aka Ruthie O. Grant, Ph.D.

Home   Articles   Books   Jewelry   Miracle at Mt. Shasta   Newsletter   Bio

Racial Stereotypes and Gender Bias in Hemingway

Ruthie Grant, Ph.D.

            Hemingway’s writing in later novels, such as For Whom The Bell Tolls, took on a sensitivity and philosophical insight missing in A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and In Our Time.  The latter three not only reveal the writer’s personal bias against certain minorities, but also reflect the times in which Hemingway lived and wrote (i.e., World War 1).  Ironically, the peripheral characters (most of whom are minorities, e.g., Cohn, Pilar, Brett, Katherine, Maria, and Anselmo) tend to be more complex, more engaging, and more absorbing than Hemingway’s heroes.

Cohn is a peripheral character in The Sun Also Rises depicted as the racial stereotype of a maligned Jewish minority, which is typical of Hemingway. What was atypical was Hemingway’s realistic, credible, and distinctive characterization of Cohn as an obsessed stalker, who cannot deal with the rejection of a sexually liberated female.  In fact, Hemingway was unwittingly ahead of his time in profiling this problem which plagues more females today than one imagines. What is interesting to note is that during Hemingway’s day the term “stalker” had not yet been applied to men who do not know how to let go of women who are not interested in them or have lost interest in them.  Moreover, no laws had been enacted during Hemingway’s day to protect women from men who stalked them. Which, explains why the characters in the novel, although annoyed by Cohn’s behavior, did not view it as lawless or deviant behavior.  As a result, they could not conceive of mild mannered Cohn -- who quietly took their insults in stride -- as a threat to anyone.   It also explains why the group was so surprised when Cohn, frustrated because no one would tell him where Brett was, turns on Jake and yells at him: “I’ll make you tell me!” (194), before knocking Jake out cold.  Nor were they prepared for the act of violence that ensued when Cohn brutally attacked Brett’s newest lover, Romero, the night before his big bull fight. 

            As recent as October, 1997 “Glamour” magazine ran an article by Katherine Eban Finkelstein on the topic of violent, obsessive male stalkers, titled “Dating Violence - The Hidden Danger College Women Face.”  The article refers to such men as having a “sense of entitlement over others” (338).  That phrase fits Cohn’s personality.  For example, even though Cohn knew that Brett had left him and gone off with another man, he still imposed his presence upon the group and followed Brett out of town, unable to help himself, even as he was unable to “stop looking at Brett ... It must have been pleasant for him to see her looking so lovely, and know he had been away with her and that every one knew it.  They could not take that away from him” (150).  Cohn feels entitled to behave the way he does about Brett even though he appears to have had only a one week fling with her and she is now with Mike, who shows obvious resentment towards Cohn’s fixation on Brett. 

            When Mike finally loses his patience with Cohn for following Brett around like a lost puppy, he tries to appeal to Cohn’s sense of pride by telling him: “I’m not clever.  But I do know when I’m not wanted ...Go away for God’s sake.  Take that sad Jewish face away” (181).  At that point, however, Cohn had already lost all sense of dignity, as most obsessive males do when they become fixated on another person.  They become so caught up in their obsession that they cannot hear, feel or sense the havoc they are creating for those around them when they ignore the pleas of the woman to be left alone.  What really confused the group was Cohn’s contrition after each episode of bad behavior where he made excuses for himself and begged for forgiveness. For example, after knocking Jake out, Jake returns to the room to find Cohn crying: “Please forgive me, Jake ... I was crazy ... I just couldn’t stand it about Brett ... I’ve been through hell ... When I met her down here Brett treated me as though I were a perfect stranger ...” (198).  Obsessive men cannot handle rejection.  The group is uneducated to the fact that Cohn’s remorse is simply a part of the cycle of abuse (wherein the abuser is sorry afterwards and eager to make amends for his bad behavior only to repeat the offense).  Because Cohn is a great manipulator they react to his pleas for sympathy by feeling sorry for him, believing that Cohn has learned his lesson.  After all, he is an adult.   The most surprising reaction is Bill’s.  He does not even like Cohn, yet confesses to Jake, who has been decked by Cohn:  “I feel sorry about Cohn ... He had an awful time” (226). Never mind that poor Romero was beaten so badly by Cohn that he could barely see to fight the bull.   Like all abusive men, Cohn’s mastery of manipulation ends up making others feel sorry for him instead of the victims, which is where the sympathy rightfully belongs.   

