Written for my Textual Analysis I class in 22.01.2014, this essay includes an examination of gender roles in short pieces of Robert Browning, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.
In Robert Browning’s poems “Meeting at Night (1845)” and “Parting at Morning (1849)”, we see a great division between the world of men and women. Men are portrayed as strong, masculine figures who penetrate, control and rule; whereas women are merely kind receptors of attention, they are the objects of the private life that men keeps separated from his daily affairs. The juxtaposition of the different roles that surround men and women are also portrayed by Browning’s use of language and imagery; men are associated with images such as fire, the sun, light and Apollo; and women are associated with the sea, the moon, darkness and Artemis. These contrasting symbols also illustrate how Browning saw different worlds within different genders; one is public and rational and the other one, hidden and emotional.
This sense of acute rationality and distance from emotion is prominent in Ernest Hemingway’s male characters as well. The first that comes to mind is the American in “Hills Like White Elephants (1927),” which is a story about a incommunicative couple who talk around their real conflict. The American is a very controlling character but his macho attitude is hidden under his tone and choice of words. While trying to convince his partner, Jig, to have an abortion, he tries to make her feel like it’s her decision. However, the course of their argument changes when Jig carries the discussion to new limits, which her lover cannot understand or respond to (Hannum 46). The language Jig uses gets more cynical and emotional, whereas the American is always more precise and to-the-point. (O’Brien 19). This contrast in language also marks a contrast in the roles that they attribute to themselves and their personalities. The American seeks more rational solutions, whereas Jig strives for a more deeper meaning and understanding. Perhaps this is why the story ends in an ambivalent note; we never know whether they go ahead with the procedure or not.
Another female character of Hemingway, the American wife from “Cat in the Rain (1925),” is also surrounded by ambivalence. The story is about a traveling married couple spending a night in a hotel in Spain, where the American wife sees a cat stranded in the rain and wants to rescue it. The cat then becomes a complex symbol of her need to take care and being taken care of, which demonstrates the roles that she is stuck inbetween; a mature woman and a young girl. Hence when she is with her husband she is referred to as the American wife, but when she is with the fatherly and helpful hotel-keeper, she becomes the American girl. The scene where she tells her husband that she wishes to have her own home and a more settled life is really important; as it again leads into the subjects of being a family and maternal instincts that she so desperately needs to fulfill.
Hemingway’s stories give us clear examples of how gender roles were depicted in the time that they were written. They are also great mediums to see the values that were attached to these roles. He harshly criticizes men who have constructed a fake sense of security in order to avoid more domestic, important responsibilities. Hemingway also tends to idealize women’s fertility; his female characters without children are always unfulfilled and unsatisfied. Perhaps if Jig lived in our modern world, she would have an easier job communicating to her partner, and the American wife’s world would not be as blurry and shaken because she doesn’t have any children.
We are faced with the concepts of fertility, creativity and maternity in John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums (1937),” as well. The story is built around a central character, Elisa, who grows chrysanthemums in her garden. As the story goes on, we notice that the chrysanthemums become tools for her to demonstrate and experience her femininity, fertility and gender identity. Elisa is a woman who doesn’t have children, and she is in desperate need of creative expression; just like Jig and the American wife. The society in which she is stuck in doesn’t have a definition of a feminine kind of strength, therefore she tries to build up psychological strength: with growing chrysanthemums and becoming one with nature. Stanley Renner, in his article “The Real Woman Inside the Fence in ‘The Chrysanthemums’,” describes Elisa’s personality and her inner conflicts perfectly:
“ ‘The Chrysanthemums’ is a story about a strong, capable woman kept from personal, social, and sexual fulfillment by the prevailing conception of a woman’s role in a world dominated by men.”
When we compare and contrast all the works we have examined, we see that every artist has a different way of approaching gender identity issues: Browning’s is very strict and clear; the worlds of men and women are clearly divided by rules and associations. Hemingway creates more blurry lines with his use of language, his characters and inconclusive stories. He writes in a way that criticizes macho, controlling man and his woman have a creative energy, if not channeled , creates disappointment and despair. The issue of maternity is a prominent one in Hemingway’s stories, and in “The Chrysanthemums,” as well. In the “The Chrysanthemums,” the relationship our protagonist has with her society is more clear than the previous stories. When we look at Jig, the American, George and the American wife, we see that the characteristics they have are mostly defined by the roles they play in their personal partnerships. Whereas for Elisa, the whole town is her partner; and she wants to get away from this society that restricts her. In conclusion, one can say that all these stories and poems give us insight about gender roles of different times of our past, and they are guidelines to understand our present better.
Hannum, Howard L. “”Jig Jig to dirty ears”: White Elephants to let.” Hemingway Review. (1991): 46-54. Print.
O’Brien, Timothy D. “Allusion, Word-Play and the Central Conflict in Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants.” Hemingway Review. 12.1 (1992): 20-25. Print.
Renner, Stanley. “The Real Woman Inside the Fence in “The Chyrsanthemums”.” Modern Fiction Studies. 31.2 (1985): 305-316. Print.
Photo by: Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004