by Henry Chung
(UBC Arts One LA1, Prof. Gavin Paul)
In 1943, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “If you leave a woman, you ought to shoot her” (qtd. In Baker 554). This quote seemingly encapsulates Hemingway’s misogynistic attitude towards women, reinforcing his age-old image as a hyper-masculine, macho man. However, this culturally-ingrained conjecture does not accurately reflect Hemingway’s intentions in writing In Our Time. Whilst In Our Time ostensibly appears to be a direct attack on womankind, its purpose as a form of social critique against the stereotypical traits of femininity, whether embodied by a man or a woman, is revealed through its themes of manliness and its portrayal of masculine traits and characters.
Hemingway’s intent in the writing of this collection of short stories and vignettes can be traced to his experiences and the contemporary society in which these stories were composed. Written in the early 20th century, shortly after the Great War, these stories reflect a society where gender constructs faced revolutionary changes. Such transformations were brought to the forefront of society by the brutality of war: as the first European war to utilize modern technology, the degree of violence inflicted upon men was unparalleled; faced with unprecedented conditions, many men felt their deep-rooted notions of masculinity fade away (Johnson). The introduction of artillery-induced PTSD—then known as “Shell Shock”—caused men on both fronts to fall apart (“Shell Shock”). Furthermore, the horrors of the war led to an emergence of conscientious objectors, men who sought to dodge the draft, and who were socially perceived as weak (Richards). This widespread erosion of the façade of masculinity, and its effects on social perceptions of men, may have caused Hemingway to feel threatened. An ambulance driver injured in the line of duty on the Italian Front, Hemingway would likely have felt disgusted by the lack of manliness amongst his contemporaries, and hence this may have inspired Hemingway to write In Our Time; not as a condemnation of women per se, but rather a promotion of the masculine traits on which he was raised.
Hemingway promotes these traits by glorifying men who embody them, and castigating men who do not. He portrays the ideal masculine man as being physically strong, silent, and capable. This trait of strength is a recurring theme in “Indian Camp”. Hemingway’s short story associates women with pregnancy and childbirth, emphasizing women and their role in domesticity. This is compounded with his unique choice of narrative point-of-view: whilst childbirth is a traditionally female-oriented experience, Hemingway tells this story from Nick Adams’ male perspective, whilst omitting any description of the Indian woman’s thoughts. This decision, whether intentional or not, reveals Hemingway’s disregard for the feelings of women, a disregard seen in Nick’s father, the Doctor, who likewise ignores the cries of the Indian woman: “I haven’t any anesthetic… Her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important” (Hemingway 16). The Doctor focuses his attention on doing his job, and not on the feelings of women, in an apparent parallel with Hemingway, who describes the professionalism of the Doctor as glorious, whilst leaving the reader with few details of the experience from the woman’s perspective. Hemingway promotes capability as an essential part of the ideal masculine construct by glorifying the Doctor: “That’s one for the medical journal… Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders” (18) depicts this surgery as an incredible medical feat, for which the Doctor is proclaimed a “great man” (18). The contrast between the positive diction associated with the professionalism of the Doctor and the cries of the woman shows Hemingway’s approval of masculinity, and, by extension, reflect his misogynistic attitudes with regards to women, as well as his contempt for “feminine” traits.
Hemingway’s hatred of the feminine is highlighted through the contrast between the Doctor and the Indian man in “Indian Camp”. Whilst Doctor Adams is portrayed in a positive light, a consummate professional and “man’s man,” the Indian man is represented as weak; the Doctor reacts to the screaming woman with nonchalance and coolness, contrasting the Indian man, who is clearly distressed: “The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall” (16). The action of rolling over symbolizes the Indian man’s fear, and his desire to detach himself from reality instead of finding a solution. Hemingway uses the Indian man’s suicide as a warning to male readers—those who are weak in the face of adversity will face great unhappiness and suffering.
This sentiment is carried forth in “Mr. and Mrs. Elliot”. In this short story, Hemingway uses satire to depict Mr. Elliot as an epitome of hypo-masculinity. The extent to which Mr. Elliot lacks masculinity is greatly exaggerated: it is stated that he “had never gone to bed with a woman,” to “keep himself pure,” and that “nearly all the girls lost interest in him” (85). Mrs. Elliot perhaps most succinctly describes him with the epithet “dear sweet boy” (86). This description of Mr. Elliot as a man lacking even the slightest morsel of fecundity invites scorn or pity from the reader. The allegory of Mr. Elliot’s ultimately failing marriage casts a sense of shame on him: Hemingway writes that “Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend now slept together in the big medieval bed” (88). This implies that Mr. Elliot is even less deserving of sleeping with his own wife than another woman. Mr. Elliot’s humiliating fate serves as a premonition to the male reader: those who exude femininity must suffer its embarrassing social consequences. The ending of the story serves to reinforce this stigma: the story concludes with a description of Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, and her girlfriend, engaging in the traditionally family-oriented activity of sharing evening dinner. This emasculates Mr. Elliot, implying that he has been displaced from his role of breadwinner. Hemingway suggests that Elliot slowly succumbed to alcoholism: “Elliot had taken to drinking white wine” (88). Here, “white wine” acts as a symbol: often enjoyed as a woman’s drink, as opposed to more “manly” drinks such as brandy, white wine serves to show that Elliot, in embracing feminine virtues, has virtually turned into a woman himself. The reference to alcohol also implies that Elliot may have tried to detach himself from the reality of his emasculation through the consumption of alcohol—he is unable to accept his submissive role.