            From the outside looking in, obsessive males often appear to be long suffering, easy going, and devoted, which is how Cohn initially presents himself to the group.  “I do not believe Robert Cohn looked at another woman” during the two and a half years he was engaged to Francis (13), the narrator tells us at the beginning of the novel.  Jake, as narrator, comments on Cohn’s behavior because, as a man, he knows that the average male instinctively looks at an attractive female and cannot help but desire her, not matter how remote the possibility of having her -- at least he can have her in his dreams once he has captured her in his mind’s eye.  Thus, Jake’s comment can be interpreted as wonderment at Cohn’s self control for not engaging in normal male ribaldry.   Cohn’s self control is deceptive, however, because by the end of the novel, Cohn has lost all semblance of self control.   Hemingway did an excellent job of believably portraying Cohn’s manipulative personality, the group’s ignorance of his problems, and their subsequent inability to avoid falling into the emotional trap Cohn set for them. 

Catherine in A Farewell to Arms and Maria in For Whom The Bell Tolls are both peripheral characters who are mirror images of each other.  They reflect Hemingway’s idealized version of the perfect lover:  submissive, shallow, selfless and self-effacing.  The reader becomes aware early on, in both books, that Catherine and Maria have deep psychological war wounds.  In fact, Frederic admits that Catherine “was probably a little crazy” (30), while Catherine, herself, alludes to the fact that she is still emotionally attached to her dead fiancee who was killed in battle.  By the same token, Maria tells Jordan that she felt “a little dead in my head with a numbness and all I could do was cry” (353) after being raped by fascists who killed her family.  Both women need rescuing by a man, and both fall madly in love after their first sexual encounter while believing whatever their men tell them. 

            As a woman reading these two novels, the male/female role reversal regarding marriage struck me as somewhat out of character, and certainly not in keeping with the times (i.e. World War I).  For instance, when one considers the social mores of that time period regarding marriage, it was difficult for the reader to believe the role reversal of the characters.  For example: both Frederic and Jordan want to get married.  Frederic says: “I wanted us to be married really because I worried about having a child ... but Catherine said that if we were they would send her away” (110).  If they were married in a private ceremony, who would have to know?

            By the same token, when Jordan proposes marriage to Maria, she brushes him off by saying: “Since we no longer have the church I do not think it carries importance” (344).  The reader cannot help but wonder if it could really be that easy for a Catholic girl to throw away traditional values like marriage, family and religion simply because they are in a state of civil war?

            Ultimately, both couples end up not getting married.  In the interim, however, Frederic confesses that “we pretended to ourselves that we were married and did not worry very much and I suppose I enjoyed not being married really” (110).   Jordan follows suit.  After they make love he resolves the issue with a pretend marriage, declaring to Maria: “We are married now.  I marry thee now.  Thou art my wife.  But go to sleep, my rabbit, for there is little time now” (354).  What’s even more difficult to believe is that both women end up all too happy to pretend that they are married, without the formality of legality.  Catherine’s reaction seems even more out of sync with the times than Maria’s when one takes into consideration her pregnancy.  It would seem that any woman of that time period might be a wee bit concerned about bearing an illegitimate child.  War or no war, it would also seem that a pregnancy just might cause a mother-to-be to press the issue of marriage as opposed to turning her back on it.

            Furthermore, both Catherine and Maria appear to live only to serve their men and are even willing to risk public shame and humiliation in the process.  For example, Catherine risks losing her nursing position, not to mention the humiliation of being discovered making love to Frederic in his hospital bed, particularly since Frederic is her patient.  Maria risks losing face and bearing the shame of leaving the cave under the watchful eyes of the other men before they fall asleep, in order to make love to Jordan outside, under his blanket.

