Gender, Misogyny, and the “New Woman” in In Our Time
The works of Ernest Hemingway are often criticized by feminist critics because of the way he writes about women. Hemingway is often described as the “poster boy for archaic masculinity that many would love to see eradicated” (Haske). Many believe that Hemingway embodies patriarchal attitudes through the way that he characterizes women and the way they are portrayed in his stories. In all of Hemingway’s short stories, the main characters are always men. Although there are usually female characters as well, they are never featured as the protagonist. Even then, many critics feel that the female characters are misrepresented. The way that the females are characterized in his stories makes it appear as if women are not taken seriously nor respected by the men that they are surrounded by. Hemingway chooses to leave the women in the shadows of his writing. While it appears that Hemingway is a misogynist because of how he degrades and misrepresents women in his writing, Hemingway’s writing represents realistic situations based off of the time it was written. By closely analyzing his stories, the reader can see that Hemingway is trying his best to adapt to the societal changes occurring in this period of history and may arguably be progressive. Analysis of the way that Hemingway characterizes the female characters in his stories “Soldier’s Home”, “Cat in the Rain”, and “The End of Something” illustrates that Hemingway was not a misogynist, but rather representing realistic situations associated with the time in history.
Feminist literary criticism by definition, “assumes that literature both reflects and shapes stereotypes and other cultural assumptions. Thus, feminist literary criticism examines how works of literature embody patriarchal attitudes or undercut them” (Napikoski). In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway was originally published in 1925. During this time, the United States was in the midst of the Women’s Suffrage movement—which began in the 1920s when women were given the right to vote. Steven Lynn explains that our, “Western society has actually been structured to protect women from the brutalities of war and commerce, allowing them to be nurturers, mothers, and homemakers…it overlooks the way that insulation and honor are themselves a kind of suppression and exclusion. And it assumes that women are the weaker sex (emotional, unstable, passive, irrational), needing protection, unable to compete with men. But all women are not weaker than all men in any way” (Lynn, 223). While women were gaining more rights and more of a voice within society, most women remained in the traditional role of the housewife. Dismantling gender norms and societal expectations was extremely difficult. This time period produced many inconsistencies in beliefs and values due to the different ideas from “traditionalist” older generation and the “new woman” that was brought forth by the younger generation (Alchin).
One instructive narrative, where these issues are concerned. “Soldier’s Home”. In this short story, Krebs is a young man who has just returned home from war. His transition to life back home proves to be extremely difficult. His family begins to worry about his well being, so they encourage him to find a job and a nice girl to date. Unfortunately, Krebs is no longer able to relate and connect to those around him, causing him to act out towards his family. In this story, Hemingway depicts the idea that the main goal of women should have the desire to be homemakers. The beginning of the story features Krebs’ sister—who has the first active role for a female in the story. In the dialogue, she asks her brother “Aren’t you my beau, Hare?” (Hemingway, 74). She continues on to talk about how her brother is her beau and she asks if he loves her. She does not stop asking Krebs these questions until he reluctantly gives her an accepting answer. In “Rhetoric and Women: The Private and Public Spheres”, an essay featured in Constructing and Reconstructing Gender, Lesley Di Mare explains that in literature, “women are defined in terms of their biological function…other disciplines (history, philosophy, art, film, and so on) have been used by the patriarchy to create the perception that women function best biologically, none have been used so effectively as the discipline of rhetoric. In effect, the rhetorical tradition has acted as a tool of the dominant cultural position to promote the notion that women are capable of only one function—a biological one…women’s secondary status in society becomes a self-perpetuating one” (Di Mare, 47). Di Mare explains that literature often depicts that the only purpose women have in society is to have children and to be homemakers. Krebs’ sister represents the idea that women, even from a young age, believe that their function in society is to get married and have children. Even at a young age, society has taught his sister’s that her main concern should be gaining acceptance from men.
Likewise, we are given Krebs’ mother who represents a woman that is fulfilling her “biological function”. In the story she is presented as a hyper-religious, nagging, emotional housewife. Although being a stay at home mother is the “job” that society expects her to fulfill, she is still criticized even when she is being a good mother. Famous female literary critic, Simone de Beauvoir, explained in her book, The Second Sex, that, “females have been depicted in literature and culture as either Mary or Eve, the angelic mother or evil seductress. Such a representation of women, especially in works by men, serves to make women unreal…rather than anything positively female or mutually human” (Lynn, 227). According to de Beauvoir, Krebs’ mother in “Soldier’s Home” functions as a “Mary” because of her housewife stereotype. De Beauvoir argues that depicting women as the perfect housewife is an unrealistic representation of women, thus perpetrating the misogynistic views of our society.
Although “Soldier’s Home” mostly portrays the idea that a woman’s purpose is to raise a family, Hemingway attempts to subtly negate this idea with Krebs’ sister. Krebs’ sister discusses her love for baseball and even says “I can pitch better than lots of the boys” (Hemingway, 74). Before the 1920s, it was considered unladylike to women to play sports (“Women in Sport and Physical Education at The College of Wooster”). By Hemingway acknowledging the fact that his sister is thriving competing in sport (even against boys) exhibits his attempt to dismantle typical gender roles during this time period.
