Literary Wives Series: The Starter Wife, in Paris

Three is a crowd.  This becomes abundantly clear in Paula McLain’s popular novel The Paris Wife (2011).  The fictional narrative is from Hadley Richardson Hemingway’s perspective.  She is the first (and as we learn in the end) favorite wife of American modernist author Ernest Hemingway.

Please also visit the blogs of and read the reviews of the other bloggers participating in the Literary Wives series today.

Ariel Price of One Little Library

Audra Friend of Unabridged Chick

Angela Cybulski of Persephone Writes

paris wife cover
These types of novels, the first-person narrative of somebody famous, are hard for me.  It was hard with American Wife, and it was hard with this novel.  I think it is a stretch for me to believe it, when I have the cognitive dissonance of knowing that it is fiction but also realizing that it is based on a real person and purports to be their innermost thoughts.  It requires me to suspend my disbelief, as Coleridge famously noted.  A good author can make this suspension easy.

The best part of the book, for me, was the acknowledgment of and even imitation of Hemingway’s novels and short stories.  When Hadley and Ernest visit Milan, we hear about Ernest’s first love Agnes, a nurse during World War I.  He is nostalgic for her and the time they spent in Milan together.  Hadley isn’t jealous, but what struck me most about this scene was the rain.  McLain doesn’t just mention the rain, but she weaves it through the narrative the same way that the rain is symbolic and persistent in A Farewell to Arms (1929), the Hemingway novel that portrays young American officer Frederic Henry falling in love with his nurse.

This was my second read of The Paris Wife.  I found it most enjoyable because I have read almost all of what Hemingway has written (due to a class during my Master’s degree focused on Hemingway), and seeing the fiction come to life in this narrative proved satisfying and fascinating.  The Sun Also Rises (1926) is portrayed when the Hemingways take a trip to Pamplona for the running of the bulls.  There, they hang out with a boyish woman named Duff and her two suitors.  The “real-life” experiences of Hadley and Ernest there are then turned into one of Hemingway’s most celebrated novels, with memorable character Lady Brett Ashley.

I love that The Paris Wife gives me some experiential context, however fictional, for Hemingway’s work.  Reading it with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964, posthumously) is advisable.  I picked up A Moveable Feast right after I read The Paris Wife the first time.  It was a good move.  McLain, in fact, mentions her own use of that memoir to reconstruct some of what happened in Paris and in the marriage.

Now, the marriage is what is central to the novel and what our Literary Wives series is really about.  The marriage begins wonderfully and seems like a fairy tale, but it quickly turns sour when Pauline joins the marriage as Ernest’s lover who won’t let go.  In fact, this part of the book is so startling and vivid that after reading it the first time, all I remembered about the book were the scenes involving Pauline living with them and having discreet relations with Ernest while Hadley looked on helplessly.  Reading about this happening from Hadley’s perspective is suffocating and panic-inducing.  I wanted her to scream at Pauline or make a scene or lash out and stand up in some way, but she never really does.

And that is her role throughout the book and her marriage.  She is a passive victim.  Hadley constantly reinforces the notion that her job is to suffer for his career.  She gives up her own identity to do so, canceling a planned piano concert and not complaining when she has no piano to practice on, despite the fact that it is her gift and her art.  This is one way that she sacrifices herself, but she also gives up a separate identity to do this.  This comes through in the novel in several ways, but most noticeable to me is the fact that she cuts her hair and claims to have started looking like Ernest.  She also reminds us (and Hemingway constantly reminds her) that they are alike.

This paints a portrait of a dangerous marriage, in which one partner is swallowed up into the other.  I can see the way Hadley justifies this because of Ernest’s neediness and his large personality, but she is a person too.  Yet she never really discovers that.  Maybe she does once she has married Paul Mowrer and moved on, but we don’t get to read about that in this novel.  And when things with Ernest don’t go her way, even the small things, she just shrugs and says something like “That’s how it was.”  I wanted to say back “So why not change it, Honey?”  It is as if she has no agency, but she willingly gives it up to let Ernest suck all of the oxygen from her life.

I think that is why it is so easy for him to cheat.  He has never seen Hadley as a person but instead as an object or an ornament to his own life and success.  He really doesn’t seem to understand how she feels once Pauline takes over.  He just claims that he must cheat and that he cannot fight it.  He wants both women, like a spoiled child who has never not gotten his way or learned to control his appetites and passions.  He is a terrible partner for marriage, which is why the marriage is so unbalanced and not a partnership throughout.

This lack of respect and balance is portrayed through Hadley’s role in Paris.  She is just “the wife,” like Alice B. Toklas to Gertrude Stein.  Hadley accepts this, although it does seem to bother her.  But she admits, even during their courtship, that she was willing to do a lot to keep Ernest happy, even if it meant being swallowed up and ignored.