            Catherine tells Frederic “You’re all I’ve got” (111) and treats him as if he hung the moon.  Maria behaves the same way towards Jordan who treats her like a servant, asking her to bring him water, serve his meal, dry his socks, etc.  This servant/master relationship seems to suit them both just fine, however.  Clearly, Hemingway’s conception of the ideal lover is one who thinks that the man is capable of making the earth move under her feet.  Which is, in fact, what Jordan wants from Maria when he tells her that he felt the earth move when they made love.  He wants her to believe that he is the center of her universe and that the sun rises and sets on him.  Needless to say, Hemingway’s portrayal of women in love is idealistic, to say the least.  Having a submissive woman with no will of her own, and no desires of her own except to be in her man’s presence, and to do his bidding has to be the male version of a utopian paradise.

Pilar is another peripheral character in For Whom The Bell Tolls, who is presented as a renegade rebel with masculine traits, who is, in actuality, a woman ahead of her time, in much the same way that Brett is in The Sun Also Rises.  Pilar is described as:
“about fifty almost as big as Pablo, almost as wide as she was tall, in black peasant skirt and waist, with heavy wool socks on heavy legs, black rope soled shoes and a brown face like a model for a granite monument.  She had big but nice looking hands and her thick curly black hair was twisted into a knot on her neck” (30). 

Even though there is nothing feminine or appealing in Jordan’s description of Pilar, in actuality, Pilar is the most nurturing, caring and capable person in the entire group.  She is also the leader and self proclaimed commander of the group.  In fact, when Pablo tells Pilar that she has no right to criticize him in front of others, Pilar replies:

            “Have you not heard? Do you still believe that you command here?”

            “Yes,” Pablo said.  “Here I command.”

            “Not in joke,” the woman said.  “Here I command!” (55)

            Pilar is not just talking off of the top of her head.  In fact, the gypsy believes that they could not make it without Pilar: “Without the woman there is no organization nor any discipline here and with the woman it can be very good” (63).  The group as a whole defer to Pilar.  Rafael tells Jordan, before he meets Pilar that “she knows of what she speaks ... [b]ut she has a tongue that scalds and that bites like a bull whip.  With this tongue she takes the hide from any one.  In strips.  She is of an unbelievable barbarousness” (28).  The truth is, honesty is all that Pilar is guilty of and it is her brutal honesty that keeps the men in check.  Pilar calls it like she sees it, which sends everyone scurrying into their own intricate webs of denial.   They are afraid of hearing Pilar tell them the truth about themselves.  Because she does not sugar coat it to make the ugly truth more palatable, the truth wounds them and makes them afraid of facing what they do not want labeled.  As long as what they fear or seek to avoid has no name, they can pretend it does not exist.  For instance, Pablo, Pilar’s husband, becomes angry when Pilar tells him that he “has become lazy, a drunkard and a coward” (55) particularly in lieu of the fact that he “was brave in the beginning” (26) and “killed more people than the cholera” (26).   Pablo takes offense at Pilar naming exactly what he has become because he would rather believe that he is still the courageous freedom fighter he once was.

            Pilar also has a wonderful sense of humor, which she is not afraid to turn on herself.  She tells Jordan to drink his wine because “it will make me seem even better.  It is necessary to drink much of that for me to seem beautiful” (66).  Pilar also makes fun of male foibles when she declares in jest:  “Men.  It is a shame to us women that we make them” (32). But Pilar seems most proud of the fact that she “tries to speak frankly” (34).  It is her frankness and honesty that allows everyone to trust in her leadership.  And it is her leadership skills that command their respect.  When Jordan accuses Pilar of being hard she replies: “No ... but so simple I am very complicated.”  And that she is -- one of Hemingway’s most complex characters.    

