Hemingway Week: Bitch Goddesses

Warning: This post explores the literary term “bitch goddess,” and I therefore use that word frequently.  I understand that this is offensive and upsetting to some people, so please don’t take it personally and please don’t read this post if strong language offends you.

Female characters in Hemingway’s work are often called “bitch goddesses,” who use beauty and sensuality to lure men in and then rule them.  Such characterizations are found in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (1936), among other novels and short stories.  Despite the despicable, destructive, and even desperate actions of these women, their characterization as “bitch goddesses” may be one-dimensional, ignoring other facets of Modernism.  Scholars have now revised this view of Hemingway’s female characters, seeing them as more complex and perhaps self-actualized.

Scholars once said that Hemingway’s characterization of women is harsh and unfair, but the sometimes unflattering depictions of women seem to be ambivalence directed at the changing sexuality of women and a corresponding loss of faith in the Modernist era.  Catherine Barkley’s death in A Farewell to Arms (1929) because of her sexual sins is less of an antagonism toward her as it is an attempt to understand the changing social values of the time.  Many writers and artists of the time were ambivalent over rejecting and reforming social systems.  This is a kinder view toward Hemingway’s characterization of women.

Here are the qualities of bitch goddesses and corn goddesses.  Scholars have applied these two archetypes to Hemingway’s work.

Bitch Goddesses are:

•          Beautiful

•           Sensual, not spiritual

•           Predatory

•           Dominating

•           Powerful

•           Destructive

•           Bisexual

This is opposed to The Corn Goddess, who is:

•           Nurturing

•           Docile

•           Submissive

•           Feminine

•           Domestic

•           Reproductive

•           Helpmate

We can see these archetypes at work in several of Hemingway’s female characters.  Lady Brett Ashley, from The Sun Also Rises is androgynous, which heightens her appeal.  She has short hair, mannish clothing, and homosexual friends.  She is also called “chap” and is compared to Aphrodite (complete with men worshiping her and prostituting themselves).  Jake becomes her pimp, she cuckolds Mike, and then Cohn calls her Circe, who turns men into swine. Despite all of this, she is still admired and worshipped, apparent when the riau-riau dancers surround her.  Brett has power over the men.  She’s a typical bitch goddess.

Margot Macomber in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” has been called the most destructive of Hemingway’s bitch goddesses.  She is beautiful, “damn cruel,” and uses sex as a weapon (128).  She demands self-mutilation, self-emasculation, and the human sacrifice of her husband.  She treats him like a difficult child and reduces his victories to petty triumphs. She cuckolds her husband as well, ultimately destroying and killing him.  Margot’s sexual power is most devastating to her husband.  Francis is emasculated, symbolized by his failure to shoot the lion.  He cannot perform in front of Margot.  The two resort to calling each other names―“You are a bitch” and “You’re a coward” (140).

hem francis macomber

She’s rude when Francis manages to shoot the bull.  She says, “I hated it . . . I loathed it” (149).  She sees Francis’s confidence as a threat to her own.  The two are waging a battle of the sexes, in which only one can have sexual power instead of both.  The idea that men and women must compete for such sexuality seems to stem from the ambivalence of gender roles and women’s sexuality in the Modernist era.  This life-or-death situation culminates with Margot eventually killing Francis with a gun called the “Mannlicher” (152).  It is unclear why she does this, as it could have been an accident.  The story does not celebrate the New Woman, but instead paints her as a threat to men.

There are other female characters who fit this description in Hemingway’s work.  It is a prominent theme of his female characters.  Many scholars attribute this to Hemingway’s mother and the mother-like figures in his life.  Grace Hemingway was domineering, disapproved of his writing, and had her own career.  Hemingway blamed her for his father’s suicide and called her the “all-American bitch.”  Hemingway’s first love was Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse when he served in World War I.  She was older than him, called him “The Kid,” and ultimately left him for another man.  This had to be emasculating.  He also seemed to have not gotten over her.  Of Hadley Richardson Hemingway, his first wife, scholars have said she is the pattern for his submissive and beneficial female characters.  She was older than him and acted as a nourishing mother.  We saw a lot of this in The Paris Wife.

Hemingway Family, 1917, Public Domain image
Hemingway Family, 1917, Public Domain image

 

From all of this, critics and scholars have conflicting interpretations.  Leslie Fiedler is famous for saying that “There are no women in Hemingway.”  Others posit that the good women in his books are erotic fantasies and that the “real” women are destructive.  This certainly makes Hemingway seem like a misogynist.  Scholars also say this stems from his fear of women.  It is all very psychological.

The destructive woman theme is a view that some still hold, but scholars have also said that his female characters are models of the New Woman that emerged during early feminism from 1900 to 1920.  His work is not about misogyny or fear, but instead it reflects the sexual attitudes and gender conflicts of the time.  Another notable view is that the female characters are not stereotypes, but instead complex women who suffered from diagnosable psychological conditions and that they deserve our sympathy.  I believe Brett Ashley could be considered to have Borderline Personality Disorder, and Catherine Barkley could certainly have been suffering from depression.  Other sympathetic views are that Brett was trapped by her beauty and therefore alone and isolated, Catherine was a woman with agency, Brett seems overbearing because we see her through Jake’s eyes and he is conflicted, and Brett is not all bad because she’s a mother to the men.

