Today, in the advent of multiculturalism and third wave feminism, there has been a noticeable reactionary movement from men who endeavor to reclaim and rediscover their sense of masculinity, something they perceive to be overshadowed and attacked by political correctness. Toxic masculinity, today, and in the past, has always predicated itself on the misogynistic sentiment of women being subordinates, whose successes to often come at the expense of men. This noxious ideology, however, is not new, as it was heavily reinforced in the 20th century writings of the iconic, Ernest Hemingway. Following a close reading on the subject of masculinity in modern writings using Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macomber, the extent to which he regarded women with impunity is highly apparent. To begin with, Ernest Miller Hemingway was an American novelist, and proficient writers of the 20th century. He is often regarded as a prime representative of the “Lost Generation,” which comprised of young writers who, after WWI, had had abandoned societal cultural values and lacked emotional stability. In his works, he discussed issues of love, sex, alcohol, and war among many other matters. Thus, throughout his multiple novels and short stories, there’s a theme which always seems to dominate, that is—the presence of toxic masculinity.
One does not need to be very observant to realize that Hemingway’s work is hyper-masculine. The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macomber is living proof of Hemingway’s vigorous connection and preoccupation masculinity. In this particular story, the protagonist is described as follows: “Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped and was considered handsome” (Hemingway 6).
Here, although Macomber’s physical disposition represent the typical and ideal alpha male, he is a contradiction of the qualities that he represents. Most of the times, well-built individuals are accompanied by a presence of high masculinity because their bodies are intimidating and being next to them gives one courage. However, Macomber displays a perceived sense of pusillanimity in his fear of hunting Lions, something that Hemingway clearly despises. When the time for him to face the Lion arrived, he is described as follows: “He saw his hand was trembling. He felt his pocket for more cartridges and moved his fingers over the cartridges in the loops of his tunic front” (Hemingway 12). The specific mention of Macomber’s hands trembling displays how much his spirit was detached from his impressive body, appearing as no more than a superficial creature, something “less than.” Hemingway’s depiction of Macomber as less courageous than his wife, emphasizes how much Macomber demasculinized men, a quality that Hemingway viewed with revulsion. Instead of being manly and charging ahead, it is his wife, Margot, who much to Hemingway’s chagrin, assumes this masculine role. Macomber’s lack of courage is troublesome and intolerable. In the presence of his fellow men, Macomber showed weakness, and he even becomes his own wife’s subject of mockery, propelling her to even take a liking to Wilson, someone who embodies the stereotypical alpha male.
As Macomber feels humiliated and insulted by his wife and Wilson, he embarks on a journey toward becoming a different person; he decides to reclaim his lost manhood. In this instance, it is evident that Hemingway not only sees the need for courage, bravery, and chivalry, but he also feels that men occupy a special hierarchical role in society, and any aberrant should feel ashamed; in Hemingway’s view, losing one’s manhood is unacceptable, thus the need for one to go and reclaim it. Fear, in the eyes of Hemingway, is not something to be tolerated from the ideal man. As consequence for Macomber’s cowardliness, his wife openly embraces another man because her husband was not fulfilling his role.
Hemingway’s depiction of Margot’s decision to kill her husband, fearing that he would leave her now that he has “regained his manhood” exemplifies the modern writer’s suggestion that what makes a man is not his “feminine” side, or sensitivity, but his toughness–a symbol of his character and power. The essay, White men, and weak masculinity: men in the public asylums, the 1860s–1900s says the following on modern writing and masculinity:
There were socially defined pressures on, and gendered expectations of men in the nineteenth century. Men who ‘violated the norms of masculinity’ were possibly more vulnerable to institutional confinement.11 There are other ways of reading the evidence, too, which highlight differences between men and their sensitivity to the modes of masculinity of the day (Colerborne 116).
Colerborne’s emphasis on the words “Men who violated the norms of masculinity” is essential to this close reading as it supports the claim that modern writers were the reflection of their society. Their writings mirrored their lifestyle and the transformational trends which took shape in their world. To understand Hemingway, it is critical to note that for the modern writer, man had to remain strong, rigid, and above all, never dominated by women; and if it was the case, they needed to find a way to regain their authority. This idea is abundantly clear as Macomber regains his manly authority after he successfully kills the bulls. Surprised by Macomber’s sudden courage, Wilson exclaims the following: “Dammed if this isn’t a strange one, he thought. Yesterday he scared sick, and today he’s a ruddy fire eater” (Hemingway 25). Macomber conforms to the masculine expectations and he receives a stamp of approval from another alpha male.
The sudden courage exhibited by Macomber suddenly seemed to make him more of a man than he already was. It becomes interesting because as the once cowardly man found his masculine identity, Hemingway paints a narrative that depicts him as now being a threat to his wife. Fearing that he’d eventually leave her now that he has regained his manly pride, she kills him. The Killing of Macomber by his wife, suggests that what makes his short life a happy one is the fact that he regains control over his marriage. The fact that the emphasis of his happiness is centralized on his ability to control his marriage, and not on him dominating his personal fears, displays Hemingway’s desire to show that men should be the one in control and not the other way around.
