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Michael McNamara: Into Something Rich and Strange
"What the Punks Drink" Heterosexual Men Feeling Gay
|Ironically, the works that may most
completely show Hemingways empathy for male homosexuals are two in which no male
homosexuals appear the short story "The Sea Change" and his novel The
Garden of Eden. Both tell similar stories of a mans response to his wifes
changing sexuality, and although they have different endings, each is an example of
Hemingways sensitivity to homosexual issues.
Sea Change" opens after a wife has just confessed her lesbian relationship. The man
has varying emotions during the conversation. He is angry "Ill kill
her," he says of his wifes female lover. He is also somewhat disgusted; when
his wife tries to describe the sexual experience, he says he would rather not hear about
it. Later, he calls the whole thing "Perversion." However, his strongest emotion
is that of bitter sadness. He wishes she would have cheated on him with a man; at least he
could have known how to feel about it all. He finally realizes, though, that he loves her
and that she loves him, and sends her away to be with her lover, telling her to come back
and tell him all about it later. After she leaves, he goes to the bar:
"Im a different man, James, he said to the
barman. You see in me quite a different man.
Yes, sir? said James.
Vice, said the brown young man, is a very strange
thing, James. He looked out the door. He saw her going down the street. As he looked
in the glass, he saw he was really quite a different -looking man...
"Youre right there, sir," James said.
...The young man saw himself in the mirror behind the wall. "I said
I was a different man, James, he said" (TSS, 401)
The man is upset when believes that he understands that his wife was not
happy with him as a man. His sadness is caused as he calls his own masculinity and his
wifes feelings about it into question. In the end, although he really cannot
understand what has happened, he knows that his wifes choices were not caused by any
sort of masculinity problem. The experience, nonetheless, has changed him. Comely and
Scholes write, "The title of the story comes from Ariels speech in The
Tempest about what happens to the bodies of drowned men, as every feature of their
anatomies changes into something rich and strange" (88). Through his
wifes homosexual experience, the man is forced to think of himself in new gender and
sexual roles. This initiation is what has changed him. In all reflective surfaces, he sees
a new man. In an earlier manuscript of the story, at the end when he goes to the bar, the
man asks James for "what the punks drink" (Comely and Scholes, 129). The man
realizes that he is now like a homosexual man; no longer can he depend on the gender and
sexual role the society has given to him because he was born as a man. He has to create
new roles for himself. His wife has experienced a sea change, but he will now create
something new, something rich and strange.
|Similar occurrences happen in The
Garden of Eden , though the end result is different. David and Catherine Bourne, a
young newlywed couple are enjoying life in their simple Eden eating, having
"normal" (heterosexual, heteroerotic) sex, fishing, living the good life.
However, things are complicated when Catherine starts to experiment with her own defined
gender role both publicly by getting her hair cut short like a boy and privately during
sex when their sexual roles start to undergo a metamorphosis. Instead of being strictly
heteroerotic, their sexual acts take on characteristics of a male homoerotic experience as
boy-Catherine penetrates David anally. This act of penetration changes their relationship
forever and shakes David wholly because of how society has set up sexual roles. Frank
It hardly requires the learning of Freud or the bent of radical feminism
to see that phallic penetration of women by men is inextricably linked to social positions
of power and subordination... The point is simply that the act of being penetrated requires
some release of power over the self. The penetration of the self... is, by almost any
definition, an entry into the most private and sacred zones of individual identity. (86-7)
David, when put into this role, is forced to question not only his own
masculine position but also his own sexuality:
But he was very worried now and he thought what will become of us if
things have gone this wildly and this dangerously and this fast? What can there be that
will not burn out in a fire that rages like that? We were happy and I am sure she was
happy. But who ever knows? And who are you to judge and who participated and who accepted
the change and lived it? If that is what she wants who are you not to wish her to have it?
Youre lucky to have a wife like her and a sin is what you feel bad after and you
dont feel bad. (21)
Catherines own questioning of roles has forced David to question
as well. He realizes, though, that there is nothing wrong with him, Catherine, or their
actions. In fact, they help him; this thinking - his initiation into a new place - enables
him to conquer his writers block. He lets down the societal-constructed walls
between male and female, between heterosexuality and homosexuality. As their
experimentation continues, they both engage in sexual acts with another woman, Marita.
However, in the end, it all becomes too much for Catherine. She has a nervous breakdown.
Her jealousy and insecurities force her, as David feared, to "burn out."
