Helene Cixous and Hemingway

Earlier this week, we discussed Hemingway's Code Hero, and the expectations of his time that restricted him. Today, we analyze another view of his Code Hero as we continue looking into his novel, A Farewell to Arms.

Famed scholar, Helene Cixous, takes the feminist criticism of the novel one step further. She argues that the real story behind Hemingway and the way he wrote A Farewell to Arms has been there since it was first published. Throughout the novel, Hemingway’s characters challenge gender roles. At one point in the novel, Catherine wishes to cut her hair short and she asks Frederic to grow out his hair. This request was made in an attempt to switch places and defy gender standards.

In Marc Hewson's article "The Real Story of Ernest Hemingway", he writes that the haircuts “seem…an attempt to understand and experience personal identity in way that was earlier barred to them…she wants Frederic to explore with her the possibility of modulating their gendered selves by playing with the conventions that normally dictate the differences between men and women” (58).

Although the characters are just toying with the idea, Hemingway is throwing this suggestion out there. Cixous tells us that this was Hemingway’s subtle way of blurring the line that lies between the genders. She writes that “A more female appearance will potentially cultivate Frederic’s femininity, while the mannish cut Catherine proposes for herself will release her latent masculinity, not annulling differences, but stirring them up” (58). Hewson points out an interesting fact. He reminds readers that the one who wants to constantly experiment with gender differences is Catherine. Frederic always has a desire, but he’s also always hesitant. In doing this, Hemingway is depicting the battle that men were fighting each and every day. Men in the 20th Century had desires to break out of the mold that was created, but they didn’t want to be looked at as less of a man.

Even though Frederic playfully tells Catherine that growing out his hair would be exciting for him, he has to go back and say he’ll grow his beard longer as well “as if in defense of the masculinity that she [Catherine] is apparently threatening” (Hewson 59). Frederic is constantly guarding his masculinity, all the while toying with ideas of doing something feminine. Cixous tells readers that this subtle femininity that lies behind masculinity is Hemingway’s faint way of writing with a feminine tone.

One way of knowing that Hemingway was in fact writing with a feminine tone is that he used the war and the military as a backdrop for A Farewell to Arms. He did this in order to suppress the natural feminine emotions that all men are born with. Cixous argues that patriarchal culture brought about feelings for men that they needed to prove their masculinity, but according to her, it is perfectly natural for men to have a feminine part of themselves: “all people are innately both masculine and feminine” (52).

Hewson re-emphasizes that the problem has been that “unfortunately culture has historically privileged masculinity at the expense of the feminine, creating a hierarchy of gender in which the masculine value is positive and the feminine is negative” (52). This is where Cixous’ ecriture feminine comes into play.

Ecriture feminine is “writing that seeks the ‘nonexclusion of difference or of a sex…feminine writing differs not by virtue of the gender of the author, but on the basis of the textual strategies it employs” (52). Femininity had been chastised and oppressed, but the ecriture feminine attempted to voice femininity without buying into the “cultural repression” (52).

Hemingway grew up in a patriarchal culture that emphasized and praised fighting and wars. He was molded with the idea that a real man joins the military because that proves how manly and tough he really is. Hemingway uses Frederic’s desire to fight in the war to convey this Western ideal. Ira Elliot is quoted by Hewson and writes that “Frederic creates a battlefield family ‘as a means of self-definition’, and generates a system of male alliances and relationships that helps him to confirm his masculinity” (53). At the same time, Frederic is torn between his supposed duty as a man and what he’s feeling: self doubt. At one point he tells readers that everything runs more smoothly when he’s not around. Self-doubt was always seen as a feminine trait in the 20th century, and when a glimpse of it is seen in the male protagonist Hemingway immediately suppresses it.

Cixous informs readers that this constant shift on Hemingway’s part between feminine and masculine desires proves her theories “not only that Hemingway was uncomfortable with the socio-political construction of gender in his time, but attempted to come to terms with how that construction affected him as an author and a man” (52). In order for A Farwell to Arms to be powerful and complete, Hemingway had to let go of traditional masculine ideals and give in to the ecriture feminine.

Cixous considers this a political revolution and she believes that the only way this will happen is when the man stops trying so hard to fit in with masculine ideals and rather just accepts “the possibility of something else” (52). Since Hemingway does not do this, the relationship in his real life and the relationship between Frederic and Catherine never worked. Even though Catherine died at the end of the novel, feminist critics believe that, contrary to traditional belief, the relationship was a failure from the beginning.

Early reviewers saw A Farewell to Arms as more of a love story than of a masculine, war story. Feminist critics argue that the way Frederic goes about loving Catherine is even more masculine than the war itself. When Frederic first meets Catherine, he simply sees her as a means to an end; a means to one night of pleasure. Cixous writes that Frederic looked at Catherine like another one of his battles, where his strategy was “to win with the least possible loss, at the lowest possible cost” (55).

These games continue throughout the novel until Frederic is taken to Milan to be treated and Catherine happens to be there as well. It is then that there is a “peace between the sexes” (55), as Cixous calls it. Once the war backdrop is taken out of the picture, Frederic becomes a different man and he falls in love. For the first time readers see a relationship that seems functional and healthy. Cixous believes that the ecriture feminine has come into play because Frederic is away from masculine influence and has accepted other possibilities. It’s not until they leave Italy and the war behind and reach neutral Switzerland (Hewson 57) that Catherine and Frederic begin to grow in love and cross the gender boundaries.

The lovers in A Farewell to Arms aren’t given a happy ending. Hewson writes that Hemingway’s refusal to give them one “reflects his continuing uncertainty on such matters” (60). Cixous writes that “if men and women are to relate without confrontation,” the rules of gender must change and ecriture feminine must begin to take place. While early critics believed the unhappy ending was due to Hemingway’s masculinity, feminist critics such Cixous point out that the unhappy ending was Hemingway’s subtle way of proving that love between men and women will never work out until they find a common ground.