Monday, August 3, 2009


I’ve liked Ernest Hemingway’s work ever since 10th grade, where I first encountered A Farewell to Arms and lost myself in its quiet horror. My affection for that novel, however, never really translated into full-scale obsession the way it did, at the time, for T.S. Eliot or William Blake; more than a decade later, I haven’t read much more of Hemingway than I had at the time, and the one time I did read The Sun Also Rises, I did it in three hours one cold Sunday morning—and I didn’t pay much attention to it.

I’m reading Sun again for my comprehensive exams, which of course forces me to slow down and pay more attention this time, and as I go through it I remember the things I liked about Hemingway in high school and the things I learned that I should probably hate about him—the ridiculous “hard-boiled-ness” of his protagonists, for example, wears thin after awhile for any reader who’s safely made it through puberty.

(Funny story: I had to reread A Farewell to Arms for a class in college. I’d just seen the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, a pastiche of film noir and existentialism, and I couldn’t make it through Hemingway’s novel without cracking up, imagining Frederic Henry’s monosyllabic responses coming from Billy Bob Thornton’s laconic barber. Okay, I guess that story's not that funny, but it makes me laugh, anyway.)

Probably the first thing you learn in any classroom scenario critical of Hemingway’s work is the feminist objection to him. There’s a group of scholars now who are desperately trying to “reclaim” A Farewell to Arms, saying that Catherine Barkley is a strong character and perhaps even some sort of role model. These people are insane. Hemingway seems incapable of writing a female character with any kind of depth or verisimilitude to her; women are, for him, either mannish sexual aggressors or submissive and docile objects of masculine sexual aggression.

But that’s not even the biggest problem with Hemingway’s portrayal of women. A long passage from The Sun Also Rises demonstrates:
Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something from nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.

I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth.
Obviously, masculinity’s a big deal for Hemingway. His protagonists may be cerebral and literate, but they always have a connection to the body; they’re always fishing or boxing or bull-fighting. Masculinity—even mere male-ness—is a restorative condition in Hemingway’s work. Feeling down? Play tennis for four hours, and you’ll get your soul back.

Accordingly, male-to-male (or “homosocial,” to use Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s famous term for it) relationships are generally positive in his fiction. Think of the male relationships in Hemingway’s novels—think of how much more vivid, for example, Frederic Henry’s relationship with Rinaldo is than his romance with Catherine. Men are able to achieve Heideggerian being-with-one-another only with other men—the entrance of women into the equation creates an economy of relationships in which no one gets anything for free and in which even gifts have huge and heavy strings attached to them.

Furthermore, women move homosocial relationships from the realm of the being-with-one-another into the realm of the being-against-one-another. Jake and Robert Cohn, for example, have their falling-out over their conflicting relationships with Brett. Women, in Hemingway’s novels, are poisonous and contagious, infecting everything and everyone they touch. And yet they’re unavoidable; even Jake Barnes, who’s unable even to have a sexual relationship, can’t stay away from Brett Ashley.

Hemingway’s feminist critics are right, in other words. The problem with his novels from a gender standpoint is not that he doesn’t know how to write a believable woman without making her into a man; it’s that his women are, to paraphrase the Hollies, King Midases in reverse, destroying everything they touch.

Not that Hemingway was alone in this, of course—The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, for example, seems to exist mostly as a way to take Nick's model of masculinity away from him. Nor is he a mere product of his time, one that we can look back on in innocent disgust, as Judd Apatow’s “bro-romance” comedies demonstrate. (Seth Rogan’s friendship with Paul Rudd in Knocked Up is far more compelling than his sexual relationship with Katherine Heigl.)

I’ve written about the kinks in male-female relationships elsewhere, and I wonder to what extent those who take Genesis 1-3 seriously as mythology can blame this phenomenon on the Fall. Male-female relationships are obviously more complicated than male-male or female-female relationships, since there’s an entirely new brain system to deal with in the latter.

As I (jokingly) tell my wife, I don’t read women authors, so I’m wondering if we see a similar structure in fiction by women. Are men mere agents of entropy and destruction? I’m not sure, but I suspect not: Women are for the most part capable of greater nuance and complication than are men, a product of the superiority of the X chromosome to the small and decaying Y.

This went a long way off track from The Sun Also Rises, but you’ll have to forgive me—I haven’t written one of these in quite some time.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

So obviously I had to say something here. You've articulated why I can't stomach Hemingway much better than I'm ever able to. He almost constantly uses women as Sedgwickian homosocial currency, and just as frequently makes them victims of violence (both figurative and literal) whose actual target is another man. I get that his writing is a product of his time and milieu. I'm okay with that. What I'm not okay with is the fact that the extreme dependence on the male homosocial completely marginalizes its female counterpart, and occasionally suggests that female community doesn't exist due to bizarre biological differences. I'm thinking of The Lawyer's comments disparaging female secretaries in "Bartleby" as well as some bits of "A Farewell to Arms." Sedgwick herself comments on Hemingway in a chapter of "Between Men." I'll look it up and show you later.

You asked whether there is analogous commenting about men in literature regarding the female homosocial. I would say yes and no. If it exists, it takes very different forms, and I would say that the marginalization of female authors are a huge contributor to that formal change. The two forms I can think of are the role of the man in "chick lit" and the role of the man in so-called "woman-centric" adaptations. In chick lit, men are either cheating assholes or gay and completely nonthreatening, but that kind of sexist generalization is okay, because everyone knows you aren't supposed to take the genre seriously anyway, thereby creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy of ingrained sexism that hurts BOTH genders. Blatantly feminist adaptations of patriarchally-produced or connect works are a bit different, but still occassionally problematic. I'm thinking of Djanet Sears's "Harlem Duet" and Paula Vogel's "Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief" as prime examples. Both plays adapt "Othello" (a play rife with examples of the problems a self-righteous and isolated male community can cause and exacerbate) by focusing on the women while the men occupy the background (in "Harlem") or don't appear at all (in "Desdemona"). While this trope certainly brings notice to the reduced role of the female sphere in the original play, both adaptations essentially flip the binary, which, because all the death in "Othello" results from isolation and lack of communication BETWEEN the sexes (in my opinion anyway), is still a huge problem. To make a long comment short, both sexes separate themselves and marginalize others. History just makes us read those accounts differently.