They look like white elephants: Hemingway, writing and feminism

collectedstoriesI have loved Hemingway for a long time. I must have first read him in my late teens, and I was stunned by him in that all-consuming way I’ve experienced with only a few other writers. It is the simultaneous clarity and obscurity that I love. Everything is laid on the surface: action, gestures, drinks, rain. But you hear very few internal thoughts, read very little emotion. Hemingway trusts his readers to make their own meaning from the surface he has constructed so plainly. The iceberg theory and all that.

Hemingway taught me that dialogue is not the conversation of everyday life. Dialogue must be constructed as tightly as anything in fiction. In real life, people waste words. In dialogue they should not. Repetition is good. It sometimes conveys the gap between people, whether it’s a difference of opinion or something more permanent. Look at this:

“How you feel now?”
“I’m awfully tired,” he said. “And I’ve got a bad headache. But I feel a lot better. Let’s have another one and then go up to your place and get a bath.”
“Maybe we ought to eat first.”
“I’m too dirty to eat. You can hold a place and I’ll go get a bath and join you at the Gran Via.”
“I’ll go up with you.”
“No. It’s better to hold a place and I’ll join you.” He leaned his head forward on the table. “Boy I got a headache. It’s the noise in those buckets. I never hear it any more but it does something to your ears just the same.”
“Why don’t you go to bed?”
“No. I’d rather stay up with you for a while and then sleep when I got back down there. I don’t want to wake up twice.”
“You haven’t got the horrors, have you?”
“No,” he said. “I’m fine. Listen, Hank. I don’t want to talk a lot of crap but I think I’m going to get killed tomorrow.”
I touched the table three times with my fingertips.
“Everybody feels like that. I’ve felt like that plenty of times.”

A lesser writer would have put, “He rolled his eyes” or “He shook his head yet again.” We get the full relationship and scenario between these men through dialogue and repetition only, no explication. What hit me when I first read Hemingway, and what enchanted me to the point where I tried to imitate it as so many writers have, was the artificiality of his dialogue. It is obviously and deliberately contrived. Not being a realist writer, he isn’t afraid to cut and shape. After all, all fiction is contrived. Hemingway’s dialogue shows the difficulty his characters have “connecting” with each other, the inadequacy of external things – dialogue, appearance, movement – to truly express the internal world of a person.

EH 1306NReading all of his stories recently, I was struck by how many of the images had stayed somewhere in my unconscious. It was like happening on a scent that brings back the entirety of a place, a time, a set of feelings.

I think this is how influence works sometimes. When you write, you aren’t cognisant of what you’re drawing on. But a lot of what you’ve read – especially those images, passages, characters, motifs – stays buried, where only your unconscious can reach it. It’s going off-topic, but the role of the unconscious, bringing things out of the dark into the light, sometimes only partially, is I think the centre of writing.

Here’s something that was buried for me:

Into a skillet he was laying slices of ham. As the skillet grew hot the grease sputtered and Bugs, crouching on long nigger legs over the fire, turned the ham and broke eggs into the skillet, tipping it from side to side to baste the eggs with the hot fat.
“Will you cut some bread out of that bag, Mister Adams?” Bugs turned from the fire.
Nick reached in the bag and brought out a loaf of bread. He cut six slices.

What is special about that? There’s no intensity of feeling or language. It is the starkness, the food, the atmosphere, the Americanness. I know that for me, what I see as good writing is connected to concreteness. Abstract, transcendental concepts which aren’t tied to something tangible on earth are too vague to have much impact. I don’t really know what strikes me about this particular Hemingway passage, what took me back to the first time I read this scene. But good writing is like that. There is a certain amount you can analyse, but as an aesthetic and emotional experience good writing is like good music – it hits you somewhere beyond expression.

This is all aesthetic. As a feminist, how do I come to terms what is truly Hemingway’s unavoidable misogyny? He gives us no complexity in his female characters. They are always passive and are defined by their relation to men. This is their mode of being. If Hemingway isn’t eager to chronicle interior lives in general, he certainly completely avoids giving us the subjectivity of any female characters. They are defined by their usefulness or agreeableness to men. They are either “good” women who do their job by serving men, or “bad” women who have deceived or hurt them.

I don’t think the excuse that “he was writing in another time” is tenable. I don’t see gender politics as moving in a straight line, always tending toward progress. I think it is more complicated than that. But if you are a radical feminist, when you read any literature, and of course with any work of art or pop culture, you have to come to a point of compromise. You have to use the critical lens you have developed to interrogate what you’re reading/watching/listening to.

As a feminist I am as interested in masculinity and its construction as I am in femininity. They are both central to the deconstruction of patriarchal power. So Hemingway’s representation of war, bullfighting, boxing, drinking, “man in nature,” homosociality is fascinating for me. He somehow manages to interrogate this hypermasculinity while being enthralled in it. As a reader I can see the violence, anxiety, loneliness and impossible expectations of this kind of masculinity and I don’t have to celebrate this masculinity as he does. Being a writer of complexity, he necessarily shows the “negative” aspects of this kind of masculinity, he gestures towards the underlying uncertainties his male characters have. His style itself is reflective of the way hypermasculinity obscures the anxiety it provokes. The spare sentences, focused on external action, simultaneously make us think about what is not being said, what is under the iceberg, what men are supposed to hide and bluff their way through. He is still in love with the façade of masculinity, but as a reader I can see it as artifice in the way femininity is understood in Western culture as artifice. His male characters are trying to get to some “truth” of manhood through war, bullfighting, boxing, drinking, getting “back to nature” but it never works out. As a feminist I can see that this is because there is no truth to manhood.

