If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.
- George S. Patton
The Archetypal Whore: Hemingway’s Women in The Sun Also Rises
Notwithstanding cameo appearances by waitresses, concierges and loud American tourists, only three female characters populate the pages of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. These characters, in order of appearance, consist of Robert Cohn’s fiancée, Frances Clyne; a “poulet” named Georgette whom Jake Barnes picks up on a Paris street; and Lady Brett Ashley, the woman whom Jake loves passionately but with whom he cannot consummate a physical relationship. Hemingway’s unflattering portrayal of these women ventures beyond his usual domineering harpy DOMINEERING HARPY?? INGRID, TRY TO AVOID STRONG, BIASED LANGUAGE (you mean, avoid the literary equivalent of fire-engine red, capital letters in your critique?) . ALSO, YOU SHOULD EXPLAIN WHAT YOU MEAN BY “USUAL” BY REFERENCING OTHER TEXTS BY HEMINGWAY (YOU SHOULD ALSO NOTE, TOO, THAT THE CRITICAL READING OF HEMINGWAY’S PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN IS COMPLEX), however, as he brands all three with that most damning of female epithets, the archetypal whore.
While the word ‘prostitution’ naturally conjures up cultural stereotypes of the nocturnal streetwalker, the concept itself is by no means limited to a romanticized vision of the Parisian red light district; prostitution can and does encompass any relationship in which sex is exchanged for financial compensation, whether that compensation takes the form of cash, rent, theatre tickets or fabulous emerald earrings.
Georgette, of course, is a prostitute in the narrowest sense of the word, “an actual harlot” who openly trades sex with strangers for cash. And while Frances and Brett are painted with warts of varying size and shape, they do share one basic common denominator with Georgette: all three women are portrayed not only as sexual objects, but as parasitic sexual objects. Coming from Hemingway, this is not a compliment; in Hemingway’s world, there is no “hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold” and the women in the novel are ultimately portrayed as selfish, self-serving and destructive to the men around them. YOUR LANGUAGE IS SIMPLY TOO HARSH FOR WHAT NEEDS TO BE AN OBJECTIVE CRITICAL DISCUSSION. I AGREE WITH YOUR NOTION OF HEMINGWAY’S OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN, BUT YOU ARE STRETCHING THE HOOKER/WHORE ANALOGY TOO FAR. ONE THING YOU MIGHT WANT TO KNOW IS THAT HEMINGWAY BASED HIS CHARACTERIZATION OF BRETT (AND OTHER SUCH WOMEN) ON HIS ACTUAL UNREQUITED LOVE AND ADMIRATION OF GRETA GARBO. (and this has what to do with anything? Greta Garbo was a hooker with a heart of gold?) YOU MIGHT ALSO NOTE HIS USE OF THE QUOTATION FROM GERTRUDE STEIN (CERTAINLY NOT SEXUAL OBJECT). HEMINGWAY’S MISOGYNY IS A LARGE ISSUE IN CRITICISM OF HIS WRITING, SO YOU DO HAVE QUITE A STRONG CASE TO MAKE HERE. HOWEVER, YOU NEED TO TEMPER IT WITH A LARGER READING OF THE TEXT ITSELF, NOTING THE WOUNDED NATURE (because a wounded nature justifies misogyny?) OF THE CHARACTERS THEMSELVES, THE POST-WAR EFFECTS OF TRAUMA, THE EVOLVING NOTION OF WOMEN’S INDEPENDENCE, AND ALSO SUCH THINGS AS THE NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE ITSELF (ALL CHARACTERS ARE PRESENTED THROUGH THE BIASED LENS OF JAKE—AND THIS IS CRITICALLY PROBLEMATIC (why, yes it is, which is why I refer specifically to it later in the essay…)
Consider first the light in which Hemingway casts Frances Clyne. On at least three occasions, he makes it crystal clear that Frances has pursued the hapless Robert Cohn for reasons that have nothing to do with love—or even sex—and everything to do with personal gain. He bluntly tells the reader that “Cohn had been taken in hand by a lady who hoped to rise with the magazine” (13). This sentence describes a woman who has chosen her mate for the singular purpose of furthering her career, and the use of the overtly sexual expression “taken in hand” is unlikely to be coincidental. When the magazine fails and Frances feels disgust for Cohn, she nevertheless pursues the relationship in order to “get what there was to get while there was still something available” (13). Frances’s intentions are clarified further when she finds her looks going and her attitude changes from one of “careless exploitation” to the determination that Cohn should marry her. Once again, Hemingway’s choice and placement of vocabulary underscore his meaning when he follows this information immediately with the sentence, “during this time Robert’s mother had settled an allowance on him…” (13).