Despite this passiveness, Hadley does come off as the hero in this narrative.  As much as I wish she hadn’t just let herself be used, she does keep saying how she did not want to hold him back, both in love and work.  It is almost as if Hadley is really responsible for the great writer that Ernest became.  She is that typical woman behind the good man.  He really wouldn’t have made it without her, but it is a shame that she had to lose herself for those years and that he rewarded her with infidelity and chucking her out like a piece of garbage.  Is that the reward good women get for being supporters?  Is that what they should expect after a short marriage’s sacrifices (of poverty, leaving home, and bearing a child) or even a lifetime of devotion to family and husband?

Is there a lesson here for women?  Maybe women shouldn’t sacrifice themselves for a man’s ambitions, for this tale gives the warning that it doesn’t satisfy and that the person you’ve done it for won’t care anyway.  I know all men aren’t like Ernest.  All marriages don’t result in adultery or divorce.  But would fewer end that way if women stopped sacrificing their very cores for the other?  Or would it require men to sacrifice more or be more willing to suffer for what women want or need?  I’m not sure of the answers to any of these questions, and I’m sure it is different in every relationship.  But the novel raises these interesting issues and asks some philosophical questions about marriage without actually articulating them.

Marriage is referred to as many things throughout.  Here are some of the interesting quotes.

“Not everyone believed in marriage then.  To marry was to say you believed in the future and in the past, too—that history and tradition and hope could stay knit together to hold you up” (p. xi).

“So your wife would take care of you?  That’s an interesting way to think about marriage” (p. 65).

“Marriage could be such deadly terrain” (p. 145).

“Happiness is so awfully complicated, but freedom isn’t.  You’re either tied down or you’re not” (p. 180).

“[H]e hasn’t a clue how hard it is to be a woman” (p. 188).

“Ernest once told me that the word paradise was a Persian word that meant ‘walled garden.’  I knew then that he understood how necessary the promises we made to each other were to our happiness.  You couldn’t have real freedom unless you knew where the walls were and tended them.  We could lean on the walls because they existed; they existed because we leaned on them” (p. 296).

“[H]ow can you really say you’ll love a person longer than love lasts?  And as for the obeying part, well, I just wouldn’t say it” (p. 305).

Now although I first referred to Pauline’s interference in the marriage as the idea that “three’s a crowd,” I suspect that the marriage was crowded in more ways than just another woman (or many other women).  Ernest was first wedded to his ambition and desire to be a great literary star.  He’s constantly reminding Hadley that she must support him and put his craft first.  This is the true downfall of the marriage, that Ernest cannot love another more than he loves his own talent.  That’s enough to crowd a marriage.

If you’d like more information about The Paris Wife, visit here:  http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/features/paula_mclain/book.

To see a description of what we are trying to accomplish with this series and a list of the books we are reading, please visit my Literary Wives Series page by clicking on the words or by clicking on “Literary Wives Series” on the toolbar at the top of my blog.

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56 thoughts on “Literary Wives Series: The Starter Wife, in Paris

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  1. Beautifully said! I think you’ve worded much more accurately what I also felt, why I had trouble relating to Hadley. I was sad that she gave up so easily, but it seemed to be what she wanted. And you’re right—she was the reason he became the writer he did. But was it worth it? I wonder if she thought so.

    1. She seemed to think so in the end, when he calls her while he’s writing A Moveable Feast. She seems to have the blessing of distance from the pain and the ability to take pride in how she helped and supported him, although it was hard for her.

  2. I love your observation about the rain in the Milan scene and FTA — its been too long since I’ve read FTA, so I didn’t pick up on that. I love that you noticed and pointed it out!

    Your point about the 1st person historical novels is one I share; however, I think McClain’s handling of the perspective in The Paris Wife is practically flawless. It was clear she did her research and cares deeply about the time period and about these characters. Her respect for the material and their lives and her accuracy in their honest, if fictionalized, depiction come through all the way along. It is a marked contrast to the approach we found in American Wife!

    Your reaction to the scenes with Pauline matched mine — it was horrible to read and I both appreciated and hated the visceral reaction it gave me. But I love it when a writer is able to evoke such strong emotions in the reader. Hadley’s inability or unwillingness to stand up for herself and confront Ernest’s swallowing tendencies regarding her gifts and selfhood seem to me to be a direct result of her upbringing…..she was sickly as a child and basically treated as incapable and unable her whole life. No one ever expects anything from her, nor is she ever encouraged in any way to be anything other than simply a victim, an object. Her parents’ relationship is also problematic — her mother did not seem too supportive of her father, who clearly had pressures and difficulties. I think this instilled a fear in Hadley and perhaps on some level she decided that her own marriage would be different. As often happens, she allows it to go to extremes, which is unfortunate.

