Hemingway’s women

As courageous as Hemingway’s male protagonists were portrayed to be, his female characters were quite the opposite. He was an ardent male chauvinist writer. Most of his stories revolved around the themes of men being victimized or being at the mercy of female protagonists. A peek into his personal life would explain the same.

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Ernest and Mary Hemingway outside on a sunny day
Ernest and Mary Hemingway on safari in Africa, 1953-1954

Ernest Hemingway was the only male child amongst the other female ones. His mother, Grace Hall, took pride in educating her children in art and literature. She used to dress Ernest as a girl, with a white lace dress and pink bows. They matched her firstborn Marcelline. She wanted to fulfill her incomplete desire of having twins. Grace made sure that she bought two of every clothes that she would buy for Marcelline. She even admitted Marcelline a year later into school so that Ernest would be in the same class. He was named “Ernestine” or referred to as Dutch Dolly.

Dr. Clarence, Ernest’s father, had an ordinary life. He did not like that his wife dressed his son as a girl. But he never objected. He rather took his kids out for vacation at Summer Walloon lake house. Ernest learned from his father the manly way of life, which included hunting and fishing; he even learned how to fire a rifle.

Photograph of Ernest Hemingway as a baby, 1900

After graduating from high school, Clarence wished that his son would move with his daughter for further studies in Oberli. But Ernest moved out with his uncle Alfred to pursue Journalism in Kansas City. He started working for The Star as a cub reporter. He honed his writing skills by writing small articles about local theft or burglary.

Ernest’s life in Kansas City during his Red Cross days was also something that affected him. While stationed at Schio as an ambulance driver, his duty was to collect dead bodies post bombings. The setting of the war zone area, i.e. dismantled pieces of a human body lying around, destroyed building pillars, broken pieces of metal and glasses left a dark wound on his mind.

On 7th July 1918, he got injured from bomb-dropping. There were two hundred and twenty-seven pieces of shrapnel that were removed from his legs. Due to the trauma of the war, he found it difficult to fall asleep. Recurrent dreams of the incident troubled him. He resorted to alcohol just like the other soldiers around him did too.

He met Agnes, the nurse who worked for the hospital he was admitted to and fell in love with her. But Ernest was quite insecure. His increasing obsession with Agnes only added to his jealousy and possessiveness. He hated the fact that she was friendly with other men or would laugh and smile too. This was the reason he wanted to get married as quickly as possible. Agnes was elder to him not only in matters of age but also carried a sense of maturity. She was tired of his childish behavior, thus on New Year’s Day of 1919, she sent him a letter stating she wanted to end their relationship.

Heminway lying on the hospital bed and grinning.
Ernest Hemingway, July 1918, American Red Cross Hospital, Milan, Italy

Ernest was quite hurt by this news. He drowned himself in alcohol after he returned to Oak Park, still wounded. He spent his days like his father in the summer haven, fishing, hunting, and drinking. While staying there, he received a lot of appreciation for his work on the war front. But there are hints of exaggeration and lying about his importance on the 7th of July 1918, which would make him the hero he wanted to be.

One of those days, Agnes once again contacted him telling him that she was getting married to an Italian Soldier. Upon hearing the news, he was bedridden for more than one week and his sister looked after a sick and wallowing Ernest. She reappeared in the form of Catherine Berkely in A Farewell to Arms, one of Ernest’s most widely discussed war novels. His relationship with Agnes did not end on good terms and did leave him wounded. But the love story of Catherine Berkely and her Italian soldier is seen to be successful, but the weak female nurse dies due to a hemorrhage during childbirth.

Thus, we see that he used fiction to cope up with rejection. He could have multiple endings to the same story, without leaving his comfort zone i.e. breaking his heart.

Later in the years, Hemingway married Hadley. After their marriage, he soon moved to Paris where he got the opportunity to meet contemporary writers such as Scot Fitzgerald, Picasso, Gertrude Stein. Stein once commented as to how, in his story, Cat in the Rain, when the American wife asks the husband if she can grow her hair to get a kitten and some new clothes, the husband shuts her up, Hadley too was the American wife. She agreed and submitted to the needs of Hemingway, however trivial or difficult they were. She liked to please him and serve him.

During one of the summers, Hadley packed her bags to meet Hemingway. He had sent her letters complaining about his interview with Mussolini and how he was too tired from all the work he was allotted. To make him happy, she took all of his manuscripts which he had been working on for the past two years. But the suitcase never reached him because it was lost in Lausanne. Although Hemingway was quite angry by the fact that she lost his hard work, he often reassured her that it was okay. But this was just a step closer to the end of their marriage.