The desire of men to assert their control is also present in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The antagonistic behavior of Harry toward his wife in the face of death is especially revealing. The reason Harry’s reaction is incongruous is that he blames his wife for his misfortune; the anger that Harry has toward his wife seems to imply that her tainted money has caused him to fail at his ambitions. “It was not so much that he lied as that was no truth to tell. He had his life, and it was over, and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones” (Hemingway 44). Amusingly, Harry married his wife for her money, instead of actual affection for her. Thus, the question arises as to the source of his anger. The answer to Harry’s anger is the fact that he chose comfort and security over his masculine pride and identity. When he is at his last hours, he then realizes that his reliance on a woman to do what a man is entitled to do makes him a man with no legacy. Throughout the text, one can notice that it is indeed, the wife, who does manly chores. And of course, Hemingway is repulsed by her domineering role. Hemingway himself states that: “She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent. Nonsense. He had destroyed his talent himself” (44).
Hemingway’s accentuation that Harry had destroyed his life himself show’s his lack of sympathy and disgust toward a man who in his view, sold his manhood to a woman because of greed.As consequence, Harry became a drunk with no ambition as he allowed money to control his destination. Had he acted like a real man and followed what he was predestined to do, he would not have been hunted, and he would not have resented his wife. Harry’s choice of words when calling his wife “You rich bitch,” is a language which displays the manner in which modern writers perceived the female gender. On his essay concerning Hemingway’s choice of using the word “bitch” in his novel, The Sun Also Rises, Onderdonk implies the following:
the word bitched evokes modernist despair in just the gendered way that many male-produced modernisms do: as a loss of an ostensibly masculine autonomy and certainty to what is seen as a feminizing modernity. Far from denying this humiliating circumstance, however, Hemingway seems to embrace it as the very condition of “serious” literary artistry a surprising move for an author who is still deemed the twentieth century’s preeminent “man’s man (Onderdonk 61)
Onderdonk’s statement discusses Hemingway’s embrace for the word “bitch” toward women. He principally uses it in The Sun Also Rises, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The use of such a derogatory language in describing the female gender, unveils the tension which seems to exist between modern writers and women. Hemingway unknowingly displays the confrontation existing amongst feminist writers and the male writers who were in opposition. In this time, old social structures were crumbling as men started losing control of women, a notion embodied by Harry and Macomber. Thus, to regain control, writers made sure to recreate a universe in which men had ultimate control over women through their writings. Hemingway’s literary works unveil the frequent stigmatization toward feminist ideologies. We see it in the depiction of Harry as someone who was incapable of taking care of himself and thus, relied on a woman to take care of him. Now that he was dying, he could not bear the fact that he had to die before her, and that she would still be seen as the savior for taking care of him, instead of it being the other way around. In her essay, Onderdonk also stipulates that:
Professionalization and gender were also at issue in the high modern its concept of impersonality advocated by Eliot, Pound, and Stein. These thinkers made a virtue of the separation, in Eliot’s words in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates” (64).
Once again, Onderdonk provides legitimate proof of women being capable of doing what men could do. Hellen’s independence and wealth is what makes Harry miserable and most of all, jealous. Measuring himself against her, he feels inferior in every way. Harry’s jealousy can be compared to Tom’s brother’s jealousy of Maggie in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. In The Mill on the Floss, Tom, Maggie’s brother, is jealous of his sister’s precocious intellect, her beauty, and her sees on independence. Her lack of dependence on him, is what ultimately drives him mad. In a sense, Harry and Tom reflect modern writers who are afraid of powerful women who threaten their status and position in society. Hemingway is also of this mentality, for openly believes that male shepherding is what women need. Men that fail to assert their power over women are perceived as weak and cowardly. In order to illustrate the manner in which current writer’s intentions on imposing the masculine power had to do with what society wanted, Onderdonk says that Hemingway’s generation followed the example of President Roosevelt, who once made the following speech: “We do not admire the man of timid peace.” Roosevelt further declared “We admire the man who embodies victorious effort; the man who never wrongs his neighbor, who is prompt to help a friend, but who has those virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life” (63).
President Roosevelt’s comments elucidate the notion that men without courage—as Macomber once appeared—had no place in society. In other words, it is a man’s world, and what makes a man is his toughness, roughness, and supreme dominion over the weaker female sex. The desire of modern writers imposing chauvinistic attitudes in their works displays merely their fear of women’s ascent. It is known to all that after WWI, women had proved that they could do the jobs men did before they left for war. As a result, men wanted to restrict women who were like Hellen’s independence, and demonize those who possessed Margot’s charisma. It is ironic that in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Margot is the only female character; and being the sole female character, she is the one who makes her husband look less than a man and eventually kills him. As discussed previously, the demonization of Margot is intentional as Hemingway uses her as the person who can destroy a man’s reputation and also kill him. In her essay on Gender and authorial paranoia, Harris states that:
Margot is not a man. The sole female character in the story, she is the Other, introduced when she walks towards Wilson and Mac as they sit, concocting ways of pretending that Mac’s failure had not happened. Margot violates the male ritual, first by her presence, then by her words, which first attack her husband, then Wilson, and finally the false code of the hunt itself (77).