            Brett Ashley, aka Lady Ashley, also a peripheral character in The Sun Also Rises, wears her hair cut short like a man, goes out with a group of homosexuals who live up to the word “gay,” and exercises total sexual freedom with the straight men in Jake’s circle of ex-patriots from America and England.  Brett’s free spirit allows her to sleep with any man she chooses, simply because she has “always done just what [she] wanted” (188).  Her attitude is totally masculine in the sense that she has casual sexual relationships with men and discards them with no thought for their feelings for her. 

            We do not discover the reason for Brett’s emotional detachment in her relationships until Mike, the guy she is supposed to be engaged to, reveals that “The Ashley chap she got the title from was a sailor ... He used to tell her he’d kill her.  Always slept with a loaded service revolver ... she hasn’t had an absolutely happy life, Brett.  Damned shame, too. She enjoys things so” (207).  Brett even declares: “My God! ... The things a woman goes through” (188).  Specifically because of her experiences with men trying to control her, curtail her freedom, or suppress her will, Brett chose to liberate herself by cutting her hair like a man, and treating men the way that many men have been known to treat women.

            Ironically, Brett sleeps with everyone but Jake, who would if he could, but he cannot because of a war injury that has left him impotent.  Still, Jake finds himself caught up in Brett’s spell, experiencing resentment and jealousy over the fact that Cohn, (whom Jake considers beneath him because he is Jewish) has slept with Brett and he is not able to. Since Jake cannot make love to Brett, he settles for loving her and being a real friend, rescuing Brett when she needs it most. And Brett seems to genuinely love Jake.  He fulfills her need for masculine companionship without the necessity of sex.

            The interesting thing about Brett is that in spite of her promiscuity, none of the men in the group think of her as a whore, nor do they refer to her as such.  In fact, they defer to her as “Lady Ashley.”  No doubt her beauty, charm and innocence has a lot to do with their attitude.  Jake says: “I looked and saw her coming through the crowd in the square, walking, her head up, as though the fiesta were being staged in her honor, and she found it pleasant and amusing” (210).  Brett is a new age woman who, even at the age of 34 still looks good enough to capture the heart of a 19 year old bull fighter, is kind enough not to “be one of these bitches that ruins children” (247), and is smart enough not to give her soul to a man only to wake up and find herself either joined at the hip or handcuffed to his bed.  She chooses to live her life on the edge, yet to the fullest, and certainly on her own terms during a time period when women did so at the risk of social ostracism. 

            Anselmo is the wisest, most fearless, and most philosophical of Hemingway’s peripheral male characters.   Jordan recognizes Anselmo’s courage and decides right away that: “Anselmo is a man” (36).  He comes to this conclusion after listening to Anselmo tell Pablo (i.e., Pablo has just threatened Anselmo’s life) “I am an old man who is afraid of no one old man who will live until he dies” (36).  Further, when Pilar calls Pablo a coward, he replies: “It is not cowardly to know what is foolish,” while Anselmo interjects: “Neither is it foolish to know what is cowardly” (54).  Because Anselmo is brave he can recognize Pablo’s cowardice, regardless of the fact that Pablo once was brave.    

            Although Anselmo is caught up in fighting a war, unlike Pablo, he has not lost his sense of humanity and refuses to do so, admitting that he does not “like to kill men ... to take the life of another is to me very grave.  I will do it whenever necessary but I am not of the race of Pablo” (39-41).  Men, during a state of war, will either call upon their noblest instincts and fight to preserve the welfare of their state and their countrymen, or they will use a state of lawlessness to become laws unto themselves, killing randomly and at will, like a wild animal who becomes addicted to the adrenaline rush of the chase, and attracted to the scent and taste of blood as Pablo became.  Anselmo believes that, in those who like killing, “there is always a rottenness” (197).  Anselmo has a reverence for human life and a humane philosophy regarding prisoners of war that includes atonement through compassion:
“Clearly in war we must kill.  But I have very rare ideas ... I would not kill even a Bishop.  I would not kill a proprietor of any kind.  I would make them work each day as we have worked in the fields ... Thus they would learn ... To kill them teaches nothing ... You cannot exterminate them because from their seed comes more with greater hatred.  Prison only makes hatred.  That all our enemies should learn”  (42).