Reading Hemingway critically like this, far from making me a “bad feminist,” I think makes me a better one. Yes, I roll my eyes at the waif-like “girls” who beg men to love them, but I can see that this is the misogyny that must attend hypermasculinity. Hypermasculinity of the sort Hemingway celebrates depends on misogyny for its power. Just as it depends on homophobia. Because it is not just a celebration of “masculine” activities and traits, it is a conde   mnation of everything “feminine.” To be a man means to objectify women, which means to embrace a misogynistic heterosexuality. Hemingway definitely writes masculinity with complexity but he doesn’t go the next step and interrogate its attendant misogyny and homophobia.
But reading him gives me a better understanding of masculinity, and patriarchy, and misogyny. And it has made me a better writer.



13 thoughts on “They look like white elephants: Hemingway, writing and feminism

  1. Ramblings and Reflections

    Accurate. I love that you explored the construction of gender in terms of femininity AND masculinity. I’ve read many feminist critiques on Hemingway, and I’ve seen truth in them; but I wanted to thank you for exploring the concept of masculinity and hyper-masculinity. I believe it is necessary for a comprehensive feminist perspective. It kind of goes back to that idea is having to compromise that you mentioned. It’s impossible to rail him for his misogyny without actually delving into masculinity. I appreciated your insight. I’m going to share this post with one of my feminist Hemingway fans.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Agreed – construction of masculinity is of course central to patriarchy and it’s just so damn interesting aside from anything else! I’m glad to hear there are other feminist Hemingway fans out there! Thanks for reading and sharing.

  2. Mari

    I loved how you explored the theme! As you said, the construction of masculinity (hyper-masculinity) is fundamental to patriarchal society and cannot simply be ignored by the feminists. Also, just because we don’t particularly agree with an author’s views doesn’t mean we can’t admire his/her or work. If we are going to condemn all literature with misogynistic content, we’ll be left with very little to read.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that an author’s views and the work are totally separate matters. Writers aren’t the most likeable people. Putting work out there invites criticism – it’s one of the great things about reading, what a reader brings to the work. And yes, the majority of literature would have to be abandoned if we were judging only on gender politics!

  3. Whitten

    I took an American Lit class where we did an extremely interesting feminist reading of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” It was cool because I’d always heard he was such a misogynist, and then we began reading and Lady Brett was the only character in the entire book who knew what she wanted and was not afraid. At the end, when she offers a life to Jake and he refuses it – we see him frozen by his need to demonstrate his masculinity, his need to be a man, have sex, get an erection, etc. But Brett can move fluidly through these hegemonic structures, knowing what is expected of her but being brave enough to ignore it.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      I like your reading. I think feminist analysis is thrilling – we see literature in a new light, and can sometimes even reclaim it. You raise a really good point about not privileging the author’s own viewpoint as an open and shut case. Unfortunately for Hemingway, feminist and queer readings shed much light on his stuff and make it even more interesting. Thank you for reading!

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  5. Camille


    I don’t think that all female characters in Hemingway’s work are submissive and defined by their relationships with men. For instance, in The Sun Also Rises, Brett is a strong character who is more “masculine” that the men who surrounded her. It is still mysoginistic because the female power is perceived as a threat but I think that it is too reductive to say that women are always “agreeadable”.


  6. Rotsirohawi Galban

    I don’t know if you’ve read all of his stuff, but in many of his books like The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls there are plenty of strong women with alternative meanings to their character other than being waif-like, overly romanticized, or agreeable/disagreeable to men. I might still be in that late-teen idealistic thing you talked about, but I think you aren’t seeing how if a book doesn’t have a woman in it or if a book has a non-developed or less developed female character, that doesn’t make the writer a misogynist, it’s just the subject of the book doesn’t lend itself to having a female character in it. Same as how every female main charactered book doesn’t need a male to be in it, it just is how the book’s story was thought up. I liked your writing and I do understand and agree that misogyny in the times that he wrote in aren’t good “excuses” at all, it’s just I think when your arguments are based on being able to see certain things because you are a feminist is misinformed or something like that. This post was like a year ago and I don’t know why/how I stumbled on it or why I feel so opinionated/inclined to respond to it. I just wanted to share my thoughts because as we all know the world revolves around ourselves and if something we don’t entirely agree with exists with our knowing, we have to complain about it. Thanks, and I hope you aren’t too angry with my slight disagreement.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! Of course I welcome discussion. I have read the two novels you mention, and certainly it’s a vexed question. Obviously no women/underdeveloped women doesn’t necessarily equate to misogyny. It is far more subtle. It’s all about representation. I do feel Hemingway’s representations of masculinity preclude representations of self-autonomous women, which takes place through silencing and sentimentalising, rather than simple erasure or “downplaying” female characters. Without a doubt there is still complexity there, which keeps us discussing it! I think a whole lot could be written about Brett Ashley, for instance, but it would be a shallow critique if it didn’t include misogynistic representation.


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