In line with the aforementioned notion that a lack of masculinity makes one miserable is Hemingway’s belief that embracing masculine traits makes men satisfied with life. In “Big Two-Hearted River” Part I and II, Hemingway reinforces the importance of physicality in a masculine man and the effects physical strength and exertion have on the mental well-being of men. In these two short stories, the concepts of nature, physical work, and happiness are intertwined. The reader first glimpses Nick’s feelings as he works: “Nick walked back up the ties to where his pack lay in the cinders beside the railway track” (134). This is followed by another description of labour: “It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy” (134). The repetition of the adjective “happy” in the description of hard work seems out-of-place, contrasting with earlier diction such as “ache” and “hot”. The contrast between these terms draws attention to Hemingway’s belief that the pursuit of physical strength, a masculine trait, elicits a primal sense of satisfaction amongst men. The association of this happiness with nature portrays Nick in a sort of elemental, nature state of being, an animalistic drive predating all concepts of femininity. Just as Hemingway describes those who reject or lack masculine ideals to be unhappy, as seen in the Indian man’s suicide or Mr. Elliot’s alcoholism, he describes those that truly and wholeheartedly embrace masculine traits, such as physicality, to be happy. More so, Hemingway seems to suggest that in order to be happy, men must embody their masculinity and accept pre-existing gender constructs.
However, Hemingway also takes a different approach with regards to encouraging men to fit his masculine ideals. He achieves this through a direct attack on femininity and feminine values. In “Cat in the Rain”, Hemingway uses the character of the unnamed American wife to represent his perception of the New-World modern woman, and hence express his critique of femininity. Here, the wife is portrayed as fickle, superficial, and desiring material needs. When the padrone bows at her presence, she “felt… very important. She had a momentary feeling of being supreme importance” (93). Following this, she asks her husband about her haircut, and vocalizes her material desires of having her “own silver and candles… a kitty, and some new clothes”( 94). Hemingway thus portrays this character to be superficial, impressed by items money can buy, defined by an unwarranted sense of entitlement and “supreme importance.” By keeping the wife unnamed, referred to only as an “American girl,” Hemingway implies that this type of personality is not singular—she represents many, if not all, New-World American women. This superficial personality is only highlighted by the setting, which is described as a place “Italians (went) from a long way off to look up at the war monument” (91). Whereas the setting is marked by a memorial to those who served for purposes of patriotism and honored by those travelling from afar to pay their respects, the American girl stands in stark contrast, seemingly ignoring the heroes of war and focusing only on the material. Hence, this generalization of all New-World women by Hemingway acts to persuade the reader of the vices of femininity and its supposed values.
Hemingway further implies that the consequences of femininity exceed the self-humiliation described in “Cat in the Rain”; his belief that femininity, and by extension, women in general, may be harbingers to the downfall of even the greatest men permeates through “The Battler”. The story of Ad Francis seeks to deter male readers from liking women too much: the tragic story of how a once-tough prizefighter fell from grace to become a deranged madman is intended to both draw sympathy from the reader, and suggest that even the most masculine of men, a seasoned prizefighter with a “queerly formed and mutilated” face scarred by battle (55) can be brought down by feelings and other womanly traits. It is revealed that Ad Francis “went crazy” (61) because of his marriage with an “awful good-looking woman” (61). Here a double-entendre is used: whilst “awful” may first be taken as a vernacular form of “awfully,” it can also be interpreted as a defect in personality. Hence, Hemingway seeks to create a negative representation of this unnamed woman. The use of a femme-fatale in the downfall of this hyper-masculine man acts as a warning to men: if they get too close to a woman, it will lead to their downfall—no matter how tough they are. And yet, despite these warning signs, veterans such as Krebs and Nick are eager for the companionship of women. Hemingway uses Nick’s reflection of this experience to make the reader question the value of sacrificing one’s masculinity—and sanity—for a woman. Nick’s one-man journey is a rite of passage, a journey into manhood of sorts, and he reaches a critical dilemma: does he want to accept this idealized version of masculinity, characterized by an external toughness and reservation in the pursuit of women? Nick’s personal thoughts on this matter are never revealed; instead, Hemingway uses Nick’s dilemma as a vessel to challenge the reader to reflect on their own pursuits of women, and the unintended consequences women and femininity may have on their livelihoods.
Overall, the portrayal of themes of masculinity and femininity in In Our Times is not clear-cut. Whilst seemingly a direct attack on women, Hemingway in fact prioritizes his attack on femininity, whether embodied by man or woman: his ostensible distaste of femininity is an extension of his rejection of the proliferation of pervasive feminine traits in the post-Great War American society. Hemingway portrays a multitude of characters who embody degrees of masculinity or femininity across a full spectrum in his collection of short stories in order to promote his ideals on manliness and its importance to men, and to provide a social critique of what he perceives to be an unwelcome transformation with regards to gender constructs of his contemporary society.
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Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. 1925. Scribner, 2003.
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