Clearly, Anselmo’s wisdom could profit world leaders today. For example, the money we spend on prisons in this country only teaches prisoners how to be better and more hardened criminals.  Anselmo’s words are wise in their simplicity.  Man only learns from his mistakes when he has to walk a mile in the other man’s shoes or when he has to restore what he has stolen or taken from another by working to pay that person back.  Invoking the universal law of cause and consequence can encourage men to take responsibility for their actions. 

            Although Anselmo agrees that the Republic should win the war and he wants that to happen, if he could have one wish it would be that “we should win this war and shoot nobody ... that they should be reformed by work” (285-286). 

            Hemingway’s personal irreverence and disrespect for blacks and Jews appears suddenly and out of no where in his writing -- like an unexpected slap in the face that leaves the reader baffled even though it is clear that he is in touch with and in keeping with the racism and discrimination of the time.  For example, when Hemingway’s narrator in The Sun Also Rises says: “The nigger drummer waved at Brett” (69), the reader is at once struck by how superfluous and unnecessary that racial reference is to the actual story line as well as how little the word “nigger” reveals about how the drummer actually looks.  Moreover, the comment seems even further out of place since the reader is already aware that it was Brett’s idea to go to the club to hear “a damn good drummer” (69).  In fact, Brett tells Jake, after they arrive, that “He’s a great friend of mine” (69).  With that in mind, the reader is left to ponder the significance of referring to the drummer as a “nigger,” other than, perhaps, to convey Hemingway’s personal feelings towards blacks, or to wonder if that word was the only way that Hemingway could point out the ethnicity of the drummer?  The reader is also left to ponder if perhaps Hemingway felt it was beneath him to write an actual description of the drummer, or was that singular word “nigger” supposed to evoke a generic image of what that particular drummer looked like?  Or, finally, is it possible that Hemingway’s one word description conveys all that he is capable or willing to say about blacks? 

            In a different work, the narrator of The Battler describes Bugs as “crouching on long nigger legs over the fire.” (In Our Time 57) when simply “long legs” would have sufficed.  Once again, was the all encompassing word “nigger” supposed to conjure up a visual image of what Bug’s legs actually looked like?  The reader is again, left to ponder just what “long nigger legs” look like. 

            What is even more blatantly racist is that even after Nick is introduced to Bugs by Al, the narrator refuses to use Bug’s name when referring to him.  For example:  ‘“I spoke to you, Mister Francis,” the nigger said softly’ (59), or “Mister Francis?” came the soft nigger voice’ (59).   It would have been just as easy for Hemingway to say: “Bugs smiled again.” Instead, he says “The negro smiled again” (60). 

            Even when speaking directly to Bugs, Nick does not address him by his name.  In fact, he omits the use of Bugs’ name completely when trying to ascertain information regarding “What made him [Al] crazy” (60), in spite of the fact that Bugs always addresses Nick as “Mister Adams” (60).   Bugs even addresses the crazy boxer as “Mr. Francis,” which serves to keep the “negro” in his place.  Moreover, while in the presence of white men Bugs plays the role of servant (cooking for them), caretaker for Al, and protector of Nick from Al’s aggression.  Hemingway is consistent till the end of the story in his racial references.  For example, Nick tells us that Bugs explained everything to him “in a low, smooth, polite nigger voice” (62).   One can only surmise that perhaps Hemingway felt that it would have been out of character for a white man writing about a black man to refer to him as anything other than a “nigger.” Or, that Hemingway felt it proper and to be expected of him (as a white male writer) to show disregard for blacks in subtle ways like not acknowledging the man’s name.