Harris astutely depicts Hemingway’s portrayal of Margot as that of a woman who does not know her place. Her desire to control her husband and Wilson eventually leads to complete chaos. Hemingway himself portrays her as being absurdly jealous, especially when she says, “You both talking rot,” and continues by adding, “Just because you’ve chased some helpless animals in a motor car you talk like heroes” (26).
The depiction of Margot as bitter due to her husband’s manly success, seems to suggest that women who are of the feminist mentality cannot celebrate the successes of their husbands. More importantly, through Margot, it seems that Hemingway may be alluding to an even more flagrant critique of Zelda, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife. In his book A Movable Feast, Hemingway states that “Zelda was very jealous of Scott’s work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern” (154).
Hemingway’s generalization on feminist or successful women being Jealous of their husbands tarnishes the image of independent women who, in actuality, have respect for their husbands. This attitude that prioritizes old fashioned deference, discourages men from pursuing successful women; and we evidently see that in Harry who is enraged toward Hellen, just because she is the emblem of women who occupy a significant role, first in the household and then, in everyday society.
In an evaluation of Hemingway’s works, there is clearly a pervasive sense of toxic masculinity; men who are timid and reserved are considered cowards and those who display an ostentatiously zeal for danger are celebrated as being the ideal men. To support such claims, Francis Macomber is used to illustrate the consequences of being a timid man and the advantages of being a “brave man”. While a fearful man’s cowardliness discouraged his woman, the brave man, the alpha male, is a more suitable mate, one to whom women become immediately attracted. Essentially, the shy man is lost because he has no personality, and the brave man embodies what society considers desirable.
On the issue of masculinity in modern writing, it has become increasingly clear that most of the attitude was specifically directed as silencing women, most of whom had become seduced by the liberation of feminism. For this reason, there was an effort to minimize and demonize women in modernist literature, chiefly reflected in the depiction of Helen and Margot who are responsible for the plight of mean and their failure to assume their masculine roles. This poor attitude women, as discussed previously, is linked to the existing conflict between the modern feminist writers and the men. This current tension between both sexes is the reason why in Hemingway’s works, feminist women, are portrayed as, bitches, jealous, opportunistic, and anything that is less than a male.
Although Hemingway will forever remain a master in his work, it is important take notice and criticize the chauvinism and false stereotyping of independent women as enemies of men and conduits of male regression. Hemingway’s depiction of manliness is a dangerous one; courage is not blindly accepting a deadly challenge. Aristotle, the renowned philosopher once argued that true courage is possessing the mean between being rash and being cowardly. Hemingway’s idea of manliness has nothing to do with the virtue of courage, instead, it is rash and barbaric behavior. Macomber’s fear of hunting a Lion is legitimate, and it is not something that he should be ashamed, for it does not make him any less of a man. Unlike Wilson who kills animals for sport, Macomber lives a life that is far from the wild. Macomber is in fact, already wealthy, which is proof of his competence and efficacy. This shows that he is indeed, a capable man, and his failure to hunt wild animals should not be stigmatized.
Hemingway’s writings, in their portrayal of women as enemies because their high personality, exemplifies the fear of men in sharing the spotlight with women. This fear, however, is not exclusive to literature, but it dominates everyday society. Hemingway and men who espouse his beliefs, contribute to the toxic relationships between men and women because of the emphasis on competition and subordination, when in reality, male and female relationships should be a complimentary one. The primary objective of feminism is not to demonize men but rather, to call attention the disparities between both genders with regards to respect and opportunity.
Those who continue to encourage men to be hyper-masculine, and expect them to do so at the expense of women, are hampering societal progress. Though much progress has been made, sexism’s presence in society continues to be felt. Modernist writings have been celebrated and too often, the sexism that accompanies it has been ignored, and women and other minorities have been victims. All’s not lost however, because there has been a changing attitude in the age of multiculturalism. More writings that reinforce the roles of forgotten groups have been taking center stage, shifting the narrative and even influencing the way children are taught. The world has evolved in a way that really gives power back to people who have often been at the margins throughout history. This same world has also evolved from one of extreme religiously driven sexist dogmas to the one of today where powerful men are being brought down because of their abuse of power. Essentially, the reason writers of this age are considered modern is not only due to the time frame in which they were active but writers of this era are also deemed modern due to their tendency to question the status quo, and their propensity towards being open to new ideas. However, we see instances where men like Hemingway, paragons of the rejection of societal norms, still ascribe to values that are antithetical to progress.