Magazine article The Human Life Review

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pronouns

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pronouns

Article excerpt

Trying to teach the humanities from a pro-life perspective in today's secular university is an undeniably difficult proposition. Indeed, trying even to discuss abortion is next-to-impossible, because it continues to elude the academy's penchant for technical euphemisms. The present terms of the debate-pro-life, anti-life, pro-choice, anti-choice-are too politically charged to allow the neutral setting expected for discussions of the human experience in the contemporary university. And with such a jagged chasm between the camps on abortion, it would seem a pointless exercise even to broach the subject. One assumes that upon hearing the A-word, students would automatically revert to their respective positions on the debate; ideological blinders would be donned quickly; little insight could be gained from in-class discussion. That having been said, it is a fine pleasure for a teacher to admit he has underestimated his students. It is a finer pleasure for a teacher to watch a class naturally transform itself into a quiet outpost for the culture of life.

I came upon these happy revelations as the result of a double backfire when teaching Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story, "Hills Like White Elephants." I chose the story to illustrate two interrelated points on grammar and literary theory in an American literature class. One particularly pernicious tendency in college writing is an over-reliance on indeterminate pronouns, by which students are able to gesture towards meanings without clarifying them. For example: "It prevents Hamlet from action." This sentence falters because the student used "It" as a stand-alone pronoun, which produced a self-evident contention whose validity, clearly, is far from self-evident. "It" must follow or precede the noun it refers to and/or replaces, usually aided by the addition of a relative pronoun. Thus a more successful sentence reads, "While it prevents Hamlet from action, doubt also provides him with insight."

"Hills Like White Elephants" seemed a perfect choice for a lesson on the indeterminate pronoun "it," as the entire drama of the story depends upon the characters' use of the word to delay and to avoid revealing the pronoun's identity. Moreover, the story allowed me to teach a theoretical point on Hemingway's method of writing. The short declarative sentences for which Hemingway is famous were his way of concealing deeper truths, and of conveying the suppressed emotions symptomatic of the modern, alienated condition. Hemingway himself provided the theory I wanted to teach my students in a brief but now famous aside in his 1932 memoir of Spanish bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."

I wanted to see if my students could feel as strongly as Hemingway hoped his readers would, to see if he had written his story "truly enough." This would be possible only if they could identify what lay beneath the roiling emotions experienced by the story's two protagonists as they engage in a tense conversation-if they could grasp what was literally embodied by the smallest, the seemingly most indeterminate of words.

"Hills Like White Elephants" is, at first glance, a typical Hemingway story. It takes place in a dusty bar beside an empty train-station. A man and a young woman are sipping drinks. They are together but at odds. Everything is dry and scorched: "The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. . . . The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot." This story differs, however, from Hemingway's other romanticized evocations of disillusioned, empty living; its sterile, indeed infertile backdrop-a "country brown and dry"-proves to be a correlative for the story's dramatic crux: whether the woman should have an abortion. …

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