Evaluate Masculinity in Hemingway’s ‘In Our Time’
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Published: Wed, 20 Dec 2017
The theme of masculinity suggests itself as an obvious area of focus with Hemingway’s collection In Our Time, as these short stories and vignettes are explicitly concerned with men, male activities, male professions and traditionally masculine areas of human experience such as war, hunting and fighting. The collection is notable for its focus on male characters, most notably figures such as Nick Adams, and for the relative absence of women (indeed, Hemingway titled another of his short story collections Men Without Women). Where women do feature, it is often in a secondary or passive role, with the male characters in the story wielding power in the text and also providing the perspective of Hemingway’s narration. This essay will argue that masculinity is a central theme in In Our Time, and moreover that much of the tension within the texts comes from the conflict between characters’ self-perceptions of their own masculinity and the reality of their masculine behaviour. Defining what masculinity means, both for themselves and in the context of other characters’ perceptions of them, is a central concern of Hemingway’s male protagonists in this collection, as in his oeuvre more generally (Fore, 2007).
In the early story ‘The Indian Camp’ and the vignette Chapter II, Hemingway presents women from the perspective of men: they are associated with children in general and with childbirth in particular. Notably, women are not given a voice in either of these stories; instead, they are seen from the perspective of men. As passive individuals whose primary role is to give birth, women in In Our Time are figured as secondary. Their lack of masculinity means a lack of driving force in the text, which instead comes from male characters, male actions, and male interactions. Hemingway championed, in his fiction as well as in his life, the notion of the competent, masculine male; his motto on this subject was the masculine notion of ‘grace under pressure’ (Durham, 1976). The ability to perform a task or job well is one that Hemingway values in his life and fiction, and in In Our Time we see this confident, competent male type embodied by Nick Adams’ father the doctor. In the story ‘The Indian Camp,’ his visit to the camp is predicated on the notion that he is an extremely competent doctor, able as he notes to perform a caesarian with a jack knife and stitch it up afterwards. In this same story, the doctor can be contrasted with the Indian father who kills himself, thereby dichotomising the able male and the unable male and introducing another of Hemingway’s key themes: namely, suicide. That suicide in the text is no less gendered than professional competence is made evident in the exchange between Nick and his father which follows their leaving the Indian Camp:
“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
“Not very many, Nick.”
“Do many women?”
“Don’t they ever?”
“Oh, yes. They do sometimes.” (Hemingway, 1925, n.p.)
The differences in the behaviour of men and women take on an almost anthropological quality in the gendered presentation of character in In Our Time. Men are explicitly figured as active, aggressive and macho in contrast to women’s passivity. Whilst Hemingway of course nuances his presentation to include different types of men, and to suggest that there is more than one way of being masculine, there are recurrent themes which can be said to centre around the idea of violence. Men in the stories measure themselves and each other in terms of acts of violence. In the story ‘The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,’ masculinity is presented as a form of awareness of one’s own capacity to commit acts of violence. Dick Boulton’s very felicity as a male seems to depend on the accuracy of his awareness of his own masculinity: ‘Dick Boulton looked at the doctor. Dick was a big man. He knew how big a man he was. He liked to get into fights. He was happy’ (Hemingway, 1925, n.p.). Violence, recognition of one’s capacity to commit violence, and comfort in one’s own power as a male, are here presented as key features of felicitous masculinity. By contrast, those male characters who are unhappy and who commit acts of violence against themselves (alcoholism, more literally suicide) are ones whose self-perceptions of their own masculinity do not accord with the reality, leading to what some critics have identified as the ‘crisis of masculinity’ in Hemingway’s fiction (Hatten, 1993). The very title of the story ‘The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife’ contrasts the male and the female characters as Hemingway sees them: the Doctor is impulsive, angered, and takes the more cynical interpretation of his adversary’s actions; by contrast, his wife is presented as pious, forgiving, and somewhat naive in her reading of human motives. However, she is able to calm the doctor down and he goes outside to see Nick. Tellingly, however, Nick decides to go off with his father at the end of the story rather than go inside to see his mother. He tells his father he knows where there are black squirrels, and they set off to take part in that most male of activities: hunting. Ultimately, female piety and compassion only temper the masculine urges and drives in the story; it is masculinity which pervades as a theme, and violence – or the potential for violence – which is restored by the story’s close.