            Robert Cohn, the Jewish character mentioned earlier in The Sun Also Rises, is called “That kike.” (168) by Bill.   The narrator sets the tone for the way that the group reacts to Cohn, early on in the novel which ends up in keeping with the way that the group treats him. “No one had ever made him feel like he was a Jew, and hence any different from anybody else, until he went to Princeton” (12).  Thus, the narrator implies that Jews are not the same as other people, therefore, they deserve to be treated differently.  In fact, in the opening paragraph of the novel, the narrator informs us that Cohn became good at boxing because it countered “the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton” (1).   The tone of the foregoing, delivered through the narrator, Jake, is that Cohn is treated poorly because he deserves to be treated thus by virtue of his birthright as a Jew.  One is left to wonder if Hemingway felt that treating him otherwise would have upset the status quo?

            In addition, Brett, while begging Jake not to be difficult, since she has had to suffer through Cohn following her about, calls Cohn “that damn Jew” (187).  Moreover, Bill, who appears to be jealous of Cohn, because he is from one of the “richest Jewish families in New York,” (12) reveals that the real reason he does not like Cohn is because “he’s got this Jewish superiority ...”(166).  

            It is interesting to note how little provocation it takes for Bill, in The Sun Also Rises, to want to take drastic measures: “It’s enough to make a man join the Klan.” (93), he declares.  If all it took was having a large party of Catholic pilgrims to be served their meal before he got his, it would be frightening to see how far Bill would go if he had to suffer real discrimination of the kind that minorities put up with regularly.  The fact that Bill made this comment to a priest, (i.e., the Klan hates Jews, Catholics and blacks), implies that he is better than a man of the cloth. 

            In A Farewell to Arms, when Katherine teases Frederic about being “Othello with his occupation gone” Frederic lets her know just how insulted he is to be compared to Othello, by replying: “Othello was a nigger.” (246).  In this statement Frederic is informing Katherine, in no uncertain terms, that king or not, all black men are inferior to whites no matter how lowly the rank of the white man or how exalted the rank of the black man.

Two notable exceptions are found in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and The Sea, where he moves beyond stereotypes.  Although he makes reference to blacks in For Whom The Bell Tolls, he does not use the word “nigger” to describe them.  He, in fact, uses the polite term “Negro.” In The Old Man And The Sea Hemingway makes no racial references whatsoever, no doubt due to the singular focus of the book on a fishing expedition. 

            For Whom The Bell Tolls also reveals that Hemingway did some research on the history of blacks when Maria explains that she has “never seen a Negro, except in a circus.  Unless the Moors are Negroes.”  Pilar explains that “Some are Negroes and some are not ... I can talk to you of the Moors” (117).  In keeping with Hemingway’s attitude, however, this reference seems to cast doubt as to whether or not the Moors were actually African. Since history reveals that the Moors were, in fact, from the dark continent of Africa, Hemingway’s bias may have compelled him to go along with the status quo and cast doubt, perhaps because he clearly admired the Spanish people and the Moors’ rule over Spain was highly successful, lasting over seven centuries and there was definite intermingling of African and Spanish blood.  In the latter instance, even though Hemingway displayed some growth, he still gives with one hand, while taking back with the other.

            It seems that no objective writer of this era would casually cast denigrating comments or descriptions of minorities through a third person narrator without a compelling reason to do so (e.g., to describe a particular character’s prejudices, personality, or to convey legitimate bias against something or someone that adversely affected that character).  Not so with Hemingway.  For instance, even though Faulkner uses the word “Nigger” freely in his writing, it is through the dialogue of the character, or interior monologue of the character, not through an objective, third person narrator.

            Clearly Hemingway felt comfortable mirroring the views of the status quo and was rewarded for doing so by receiving both a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes for writing that merely reported on what he observed and experienced during the war. His style of writing is simple, direct and without the brilliant innovations, originality, or psychological insights of Faulkner.  The fact that the awards committees for the Pulitzer and the Nobel overlooked Hemingway’s personal voice intruding upon his narrator, appears to indicate that: (1) there were no blacks or Jews on the committee; (2) the committee shared Hemingway’s views; or (3) the committee felt that Hemingway accurately reflected the white male majority view, for whom the material was written. 


Printable View

Back to articles list