Sexism and the Double Standard in Ernest Hemingway’s Fiction

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Many critics argue that Ernest Hemingway had the most significant influence on American literary history of any writer. Based on his training as a journalist, Hemingway created a pared-down yet passionate writing style. His fearlessness as a war correspondent, his admiration of courage, his being in Paris in the right place at the right time, gave him the material he needed for his short stories and novels. The heroes in Hemingway’s are independent, strong-willed men who enjoy manly activities such as fishing, hunting, and bullfighting. When faced with a challenge, they persevere and become stronger. In addition, his male characters typically do not show emotion directly, but revel in their masculinity, much like the author himself. However, A many disturbing aspects of the treatment of women in Hemingway’s work have been ignored, or accepted, or have been seen as factors contributing to the beauty or charm of the works in which they appear. It is evident that Hemingway believes he knows which traits are feminine, and which are not. He does not question his own assumptions about this, but takes for granted that his heroines must be a reflection of their author, hence masculine themselves. He confuses sex, a biological attribute, with sex or gender role that refers to the role of a male or female in society, which is culturally determined. In doing so, he applies not only a sexual but also an intellectual double standard to his female characters.

Sexism means discrimination against people because of their sex: anything unfair to males or females, just because they’re males or females, is an example of sexism. The most subtle, pervasive level at which sexism affects literature is that of the literary convention. For example, the fate of the heroine or female character may be controlled by conventions that inherently impose a sexist view on the author and the reader, male or female: they may affect the way an author such as Hemingway treats his female characters and may constitute the reason readers often find the way these women act as credible and their fate acceptable, even when it seems implausible. These conventions reflect the values of the author and the culture. For example, American culture is male. This does not mean that every man in American society is luckier or more privileged than every woman. What it means (among other things) that American society, like most other historical societies, is a patriarchy. And patriarchies imagine or picture themselves from the male point of view. There is a female culture, but it is often an unofficial, minor culture, occupying a small corner of what is officially thought of as possible human experience. Both men and women in American culture have long conceived of the culture from a single point of view – the male Hemingway, whom many call a Realist, spent his whole working life on the dramatic lucidity of an artist who embraced Victorian myths about women.

Because they were weak and inferior to men, women were supposed to live a highly restrictive life centered around their husband and their children. Power and privilege were reserved for men. Hemingway’s short stories and novels are not about men and women equally; they are about men. Although his works are full of women, they are never about women who have no relations with men. The female characters in Hemingway’s work are not real women but images of modest maidens, motherly women, bitchy women, faithful women, promiscuous women, beautiful women, and so on. They exist only in relationship to the protagonist who is male. At their best, they are merely depictions of the social roles women are supposed to play (and often do play), but these are the public roles and not the private women who exist in real life. At their worst, they are clouded fantasies about what Hemingway’s male protagonists want, or hate, or fear. Perhaps it is Hemingway’s lack of understanding of women’s very real inner strength that prevents him from fully developing his female characters.

In a basic sense, Hemingway’s women are not full members of the societies he depicts; his cultures are composed entirely of men. Women are, however, the chief signs, the language of social communication between males. In the verbal exchange of women among themselves, men create ties and bonds, the social structures that are their civilizations. Without women, relationships like the friendship of Frederic Henry and Rinaldi in A Farewell to Arms profoundly resonant with personal feeling and meaning, and yet have no social significance. Particularly in wartime when a man faces a threat to his masculinity, he might look to women for reaffirmation of this manhood. Although Hemingway’s women have no real power over his men, they are vital for civilization and his survival, and thus man has to take them along wherever he goes, and at whatever cost.

Hemingway’s women – Maria and Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls; Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms; Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises; Margot Macomber in ‘The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’ and Cornelia Elliott in “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”– can easily be divided into two groups: good women who, as male-dominated, voiceless beings, lack their own identity and bad women who try to assume the man’s role and emasculate him. Both types of women must be punished in some way for their actions.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Pilar, the strong “mujer of Pablo,” provides background information about the war. She has a foul mouth and a vulgar sense of humor. Pilar is hurt by Maria’s love for Robert Jordan and must give her unnatural masculine attachment to Maria after Robert Jordan appears. She must be punished both by her jealousy and by her loss of Maria as “daughter” and – most significantly – as object of sexual love. Maria, a sweet, delicate girl, who is raped by the Fascists, somehow remains a naïve teenage girl.