Hemingway’s presentation of masculinity must therefore be contrasted with his notions of femininity, and it can be noted that both are presented in terms of types. In In Our Time, the greatest type division is between men and women; within these divisions, there are sub-categories. Thus the short story ‘Mr and Mrs Eliot’ presents the dichotomy of the male and female in its title, and then proceeds in the story itself to break down this division further into different types. At no point, however, is it questioned that there are certain characteristics which can be considered exclusively or predominantly feminine, and those that can be considered masculine. Femininity and masculinity are not abstract notions but rather the locus of concrete differences in the text. Thus Mrs Eliot is presented in terms of stereotypes concerning her gender and geographical origins: ‘Like all Southern women Mrs. Elliot disintegrated very quickly under sea sickness, travelling at night, and getting up too early in the morning’ (Hemingway, 1925, n.p.). This sentence is not a qualified presentation of an individual, but a stereotyping of all females from the South of the United States. This is typical of the way in which gender, masculinity and femininity, are presented in the texts: there are clear archetypes for human characteristics, and characters are presented as conforming to them or deviating from them. Implicit in the short story ‘Mr and Mrs Eliot’ is a critique of the ways in which Mr Eliot departs from the ideal of masculinity presented in the collection more generally: he is a poet, he drinks white wine, he has not been with many women and he tries, unsuccessfully, to have a baby with his wife. Ultimately, he is emasculated and usurped from the marital bed and his role as a masculine impregnator of women: ‘Mrs. Elliot and the girl friend now slept together in the big mediaeval bed. They had many a good cry together’ (Hemingway, 1925, n.p.). Instead, the bed becomes the site not of any female (lesbian) eroticism but instead of female communication and empathy: the women cry there together. This is presented as an antithesis to the idea of idealised masculinity, in which actions speak louder than words. In such a context, Mr Eliot’s being a poet, and dedicating his nights to writing verse and drinking white wine instead of more becoming masculine pursuits, can here be read in a critical light as a satire on the ‘modern’ man who departs from the traditional notion of masculinity as embodied in the collection by figures such as Nick Adams and his father.
The story which perhaps most clearly presents the idealised model of masculinity, and the key notion of the potential difference between men’s perceptions of themselves and the reality of their masculinity, is ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ Here, Nick Adams is presented as happily in an elemental, masculine state. Men are happy in Hemingway when they are doing an activity well, and here Nick Adams is presented as engaged in fishing the river, a feeling which he enjoys and an experience which he knows well. Hemingway explicitly presents this activity in physical terms; masculine behaviour is notable in the collection for being physically impressive and physically demanding, and the impression is of behaviour which is rewarding for men to the extent that it is physically draining. Thus Nick is happy in proportion to the degree to which he exerts himself: ‘The road climbed steadily. It was hard work walking up-hill. His muscles ached and the day was hot, but Nick felt happy’ (Hemingway, 1925, n.p.). The pleasure of physical exertion is a defining theme of masculinity in this collection as well as in Hemingway’s writing more generally (Fore, 2007); it is seen in the context of a number of typically male activities, from fishing as in this story through to war, bullfighting and shooting (Vernon, 2002). The story also presents a key Hemingway theme in the context of masculinity: namely, male bonding and the ways in which men negotiate their own masculinity together. Much has been made of homoeroticism and suppressed homosexualities in Hemingway’s work as well as in his life (Blackmore, 1998; Cohen, 1995; Elliott, 1993; Fantina, 2004), but what is more obviously present here is the notion that masculinity is something which is negotiated between men, indirectly rather than directly. Thus Nick Adams measures his own masculinity alongside his old friend Hopkins, who is now presumably dead, drinking a tribute coffee to the man whom he bonded with and against whom he measured some elements of his own masculinity:
Not the first cup. It should be straight Hopkins all the way. Hop deserved that. He was a very serious coffee drinker. He was the most serious man Nick had ever known. Not heavy, serious. That was a long time ago. (Hemingway, 1925, n.p.)
Significantly, this male bonding is something which is negotiated indirectly, with intervening time and space coming between Nick and Hopkins. Even more significantly, Hemingway presents this masculine bonding indirectly, through the free indirect discourse of Nick’s thoughts and reminiscences. This device allows Hemingway to present masculinity indirectly, and to emphasise in the nostalgia and pathos of this longer story the loss and pain that the masculine world of war creates (Clifford, 1994). Nick is not presented as having any direct contact with Hopkins, there is no quoting or speech, but instead Nick and the reader are obliged to experience this process of masculine connection from a distance, at a remove.
To conclude, it is evident that masculinity is an extremely important theme in In Our Time. In particular, it allows for a dichotomy to be present in the texts between males as active, violent and powerful on the one hand, and women as passive, responsive and objectified on the other. Women are the subject of the male gaze, which is always seeking to define itself in terms of idealised masculinity. However, men also turn their gazes on themselves and each other, and it can be noted in conclusion that a central source of narrative tension in the text is the conflict between characters’ perceptions of their masculinity and the reality. This comes to the fore in relationship problems with women, but also in acts of violence and conflict between males, where the need to assert one’s masculinity comes at the expense of denying another man the opportunity to fully exert his. The pathos of this disconnect between idealised masculinity and the harsh reality of many of his male characters’ existences is what gives to Hemingway’s collection In Our Time its unmistakably elegiac tone.
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Hemingway, E. (1925) In Our Time. New York: Simon and Schuster. Available online at scribd.com [accessed 3rd March 2016] at: https://www.scribd.com/read/236832081/In-Our-Time.
Vernon, A. (2002). War, Gender, and Ernest Hemingway. The Hemingway Review, 22(1), 34-55.
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