Gender bending in the Garden of Eden
By Natalie Ramm
“Even though she is launched from the naive premise that sexual fantasizing is a form of madness, she takes on the stature of the self-tortured Faustian, and is portrayed as a brilliant woman trapped into a vicarious participation in someone else’s creativity. She represents the most informed and delicate reading Hemingway has given to any woman.” – E.L. Doctorow
Hemingway began writing The Garden of Eden 15 years before his death. He wrote about 200,000 words and yet the published version is only about 70,000. The book is arguably nothing like it would have been, if Hemingway had lived to finish it (this is probably why I like it).
I have never loved Hemingway. His writing is often misogynistic and his protagonists are all literary extensions of himself. However, one of the most striking differences between The Garden and Hemingway’s other work is that a woman becomes the main character (despite the fact that we see her through David’s eyes) and there is some serious gender bending. I fell in love with Catherine Bourne—when I first read this story in college—and was intrigued by Hemingway’s messages about gender and art.
Catherine and David are newly married and their honeymoon is full of the typical midday romps and leisurely tanning sessions. But Catherine begins to change. She cuts her hair short and wears clothes that are similar to David’s. Catherine becomes David’s mirror. This gender bending is not exclusive to appearance. She increasingly wants to be the man when they make love. When she and David meet Marita, Catherine is the one to initiate the affair with the exotic beauty. Catherine thinks of their sexcapades as more than just girls having fun, and she is severely upset when Marita doesn’t feel the same. Catherine’s sexual flexibility scares David, and he refuses to join the two women in bed. Unlike Catherine, Marita nurtures David and defers to him, and he finds solace in her uncomplicated femininity. Around Marita, David occupies the dominant male role in which he is comfortable. Catherine upsets the balance.
Gender bending is more easily accepted now than it was in 1946 when Hemingway began writing The Garden. Thank God. However, in many aspects of life we still hold on furiously to definitions of gender. Why is this? Is it just fear of disrupting the order of things? Or is it something else? Also why is Catherine the one who loses her mind? Is Hemingway saying that upsetting the natural order will make us all crazy?
David is a writer (big surprise!) and Catherine is a rich girl with no creative outlet. Catherine holds the power in their relationship because they are living on her dime. She is nurturing an artist or, in her mind, creating an artist. She makes herself a mirror of David but she also transforms him slightly to look more like her (by cutting and dying his hair). Her body becomes her canvas (as trite as that may sound). Through tanning and dying her hair she changes her outward appearance to mirror the change she feels inside. David is a central part of her art, but when she reads his story and finds out that he doesn’t even mention her, she is crushed. Why do you think Catherine’s art revolves around David when she seems to be the dominant character? Is David’s art more real than Catherine’s? What does each character’s relationship to art say about their gender?