Finding Contentment in Mr. and Mrs. Elliot
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, which Hubert was "very severe about" (163). Her friend is simply much better at it.
It is interesting that Hemingway never gives the girl friend a name; perhaps we are meant to infer that Hubert himself (from whose perspective the story is more or less told) doesn't know the girl's name. Similarly, while the story notes that "Cornelia had taught him to call her Calutina" (162), the story itself never refers to her using that name. I think it's reasonable to believe that while Hubert may call her Calutina to please her, he still thinks of her as Cornelia. The sort of closeness that the use of a nickname implies does not really exist between them; in his mind, she is always Cornelia. The girl friend, in contrast, calls Cornelia "Honey", not because she was taught to do so but simply because she cares for her (163).
Hemingway also notes that the girls cry "together", whereas Cornelia always cries around Hubert but never with him. Indeed, often Cornelia is crying because of her husband. Nowhere is this more evident that in Dijon, where Hemingway writes, "She cried a good deal and they tried several times to have a baby before they left Dijon" (163). Hubert's and Cornelia's expectations about marriage...