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Sexual Context In Hemingway's Works

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Ernest Hemingway, the epitome of machismo and misogyny for almost the whole 20th century, described himself as a boxer, hunter, fisher, and bullfighter. His contemporaries, though, most typically Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, remarked, “No one can be that macho!”. In a way, Zelda was right; Hemingway’s writing, aside from the obvious testosterone-ridden image he liked to paint, was also very emotional and filled with humour. However, for years the underlying progressiveness of Hemingway was ignored, together with his literature deemed ridden with toxic masculinity. Yet the women in his prose are often inspired by the women in Hemingway’s life and are thus multi-layered and nuanced. As a result, making them even more complex than the male characters. In addition, his writing shows various progressive ideas regarding gender-relations and sexuality. Gender fluidity and homosexuality, notably in stories such as The Sun Also Rises, The Garden of Eden, and The Sea Change, are prevalent themes in Hemingway’s writing, even though, for his time, they were deemed perverse. Hemingway simply changed the perspective and framed the sexual content in his stories as sexually inventive. In this essay, I will analyse Hemingway’s gender portrayals and how they undermine the typical relationship between man and woman, through the underlying theme of homosexuality.

First of all, what shaped Hemingway is his childhood, especially the relationship with his mother. As much as Hemingway portrays himself as a virile man and takes pride in his manliness, many authors argue this overt masculinity is a simple façade beneath which Hemingway conceals the childhood trauma his mother had inflicted upon him. Grace Hall-Hemingway liked to dress her son during his infancy similarly to his one-year-older sister and consequently presenting them as twins. In fact, his mother was so into having twin daughters, that she even held Hemingway’s older sister back a year in school, so both siblings could attend the same year. This peculiar parenting practice obviously left its mark on Hemingway, prompting him to develop a lifelong gender complexity. Hence his want to occasionally adopt a female persona in his heterosexual relationships and his hair fetish. Correspondingly, some of Hemingway’s stories have an important theme ‘Gender’, such as The Garden of Eden and The Sun

Also Rises. Both stories contain characters that have a very fluid relationship with gender, similar to Hemingway’s stance on gender inside a relationship.

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The Sun Also Rises’ two main characters, Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes, both are a twist on the female-male stereotypes prevalent during Hemingway’s life. Brett Ashley is described as a promiscuous woman, twice divorced and involved with Jake as well as three other men, amongst them her fiancé. Brett’s character is a reflection of the New Woman in the ’20s. The New Woman was a feminist ideal, that pushed for equality between genders in a previously male-dominated world. Hemingway grew up during this sexual revolution. However, whereas the new woman valued self-fulfilment rather than self-sacrifice, the idea of self-restrained moral masculinity was replaced by an aggressive, sexualized virility. As a result, these changed gender rules demanded new forms of courtship, namely dating. But it was not until Hemingway moved to Paris that he came into contact with real people in these new unconventional relationships. This might be the reason a large part of The Sun Also Rises plays out in Paris, where

Brett’s cropped hair and homosexual friends were not as frowned upon as in America. Alternatively, Jake Barnes’ character suffers from a war injury which makes him impotent. By taking away his manhood, consequently his ability to have sex with women, Hemingway dissipated Jake Barnes’ masculine identity, putting him on the same level as the other homosexual characters in the book according to critics, although Barnes expresses frustrations towards these characters throughout the book, reflecting his sexual and gender anxiety. Hemingway’s writing also has been deemed homophobic, for it holds many gay slurs at the slightest affection between two men. This can be illustrated by the scene where one of Barnes’ friends expresses his affection towards him, but then quickly says he could not have been able to tell him this in New York for fear of being called a “faggot”. Furthermore, Jake and Brett’s relationship holds many plays on the stereotypes of traditional heterosexual relationships.

For instance, Brett’s overt sexuality contrasting with Barnes’ impotence, which leads to the downfall of their relationship because they both believe they cannot consummate their love. Yet, this statement is homosexuality erasure, because by Brett and Barnes’ standard, and thus by Hemingway’s as well, love between two partners cannot work if there is no traditional, heterosexual intercourse. However, homosexual couples do not have intercourse the way The Sun Also Rises expects couples to have, though that does not mean their love is less valid. Moreover, in The Sun Also Rises the emphasis lies on new gender roles and how they affect the relationship between man and woman.

Equally important in the study of gender fluidity and homosexuality in Hemingway’s literature is The Garden of Eden. The story starts with a newly-wed couple, Catherine and David, at the beach. There, Catherine cut her hair short “cropped as short as a boy’s” and convinces her husband to dye his as hers, in other words, their first step towards gender reversal. Hemingway does not explicitly describe the couple’s sexual encounters but invites the reader to imagine the reversed heterosexual encounterswith Catherine telling David in bed; “You’re my girl, Catherine”. Furthermore, at the hotel, the couple meets Marita and they both fall in love with her. Although Catherine and Marita’s relationship is homosexual, Hemingway writes them from a very heterosexual view. By all means, their lesbian encounter ends in disaster; the next stage in Catherine’s corruption. Yet, Marita’s encounter with David is another step in her conversion to heterosexuality, reflecting the male fantasy of converting a lesbian to another way of sexuality. Finally, when Marita and David end up together, they both have broken loose from their orthodox, black-and-white, sexuality; orthodox lesbianism and orthodox heterosexuality respectively. Although Marita and David continue their sexual endeavours with their gender roles reversed, this all happens within a heterosexual relationship. In this case, homosexuality, between Marita and Catherine, is labelled corrupt and Marita and David’s relationship, although genderfluid,is deemed sexually inventive.

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Sexual Context In Hemingway’s Works. (2021, September 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from
“Sexual Context In Hemingway’s Works.” Edubirdie, 14 Sept. 2021,
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Sexual Context In Hemingway’s Works [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 14 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from:
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