Most telling of all, however, is the conversation Frances has with Jake after Cohn has ended his relationship with Frances: “…he’s got money, and he’s got a rich mother… And I haven’t got any money at all” (54). Although she is being abandoned after a three- year relationship, Frances is unconcerned with the loss of the man himself and her distress stems solely from her lost financial security. Shortly thereafter, her final scene with Robert involves a direct referral to his money: “I’m going to England… Robert’s sending me. He’s going to give me two hundred pounds” (55).
In a corporate setting, this would be called severance pay.
The most significant female character in the book, Lady Brett Ashley, on first examination appears to be the antithesis of the prostitute, sleeping with whomever she wants, whenever she wants, with no regard or consideration for her male counterparts, but this prima facie conclusion is misleading. While Brett appears to be motivated by an overactive libido, this appearance is undermined by the fact that she never sleeps with waiters or steer handlers or leather-faced Basque peasants. She sleeps with money and with roués who have the expectation of money. INTERESTING OBSERVATION (in the nicest possible way, of course) Even her bankrupt Scottish fiancé is “going to be rich as hell one day” (46) when he comes into his inheritance.
Consider her lovers: her ex-husband is rich and titled; Count Mippipololous is rich and titled; Robert Cohn is merely rich; Pedro Romano, who tries to give Brett “a lot of money” (246) is, at the very least, well-heeled. PARAGRAPHING
Hemingway clearly establishes that Brett has no money of her own. Her fiancé, Mike Campbell, states that “she never has any money” (234), and Brett herself confirms this when she summons Jake to Madrid because she “…didn’t have a sou to go away and leave him” (246). Despite having no visible means of support, Brett manages to trot around the continent in the lap of sybaritic luxury, primarily in the company of men who are more than happy to pick up the tab. Indeed, Brett’s very infidelity underscores her subtle sex-for-support mentality: that Mike fails to satisfy her emotionally and/or sexually is implicit in her string of affairs. Why then, is she engaged to him in the first place? Bankrupt or not, he foots the bill.
To dispute this proposition, one could argue that Brett’s refusal to accept money from her lovers on at least two occasions automatically excludes her from the prostitute archetype. Brett refuses the Count’s offer to go to Biarritz for $10,000 (41) and she refuses Romero’s money when he leaves her at the hotel in Madrid (246). What she is actually rejecting here, however, is not the role of harlot, but the label. She shrinks from being treated overtly as a prostitute, just as she shrinks from the notion of explicit solicitation involving a direct financial transaction. Indeed, Hemingway’s use of the concept of prostitution, as opposed to the word itself, is deliberately understated; he uses a finer paintbrush to portray Lady Ashley, but ultimately her picture is the same.
As real people, these three women would undoubtedly amount to more than the sum of their faults, but through the biased observations of his protagonist, Jake Barnes, Hemingway deliberately presents them as financially dependent social leeches.
GRADE: 80 (yikes, that’s barely a “B”)
YOUR THESIS IS BASED ON SOME LEGITIMATE CRITICAL EVIDENCE, INGRID, BUT AS I’VE POINTED OUT, YOU HAVE CHOSEN (bad girl) TO WRITE WITH EXCESSIVE VITRIOL (vitriol? really? Joan Rivers writes with excessive vitriol, this is just an English paper…), INSTEAD OF OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS. THE PORTRAYALS ARE MUCH MORE NUANCED WHICH IS WHY THE IDEA OF HEMINGWAY AS A MISOGYNIST IS NOT A CRITICALLY-CLOSED BOOK
and that, boys and girls, is what you get for having an opinion…
© copyright 2012 ingrid baier all rights reserved
Hemingway, Ernest. (1926). The Sun Also Rises. New York, NY: Scribner.