psyche. Apparently, the American tended to think that the unfamiliar/strange things are by definition pose a certain danger.
Hence, the overall significance of the motif of life, in The Story of an Hour – in this story, one’s life is being represented as the instrument of experiencing sensual pleasures. In fact, the reason why the American asked Jig to perform an abortion, in the first place, is that Jig’s positive decision, in this respect, would allow both individuals to continue enjoying each other’s company, without having to be burdened with any responsibilities, whatsoever.
Nevertheless, this could only be achieved at the expense of destroying another person’s life – specifically, the life of the couple’s unborn child. Thus, it will be thoroughly appropriate to suggest that there are many Darwinian overtones to how the motif of life is being explored in Hemingway’s short story. After all, this motif clearly implies that, in order to be able to sustain itself, life must devour another life.
3. I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, regarding the significance of the motifs of life and death in both of the discussed short stories by Ernest Hemingway and Kate Chopin, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.
Apparently, these motifs do not only play a significant role, within the context of emphasizing the philosophical value of both literary works, but they also reflect what used to account for the main psychological predispositions, on the part of Hemingway and Chopin. Therefore, while exposed to these motifs, readers should be able to gain a better understanding of both of the mentioned authors, as individuals.
Chopin, Kate 1894, The Story of an Hour. PDF file. 28 Feb. <https://my.hrw.com/support/hos/hostpdf/host_text_219.pdf>
Hemingway, Ernest 1927, Hills Like White Elephants. PDF file. Web.
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