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:
• Sensual, not spiritual
This is opposed to The Corn Goddess, who is:
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).
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.
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.
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.