I honestly prefer the kinder interpretations of Hemingway’s women.  I hesitate to say that his characters are reincarnations of his terrible mother, although I can completely understand that.  I had a professor who constantly reminded me that we cannot know what an author intended or what he or she was thinking, so we shouldn’t try to use the author’s life as a tool of interpretation.  I agree with this, although I can see how an author’s life would influence their work, and certainly much of Hemingway’s work is autobiographical.

Sources

Fulton, Lorie Watkins.  “Reading Around Jake’s Narration: Brett Ashley and The Sun Also Rises.”  The Hemingway Review 24.1 (Fall 2004): 61-80.

Gladstein, Mimi Reisel.  The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck.  Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986.

Miller, Linda Patterson.  “Brett Ashley: The Beauty of It All.”  Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.  New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1995. 170-184.

Nolan, Charles J. Jr.  “‘A Little Crazy’: Psychiatric Diagnoses of Three Hemingway Women Characters.”  The Hemingway Review 28.2 (Spring 2009): 105-120.

Sanderson, Rena.  “Hemingway and Gender History.”  The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway.  Ed. Scott Donaldson.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.  170-196.

Traber, Daniel S.  “Performing the Feminine in A Farewell to Arms.”  The Hemingway Review 24.2 (Spring 2005): 28-40.

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17 thoughts on “Hemingway Week: Bitch Goddesses

Add yours

  1. Good comments. I tend to agree with your instructor: we cannot know what the author intended and shouldn’t draw inferences about his or her work from tales about their personal lives.

  2. I have to agree with the professor. I am thinking of that line from “Amadeus” when Mozart said “I am a vulgar man, but I can assure you my music is not.” Hemingway could make the same claim anout his work and predispostion.

  3. Interesting post, there’s a lot of well thought out information here. In contrast, I have a slightly more off the cuff comment to contribute. I am not well read in Hemingway. I have not liked Hemingway’s work largely because of his writing of women characters. There is a dichotomy he falls prey to, and others have as well. The bitch goddess vs. the corn goddess. Madonna vs. whore, these simple ‘either, or’ stereotypes of womanhood are set against each other. It is unfortunate that such a gifted writer was unable to see any women, in any of his stories (that I’ve ever read, and I admittedly haven’t read many of them) as fully developed individuals. I also think it’s dangerous to go down the path that the women characters in his novels are mentally ill. I unfortunately know a person who loves to self-diagnose each and every woman s/he knows with some kind of mental illness instead of choosing to see them as whole, healthy, complex, human beings that are neither bitch nor goddess. Hemingway reminds me of this individual, so much so that I myself am unable to see him as the great writer so many others admire because the misogyny he writes is unfortunately still too relevant in society.

    Your post, however, makes me want to re-read some Hemingway, so that my comment is less first impressions of the few stories I’ve read and more educated based on his overall work.

    1. What a great comment, Denise. You really add a new dimension to what all of the scholars are arguing and debating about Hemingway. I agree with what you say about mental illness. Nor surprisingly, the author of that article and examination of Hemingway women is a man. His title kind of seems harsh, but the article itself is a little more nuanced. You’ve also caused me to think more about how we can apply this either/or thinking to his female characters without actually examining if they are fully developed. Thanks for adding to the conversation so thoughtfully.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful and well written comments on the books you read. I always enjoy reading your blog and often learn something new about the author or the book. I found this discussion of Hemingway really interesting. Judy E.

    1. Thanks, Judy. I am lucky to have you say these things. It is a little intimidating to write knowing that my audience includes people like you, who are more experienced with and knowledgeable about literature. I’m indebted to you for my introduction to modernism!

  5. And at the end he killed himself – a fate he was fighting against as depicted in his writing of the way he saw his mother, whom he blamed for his father’s suicide? Or a not totally unexpected end to the life of a man who majored on giving in to any and every passion? As your professor said, we can’t really know what the writer is thinking but if we judge a life by what that person writes, it seems that we should be able to use it as a reflection of the life going on in the writer’s head.

  6. I’m fascinated by Hemingway’s take on the powerful woman – my read of Lady Brett Ashley is that she acts this way *because* she is damaged and trying to assert her power as best as she can – it’s all she has. What does a healthy woman under her own power look like, to Hemingway, I wonder? I haven’t read enough of his work to know if he ever thought they existed.

    1. I’m not sure we can get at exactly what he thought, but his depictions certainly don’t lend themselves to seeing a woman who is empowered. However, I have been thinking about the concept that we bring our own experiences and set of lenses to a reading, so I wonder if some of these contemporary and more gentle readings of Hemingway women reflect culture, society, and its changes and therefore effects on us as researchers. I do appreciate a more nuanced reading of his women, and your thoughts on Brett sound nice.

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