Similar to “Soldier’s Home”, “The Cat in the Rain” features a female character who is seeming to seek approval from a man: her husband, George. In the story, an American couple is stuck in a hotel room because it is raining outside. While the wife looks out the window, she sees a cat that is caught in the rain. The wife decides that she wants to go fetch the cat, but this upsets the husband and causes a string of disagreements between the couple. In each case that the wife proposes, “the male character is disturbed by this jarring experience of difference” (Holliday-Karre, 70) and she is told no. During their conversation in the hotel room, the woman—who is never given a name other than “the American girl”—talks about how badly she had wanted the cat that was outside. She continues to talk in hopes of getting some recognition or attention, but George is completely uninterested in what his wife has to say and does not look up from his newspaper. He does not engage in conversation until she asks, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if I let my hair grow out?” (Hemingway, 93). Once the conversation shifted to something concerning the appearance of his wife, he gave her full attention and “hadn’t looked away from her since she started to speak” (Hemingway, 93). Virginia Woolf, one of the foremost modernist writers of the 20th century, states, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size…That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men” (Holliday-Karre). Here, Woolf explains that both historically and in literature women have been objects which men want to control—they serve as whatever the man would like them to be. Before the women’s rights movement women were expected to submit to their husbands and were often seen as objects, rather than their own person. The wife in “Cat in the Rain” depicts this idea and thus functions as her husband’s reflector.
Some critics believe that the way Hemingway portrays the wife’s behavior in “Cat in the Rain” as narcissistic and that “[her] desire for emotional and physical contact is unrealistic” (Holliday-Karre, 74) because she is attempting to break away from her husband’s expectations. During this time period, women were expected to be complacent and not question their husbands. Like many women in the 1920s, the American wife in “Cat in the Rain” had to exhibit great strength and boldness in order to attempt to break away from the expectations that society and her husband had in order to seek recognition that she is her own person.
As explained previously, the women featured in his stories are often negatively characterized. Some critics believe that Hemingway in his short story, “The End of Something”, the female character is described as naïve and delusional—but this is not so. Opposed to the previous two stories, this story instead represents a strong, independent female who is disregards the gender norms that are often associated with the women featured in Hemingway’s stories. In the story, Nick and Marjorie are in a serious relationship. Marjorie believes that her relationship with Nick is going well, and even believes that there may be the prospect of marriage in the near future. Unfortunately, Nick does not feel the same and he has decided that he can no longer be with Marjorie. Throughout the story, the reader is able to pick up Nick’s subtle hints of disinterest. Marjorie is completely clueless that Nick feels this way and does not think much of his short, condescending responses. Eventually, Nick picks a fight with Marjorie by getting frustrated that she “know[s] everything”. This moment infers that “Marjorie’s knowledge, then, appears to be the source of Nick’s unhappiness” (Daiker, 246). Marjorie’s knowledge and confidence defies typical gender roles, thus “challenging his dominance” (Daiker, 246). This argument results in Nick breaking up with Marjorie because “everything had gone to hell inside of [him]” (Hemingway, 34). Despite her confusion, Marjorie remains composed. Hemingway writes, “Marjorie stood up… ‘I’m going to take the boat. You can walk back around the point’” (Hemingway, 35). This scene, “reflects not only a moment of absolute clarity for Marjorie but also the beginning of her recovery” (Daiker, 250). As I previously mentioned, Lynn states that women are often represented as “emotional, unstable, passive, [and] irrational” (223). Marjorie breaks the idea of what women are because she demonstrates composure and rational thinking—all while confronting a difficult situation. Additionally, Marjorie walking away from Nick resists Di Mare’s assertion that “women are defined in terms of their biological function” which in hand results in “women’s secondary status in society” (Di Mare, 47). Marjorie is able to realistically acknowledge that while it is the end of something, it is not the end of everything. “The End of Something” represents that Hemingway’s ideas about women are changing due to the influence of the time period.
There is no questioning that Ernest Hemingway in many cases has misrepresented women in his stories. His characterization of women being emotional, unstable, passive, and irrational often distracts the reader from believing that Hemingway was anything other than a misogynist. It is important to look at the time in which his stories were written in order to fully understand why he portrays women the way he does. The 1920s, the time in which In Our Times was written, was a period of major change in regards to how women were treated and viewed by society. Thus, Hemingway represents the ideas of someone caught in the middle of the older generation of “traditionalists” and the younger generation who backs the ideas of the “new woman”. Throughout his writing, we see how he conforms to societies old ideas and expectations—but we also see how he attempts to represent the “new woman” by dismantling the stereotype of how a woman should act and function. Hemingway’s stories are not influenced off of his own misogynistic ideologies, but rather a realistic depiction of how society was functioning during the time period.
Alchin, Linda. “Women in the 1920s.” Women in the 1920s: Changing Roles and Famous Women for Kids, http://www.american-historama.org/ era/women-in-the-1920s.htm.
Brandt, Jeff. “Ernest Hemingway: In Limbo between Sexism and Feminism.” January 13, 2010, jtbrandt.com/system/app/pages/search?scope=search-site&q=in+limbo.
Daiker, Donald A. “In Defense of Hemingway’s Young Nick Adams: ‘Everything Was Gone to Hell Inside Me.’” Texas Studies in Literature & Language, vol. 57, no. 2, 2015, pp. 242-257. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7560/TSLL57205.
Di Mare, Lesley. Constructing and Reconstructing Gender: Female Critics and The Female Voice, “Rhetoric and Women: the Private and the Public Spheres”. Alabama UP, 1992.
Haske, Joseph. “Hemingway: A Critical Feast.” American Book Review, vol. 38, no. 4, 2017. Project Muse, muse.jhu.edu/article/670377/summary.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996.
Holliday-Karre, Erin. “Dr. Froyd Seemed to Think That I was Quite a Famous Case”: Sexual Discourse in 1920’s Feminism and Fiction.” Womens Studies, vol. 45, no. 4, 2016.
Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts. 6th ed., Pearson, 2011, p. 227-228.
Napikoski, Linda. “Feminist Literary Criticism.” ThoughtCo, 31 July 2017, thoughtco.com/feminist-literary-criticism-3528960. Accessed 2 November 2017.
Women in Sport and Physical Education at The College of Wooster, www.ohio5.org/woosterwomeninsport/exhibits/show/eras/1920s.
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