    But I do see her as possessing the ability, in the end, to come into herself and to achieve wholeness. As you point out, we don’t see much of this in the novel; however, the novel itself, as told from her perspective, is to me the evidence of this. And I love that. Not only has she discovered herself, but she has used the medium of words, which Ernest and the expat set hoard, to express it beautifully. She has appropriated and made her own the very thing which caused so much trouble — Ernest’s passion and talent with words.

    I love your review, Emily, and the questions you raise are essential ones to examine if women are to preserve their unique gifts and live authentic lives, for themselves and within the marriage.

    1. Thanks, Angela. I do think that marriages could be improved if women were exercising their gifts as well. This book sure brings that possible imbalance out. I wonder if that applies to “ordinary” marriages, or just ones in which one partner is a “genius” ? Ha ha.

      I agree that McLain handled Hadley’s characterization well. It didn’t seem forced or fake. I also like how you bring out Hadley’s childhood and psychology. It seems that many readily apply that to Hemingway, but she deserves that same consideration. Our pasts shape us.

      1. I like your question about “ordinary marriages” vs. “genius-partner marriages.” 🙂 But I think you and I both know, based on our experiences with our respective talents and gifts, that were we unable to exercise them, we’d be less whole. We may not be geniuses in respect to our “art” (well, I might change my mind if I heard you on the piano 😉 ) but I think the fact that we seem to be in marriages where the relationship is not threatened by the practice of our art means that it apples across the board, perhaps even more so in marriages of genius, simply because the temptation to make the art all-important is greater.

        1. I’m definitely NOT a piano genius! LOL! Yes, our relationships certainly aren’t threatened by our talents. I know my husband has his own talents and gifts. We all do, and those should compliment each other. Perhaps for the Hemingways it wasn’t that he had a gift but that he could not see anything except for that.

  3. Emily, in your review you ask. “Is there a lesson here for women? Maybe women shouldn’t sacrifice themselves for a man’s ambitions, for this tale gives the warning that it doesn’t satisfy and that the person you’ve done it for won’t care anyway.” I think the answer today is yes and yes. Good post, BTG

      1. Agreed. One sided relationships don’t last long or don’t end well. Hemingway may have been a great writer, but he could be a major jerk, especially to women.

  4. Such a good review! I liked the Paris Wife but it was so painful to read. I wanted to smack the Hemingway character and that Pauline one too. I could not believe the cruelty of those people. I wanted Hadley to extricate herself from such an unrewarding and humiliating situation but women often don’t, even nowadays. I think that as women we are trained to subjugate ourselves, to put ourselves at the service of others. I don’t know if it’s partly innate, if the nurturing tendencies of women provide the grease that slides us into these roles, or if it is a completely social construct that is ingrained to the point of near-invisibility. Here’s an example: we were watching the movie Hope Springs, in which Meryl Streep insists on bringing her husband, Tommy Lee Jones, to marriage counselling. Their interactions made me consider how many couples we knew – especially older couples – in which the men are irascible, blunt, and opinionated, and their wives are the ones smoothing things over, making people comfortable and happy. The men can say whatever they like, they can behave exactly as they please, because they have these adjuncts to apologize for them. One offends, the other mollifies. What is that? I tried to think of an example where it’s the other way round with no luck. In The Paris Wife, this is exactly the dynamic between Hemingway and Hadley, and I find it very aggravating.

    Goodness me, what a rant! Anyway, I liked your review very much.

    1. Thank you, Lea! You add an interesting dimension to the marriage explored in the novel and in gender roles. I also see women who mollify. I wonder what men like Jones’s character would do if his wife just stopped apologizing and smoothing and began calling him on it? I need to see that movie now!

  5. Wow. BEAUTIFULLY written. The Paris Wife is one of my favorite books and you perfectly and eloquently describe why. Thank you so, so much. As soon as I finish Hadley’s biography “Paris Without End”, I may pick up The Paris Wife again. Thank you, thank you.

    1. You are very welcome! Thank you for your kind words! Now I want to read Hadley’s biography. Is The Paris Wife pretty true to that? It seems like the novel tries to be as accurate as possible…

      1. 🙂 I think you would enjoy Hadley’s bio too! It actually gives much more insight to Hadley as a person. I found the passive nature of her a little frustrating in The Paris Wife, but once you know about her background (her family, her upbringing, etc) it makes more sense… but they are also other fascinating parts to Hadley that never get discussed in The Paris Wife. I think The Paris Wife is the perfect blend of both the facts about Hadley and Earnest’s marriage and Paula McLain’s interpretation of all the primary sources she used to write the novel. I first read The Paris Wife, then A Moveable Feast, and now Paris Without End and I have to say they PERFECTLY compliment each other and my understanding of Hemingway as a writer. I highly recommend Hadley’s bio. Thank you again for such a wonderful blog!

