Ernest Hemingway's "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" ultimately leaves us with a paradox. From its opening line, the story defines the marriage of Hubert and Cornelia as a marriage of failure: failure to conceive a child, failure to communicate, failure to have good sex. Indeed, the story's opening image seems the perfect metaphor for the marriage as a whole: "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it" (161). The Elliots' marriage is one of unfulfilled desires-of trying as much as one "can stand it", but never achieving success. Nevertheless the story's final line asserts, "they were all quite happy." How can we reconcile the failures of this marriage with contentment? One tactic might be to assert that Hemingway was being cute when he said they were all quite happy, and the reader is expected to infer that they were really quite unhappy. While I acknowledge that Hemingway had a penchant for understatements and paradox, I think the Elliots are in a very real sense content with the state their marriage ultimately finds itself in, despite their unfulfilled desires.
To find out why, we must first clarify who "they" are at the story's close. It isn't simply Hubert and Cornelia-it also includes Cornelia's girl friend from the tea shop in Boston. The presence of this friend has a noticeable effect on Mrs. Elliot from the moment of her arrival-Cornelia becomes "much brighter" and the two of them have "many good cries together" (163). This friend also takes to typing Mr. Elliot's poetry for him, as she is "very neat and efficient and seems to enjoy it" (164). Cornelia used to type his manuscripts, but she would make mistakes,...
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...s poetry, Cornelia prefers the company of her girl friend, and despite trying "very hard" they cannot have a baby. But the couple ultimately finds a sort of contentment, which, while it may not be marital bliss, is a passable substitute. Cornelia, a typical wife, wants someone with whom she can be emotionally close; she finds that in her girl friend. Hubert, a typical husband, want to make a baby; in the story he cannot do that, but finds a substitute act of creation in his poetry. In this way, both get what they want, though not necessarily in the way they might have expected at the wedding. In "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot", Hemingway seems to suggest that "quite happy", while not the same as "very happy", is nevertheless happy enough.
Hemingway, Ernest. "Mr. and Mrs. Eliot." The Short Stories. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.
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