In A Farewell to Arms, Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, cares for a wounded Frederic Henry who is disillusioned with the war and falls in love with him. Catherine is essentially Hemingway’s ideal woman because she is passionate, submissive, and fulfilled in love. She attends to the hero’s physical as well as emotional needs. When she becomes pregnant she does not insist on marriage. In fact, her love for Henry destroys her as a separate person and she says, “There isn’t any me, I’m you. Don’t make up a separate me.” (Hemingway 116). She is punished for her sexuality with a painful labor and a Caesarean section, which causes her baby to die sometime during or after her operation. Even then she says to Henry, “You poor sweet. I love you so and I’ll be good again. I’ll be good this time” (Hemingway 322). However, Catherine then dies of multiple hemorrhages. These three women are fantasies of every Hemingway hero: beautiful, sexually obliging, and compliant. He seems unable to create a separate set of virtues for his women characters so he endows them with the male attributes of courage and strong-will. Thus, Hemingway’s “good” women seem to be nothing more than Hemingway men with some adjustments.

Hemingway’s male characters live in constant fear of losing their traditional roles or virility because of “bad” women. In “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” there is a particularly fine example of dangerous woman who threatens to emasculate men. Margot is figure who is beautiful, irresistible, ruthless but fascinating: fascinating because she is somehow cheap or contemptible, who (in her more passive form) destroys men by her indifference and who (when the male character is more afraid of her) destroys men actively, sometimes by shooting them. Margot Macomber becomes, therefore, a bitch goddess. She treats her husband Francis like a difficult child and ultimately shoots and kills him. Wilson says, “Why didn’t you poison him? That’s what the English do?” All the reader’s hostilities are directed against this bitch who must be punished (by a man, of course) for trying to play the dominant role of the man with impunity. Readers understand that Margot Macomber is a bitch goddess, that Francis Macomber is a failed man, and that the White Hunter is a real man. The dramatic conflict is extremely clear, very vehement, and completely expected. The characters are simple, emotionally charged, and larger-than-life. As a result, the fine details of the story can be polished to that point of high gloss where everything – weather, gestures, laconic conversations, terrain, clothing – imply a deeper meaning. The reader cannot stop to ask why Margot is so bitchy – she’s just a Bitch, that’s all – or why killing a large animal will restore Macomber’s manhood – everybody knows it will – or why the bitch cannot tolerate the real man – these things are already explained by Hemingway’s personal code and understanding of masculinity and femininity.

The main characters in the short story “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot” Hubert Elliot, a twenty-five year old virgin, and Cornelia Elliot, a Southern woman who is forty and the owner of a tea shop. Because they both want a baby, Cornelia tolerates sex with Hubert “as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it” (Hemingway 162). Mr. Elliot, who has been rejected by many women who saw his sexual inexperience as a flaw, feels emasculated when he cannot get his wife pregnant.

Lady Brett Ashley in A Sun Also Rises is Hemingway’s most enduring siren. In Brett, Hemingway may be expressing his own anxieties about strong, sexually independent women. Brett embodies traditionally masculine characteristics, while Jake, Mike, and Bill are to varying degrees uncertain of their masculinity. She is a postwar woman who is almost devoid of womanhood. She wears a mannish hat, bobs her hair, shows off her body beneath her sweater, wears no stockings as she dances and drinks in public, and befriends homosexuals. Although she and Jake Barnes love one another, both see his impotence as an impossible obstacle to a relationship so she leads a promiscuous life of romantic adventures. Each of her admirers – Jake Barnes, Robert Cohn, the count, Mike Campbell, and Pedro Romero – are treated badly when she is with them. Then she casts each aside and moves on to another lover. Her carefree sexuality makes Jake and Mike miserable and drives Cohn to acts of violence. After Brett’s failed affair with Romero, a young bullfighter, she tries to become a “changed woman” but her attempt fails. She is too old, too one-dimensional to change. She returns to Mike and his superficial world because that is, after all, her world, too. Brett says simply, “He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing’ (Hemingway 247).

The distortion of the depiction of women in Hemingway’s novels and short stories is the double standard that is manifested in most literature throughout history. Women are seldom more than depictions of social roles they are expected to play. Hemingway’s heroines are restricted to one vice, one virtue, and one occupation. They spend most of their time and energy maintaining relations with their lovers (or marrying, or worrying about their sexuality, their men, and their love lives).

Characterization in Hemingway’s work has often denied women the emotional, moral, and intellectual complexity of fully defined human beings and the role women have played in those novels and short stories as a whole has been overshadowed by the male heroes. In Hemingway’s fiction, the man is the hero; the man is the person who acts, suffers, achieves, and learns. The woman is the protector, the encourager, or the destroyer of the man’s ambition. In Hemingway’s fiction, she must falsify her own perceptions and desires in order to fulfill the prescribed role of “other” – an existential, non-existent being – as mere landscape to her man’s postured heroism.

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