  6. My review: http://books-n-music.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-paris-wife-by-paula-mclain.html?m=1
    I had kinda forgotten about the “walled garden.” That also fits with Pound’s warning to Hadley not to “domesticate” Ernest. Being “trapped” inside the walls of domestication could definitely feel like imprisonment to a “free spirit” like Ernest, couldn’t it? Oh…I can provide answers to some of your questions from firsthand experience. I had no knowledge of myself as a “partner” in a relationship after always playing the role of mollifier and deciding to stay in a marriage for another 10 VERY LONG years which gave me no support, no joy, no happiness. Save yourself!! Don’t do it!! I think many times financial dependence or lack of financial independence keep women in marriages/relationships way longer, even if they are almost debilitating psychologically and/or spiritually. Now it had better be a true partnership with give and take from both sides or I’m so outta there. I bet Hadley had a similar attitude, and hopefully, her second marriage was just that and that is why it was (seemingly, at least) successful for so many years. If only there were enough hours in the day to also read her biography…

    1. Yes, the walls felt like prison to Ernest, not paradise! Great insight. As to being trapped in an unequal marriage, I agree with you that many women stay because they are afraid or lack the ability to support themselves. I’ve always been big on education for women, partly for that reason (and in seeing my own mother’s experiences). I do think Hadley’s second marriage was more equal and successful. I really hope it was because she deserved it. I’ll check out your post!

  7. This book has actually made it to the pile on my dresser beside my bed 🙂 That means the odds are in its favor that I will be reading it soon.

  8. I read ‘A Moveable Feast’ a couple of months ago for the first time as a precursor to ‘The Paris Wife’ but then discovered on starting to read’ The Paris Wife’ that for me it was not at all satisfying. I think this is partly due to the superiority of Hemingway’s prose but also as you mention the fictionalisation of a real relationship and people and a context that worked so well for me in memoir form but just felt depleted and less authentic as a novel. Thanks for the review, I am prompted to read Hadley’s biography now after your post and all the comments above.

    1. I can easily see how that would dampen your experience with the novel. I ended up reading A Moveable Feast afterwards! And yes, I’m so glad that Hadley’s biography has been mentioned. It sounds like a must-read for many of us. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Sounds like quite an emotionally difficult book to get through but one that has rewards for the reader.

    Out of curiosity, and I don’t why I thought of this while reading this, but have you read Ahab’s Wife? If so, what did you think of it?

      1. I’m not sure. Heard mixed things about it. Thought most people said it was good, though. Was mainly curious if you would recommend it if you had read it.

  10. I’m a bit behind in this conversation, so I’ll make it quick. I’ve been looking forward to this ‘wives’ series particularly. It seems from each of the reviews, that this one carries the same themes as the last one. That the wife is passive and gives up herself for the ambition of her husband. I wonder if this theme will continue in the other “wife” books, and if that is the very reason these ladies have no name themselves in the titles. It will be interesting to find out!

    1. I’m starting to wonder that too! Is this because of the cultural meaning of “wife”? I wonder if the characterization of these women says something more about how much we value that role as a society or how we enact that role.

  11. I just finished this book and I wanted to scream at both Hadley and Ernest by the end. But then the epilogue made me weep. And I like any book that can end with a good weep. His life was so tragic…and that has had me thinking a lot about whether or not you can be a good artist if your life is not tragic. Wasn’t it after he had his first tryst with Pauline that the rest of his book “came out whole, like a fish.”? It’s like he needed to be tortured and have turbulence in his life in order to write well. All his artist friends in the book were like him, too…tormented, seeking happiness in the wrong places. Is that a pre-cursor to being a good artist? I’m trying to think of a really famous artist who also lived a straightforward, clean life….I can’t. Can you?

    1. I was going to say no, that I can’t think of one, but I can think of many. I think what throws us both off is that the most famous or most infamous artists are those with tumultuous lives, and we pay attention to them because they are more exciting and interesting. But if you look through literature, many great authors have been “ordinary.” Wallace Stegner comes to mind. But they are also people, with torments and trials and human experiences in their path. Yes, the last chapter made me cry too! It is almost as if his life were wasted because of his infidelity, but as you point out, some of those impulsive qualities led to his great work.

  12. To me it’s sad that Hemingway felt only capable of great creativity when he was being selfish, narcissistic and demeaning to people who loved him. Imagine the freedom and creativity that could have come if he had valued people and treated them with respect. But then, he would have had to have loved himself with honesty and rationality first, wouldn’t he?

    1. You speak the truth! Or even if his art had “suffered” by his being more kind and loving, he would’ve left behind THAT legacy, and perhaps that’s really what is important.

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