Hemingway and the fair sex

March 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

Ah, good ol’ Ernest! What’s not to like about him? The novels with their themes of masculinity, perseverance, commitment, and war. But there are some who take issue with him. See, to them Hemingway with his philandering, his boozing, and his writing represents an outlook and a time period that they despise; that they associate with male chauvinism, oppression of, and condescension towards women. And in Hemingway they’ve found an easy target. To many his female characters are but pretty dolls waiting with their legs wide open. I have always been critical of such accusations: Hemingway’s reputation as a misogynist is undeserved.

The first aspect of this argument that needs to be discussed is Hem’s writing style. His famous ‘iceberg theory’ leaves a lot for the reader to infer. Paradoxically the lean, sparse sentences allow readers to make up their own minds. As a consequence differing opinions can be formed and held about the characters and plots. It is this quality of his prose that has led to both contempt for and exaltation of Hemingway.

Now to the women in his novels. I’ve decided to use Brett Ashley (The Sun also Rises), Catherin Barkley (A Farewell to Arms), and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls) as the basis for my argument.

Brett Ashley is impulsive, pragmatic, beautiful, smart, and vulnerable. She is clearly capable of falling in love but also has an unquenchable desire for sex. She knows that she would be better off with Jake, for he clearly loves her, but his love alone is not enough.Their relationship would never truly satisfy her.Through her you get the idea that Hemingway considers women to be as flawed and as conflicted as men, and driven by the same needs and desires. It is in this regard that Hemingway pays women the ultimate compliment.

When Catherine Barkley meets Frederic Henry, she is clearly the maturer of the two. She sees through his lies and his school boy attempts to woo her. But once she falls in love with him she does so with a fierce intensity:

“Why, darling, I don’t live at all when I’m not with you.”
“There isn’t any me. I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.”

To Catherine love trumps all, even religion.

” ‘Do you want me to get a priest or any one to come and see you?’ [Henry]
‘Just you,’ she said.”

And when the end is near she faces her death stoically:

“I’m not afraid. I just hate it.”

All these characteristics make Catherine Barkley a far cry from the vapid doll that many believe the women in Hemingway’s novels to be.

Maria isn’t as well defined as Brett and Catherine. A young woman raped by the fascists, rescued by Pilar and her crew, who falls passionately in love with Robert Jordan. You get the feeling that Maria serves more as a plot piece to define Robert’s character. However in a world plagued by grief, the two are able to find solace and love.  For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war novel and Hemingway clearly considered war to be the province of men. He clearly focuses on men and masculine themes in this novel but doesn’t entirely neglect women: to Jordan, Maria represents all that is beautiful in the world. Their relationship isn’t just one of lust, but of ardent love. Through Maria he evokes the suffering of women at times of war. War may be the province of men, but its cataclysmic nature affects all.

Hemingway may not have championed women’s rights or causes but as the above passage hopefully proves he neither set out to belittle them. He created strong, stoic, self-assured but at times flawed, destructive, and vulnerable women proving that Hemingway had a greater understanding of women than most people give him credit. It seems improbable that with all the women in his life he didn’t learn a thing or two about them.

Ernest Hemingway


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