Then entered Pauline, she was Hadley’s best friend and also Hemingway’s mistress. She used to be dressed up to the nines with silky satins and shining stilettos. Hemingway was seduced by her glamorous aura and classy manners. It took him no time to divorce Hadley and marry Pauline. He would still miss Hadley though, and years later, in an interview given to the local magazine, he mentioned that he held Pauline responsible for breaking his marriage with Hadley.

With Pauline in his life, he went on a safari to seek adventure and enjoy lovemaking. But that came with a price, children. Pauline was a strict Catholic, she refused to take any contraceptives. She gave birth to two kids via cesarean. In letters he exchanged with Stein, he mentioned how after the birth of his first kid with Hadley, he was not ready to be a “father” Thus he often joked about Pauline’s cesarean as a being opened up as a Picador house.

Portrait of Hemingway with Pauline, both look happy.
Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, Paris, ca. 1927.

Hemingway’s own reluctance towards fatherhood or even raising a family became a theme in one of his famous short stories: Hill like White Elephant. A young American and his partner find themselves discussing a neared “abortion”. They both do not make use of the word “abortion”, rather Hemingway uses similes and metaphors. He compares the White Hills that the girl often observes whilst enjoying their drink as a pregnant lady. The reader can also observe there are two sides to this “hill”. The first side is that of it being lively and green; if the kid is born, her dream of motherhood will be fulfilled. The second one is that of being shadowed; if she gets the abortion done, she will blame the guy, the guy feels guilty. Their lack of communication and not being able to come to a decision is the main highlight even towards the end of the story.

A similar kind of power struggle could be seen in Hemingway’s and Martha Gellhorn’s marriage as well. She was a journalist, a war correspondent. Their marriage didn’t last much longer. For Hemingway wanted his wife to be there by his side always, with Martha that was not possible. She had a more dominating nature than Hemingway leading to power struggles between them. According to some rumors, Martha had aborted Hemingway and her child, because she started disliking Hemingway’s presence and realized that their marriage was already on rocks.

But that was not all, Hemingway had a love affair with Jane Mason. Jane had been called the most attractive woman to ever lay foot in the White House, by then-President Calvin Coolidge. His character Marjorie, from The End of Something, drew resemblances from her, the love-struck adolescent. A lot of men were allured by her beauty and charm. This spiked Hemingway’s jealousy and they had an on and off relationship until she married Hemingway’s good friend.

He met his fourth and last wife, Mary Welsh in the year 1944 in Paris. She was also a reporter and a writer, more importantly she was there by his side for a lot of his adventures. They went together to see bullfighting in Spain, to the African safari. She was also by his side when they both were a part of a plane crash accident. However, despite all of this, Hemingway never fully appreciated her. He would pass snides in public about her reporting skills. There was also a time when he thrashed her typewriter and threw wine upon her face in the presence of friends.

In her autobiography, “How it was” she shared how Hemingway and she both survived their tumultuous marriage. She also mentions how his drinking problems, anger issues, psychotic episodes, were too much to bear and that even though she was always there by his side, he failed to acknowledge that. He had even fallen in love with an Italian lady named Adriana Ivancich during one of their stay in Cuba. This had deeply affected her, but Jack Hemingway makes mention as to how his father and Mary never truly had a trustful marriage.

Their marriage had its ups and downs, where she was expected a lot of times to compromise and fit into the role of his wife. She was even required to match up to the drinking standards of Hemingway, which later contributed to her becoming the same alcoholic Hemingway was.

Naomi Wood’s novel Mrs. Hemingway, published in 2014, talks about the many wives and mistresses of Hemingway. She discusses how Ernest Hemingway’s appearance to the outside world and the one he truly was had a great deal of mismatch. All his four wives got to experience a different hue. They were partially or fully aware of his affairs or love flings with other women.

It was as though his own childhood mismatched gender roles, his overly demanding mother and his submissive father, who never spoke or took a stand for him and a failed relationship with Agnes contributed to him growing a feeling of resentment towards all the other females who entered in his life. As a way to guard his lost teen heart, he kept building walls upon walls, wherein at the slightest hint of rejection from his female mates he had another backup ready. Lastly, the iceberg principle, which gained its popularity with the publication of Old Man and the sea, was applicable even in his own life. The Hemingway that the world saw, i.e. a courageous adventurer, ferocious boxer, ardent sailor, brilliant hunter, was inside a dejected teen, with anger towards women. He was too scared to get hurt. His impulses took control over his own decisions and life choices. Thus, his real self was hidden away from the outside world in a subtle way. The same can be observed in his description of his female characters too.

Further Reading

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