Guest Post: Hemingway’s Garden of Eden (#OthersLitLGBT)

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?

3 Comments on “Guest Post: Hemingway’s Garden of Eden (#OthersLitLGBT)

  1. “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 agree with you, there. There’s something about unfinished works which really draw me in. I think it might be that these books tend to be the most personal and raw, because the author never had a chance (or never made the effort) to go back and cut out everything meaningful, in order to make it “publishable” or to keep their deep, personal selves hidden.

    You ask some great questions, too! Why does Catherine go crazy? Well, I think perhaps she was always a bit eccentric. Does David somehow push her over the edge? Is the fact that he bends to her will somehow disappointing to her? Does it disturb her that he is not “manly” with her, even though she seems to be the one pushing for his feminization? Much to think about!

    The question of her art is interesting, too. She does seem to want to be the masculine element in their relationship, which could explain why she’s trying to change her appearance to look/seem more like him, but is this art? I’m not sure. She seems to want to be his muse and his tool at the same time, but also to be the one in control. It’s a very complex situation!

    Fantastic post! Great things to think about, even for those who haven’t read this book yet (though I hope a lot of people will be persuaded to do so, now!).


  2. Thanks for your post, Natalie! This is by far my favorite Hemingway novel (well, not “by far” – I do love A Farewell to Arms and others), but I agree with you that one of the things which makes this one so interesting is how very different it is from any of his other works. And, as Lit Compass says, it’s much more personal, most likely due to the fact that it was never finished and Hemingway never really planned to have it published.

    I got the feeling that Catherine was a bisexual, when nobody knew what that meant or talked about it. She has a masculine personality, which would have seemed very strange and even “wrong” at the time. What is more shocking, though, is that David allowed himself to be willed into the submissive/feminine roll. Their sexual encounters, in the reversed rolls, was something I have rarely seen even in contemporary literature, so finding it in HEMINGWAY of all places completely blew my mind.

    I’ll need to read this book again before I can truly comment on your questions – but you raise some good ones. Your question about gender, though, can definitely be cosnidered externally to the text. Why is it so important that “Boy is Boy” and “Girl is Girl.” Why are so many of us made uncomfortable by a boy who likes to wear dresses? Or by a girl who with a tougher “tomboyish” personality, who climbs trees and plays with bugs? Obviously, there are historical constructs which have been in place for centuries – since the beginning of human consciousness, really. But in a modern society, where we strive for freedom, individuality, personal expression – why can’t we just get over it and let people be who they are?


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