Although she set the wheels in motion for the changes that took place, she has not fully
thought about what she is doing. It was not enough for her to enter this world physically;
she had to take her self there as well. Since she had not done this, she could not break
down the walls that David did. When there is no rational system of division between male
and female, when she is no longer able to say "You are my girl" or "I am
your boy" because those terms seem to have little significance, she cannot deal with
the situation. Catherines breakdown shows the difficulty of defining ones self
while still using society]s standard.
"The Sea Change" and The Garden of Eden, Hemingway shows that it is
important for all people, whether society considers them male or female or homosexual or
heterosexual, to define themselves in their own terms. David is only able to do this by
ignoring what society has told him. Hemingway attempted to do this as well, but, like
Catherine, could never get past what society told him. Hemingway empathized with
homosexuals because, as the mans comments to the barman in "The Sea
Change" show, homosexuals had to get past society in these ways as well.
Re-Reading the Past
|Once the fallacy of his cultural
legacy is overcome, Hemingways empathy for homosexuals can be found. Although it is
hidden behind attacks fueled by his own insecurities concerning his manhood, it is these
same insecurities that create the empathy.
addressed earlier, in The Sun Also Rises, the homosexuals at the bal musette
are ridiculed; however, thinking of Hemingways empathy and remembering that like the
narrator in "Mother of a Queen," fictional Jake is doing the ridiculing, the
scene creates a strong statement if one wonders why Jake reacts this way. Jake feels
threatened by the homosexuals. His "own masculinity [is] momentarily consolidated by
the policeman near the door of the bar, who in a gesture that bonds the two
"real" men and marginalizes the homosexuals as other, looks at Jake
and smiles" (Elliott, 79); in this action, emasculated Jake turns the tables and
emasculates these other men in an attempt to make himself feel better.
This comfort is only
temporary, however, and the question still remains why is he threatened? They are
surely not interlopers on his feelings for Brett. It is in this, though, that the answer
lies. Brett comments that while in the company of the homosexuals, she can drink safely
with no fear that someone will try to take advantage of her sexually. She can feel this
safely with Jake as well. Elliott writes:
Although [Jakes] desire is "normal," his body prevents
him from actualizing his "manhood." Jakes inability to perform sexually
corresponds to the homosexuals inability to perform his "correct gender.
Jakes sexual inadequacy and the homosexuals gender transgression are therefore
conjoined: neither can properly signify "masculinity" (82)
Jake does not want to be so conjoined but his wounds have forced it to
happen. He has been forced into the same position that the young man in "The Sea
Change" is in, and it, too, has angered him. Elliott writes:
The source of his rage is in part his frustration at being unable to
categorize the homosexual within the male/female binary. That these men represent and
enact gender nonconformity violates the cultural boundaries established to demarcate
appropriate social and sexual behavior. Any attempted remapping of these culturally agreed
upon borders exposes the arbitrariness of their frontiers, which in turn calls for a
rethinking of the ontological groundwork of sex/gender itself. At the same time, his anger
is self-hatred displaced onto the homosexual, for Jake has lost (physically and
psychological his signifying phallus. Whats more, the tolerance he knows he should
have for the homosexuals may also be the same tolerance he hopes Brett will have for him
and his sexual failing (83).
What offends Jake then is not the mens homosexuality. It is their
rejection of masculinity that he himself wants but cannot have. Their bodies enable them
to do what he desires most; however, they choose not to do it. In this scene, Hemingway
has not just created a characters offensive defamation of homosexuality but instead
has shown an inner struggle between societys standards and a man who cannot, despite
his desire to, uphold them.
|Furthermore, the scene with Jake and
Bill is more than just locker-room talk. Bill tells Jake that he could not tell him that
he was such a good man if they had been in New York without being labeled a homosexual;
however, here, away from Americas societal constraints, they are able to speak
freely. They are both aware enough of their own sexuality that they do not fear a false
labeling from the other. Most telling of all is Bills mock history of the Civil War;
though a joke, it reveals the truths that "sex explains it all" and that
homosexuality is "under the skin." Bill realizes, in his humor, that sex is a
part of everything; this, of course, is a fact of which Jake is all too painfully aware.
Jake is aware of the gender and sexual roles that he is expected to uphold and how
although sex is a part of him "under his skin," he cannot express it externally.
Therefore, in such a sexually centered society, Jake becomes, in many ways, only an
observer to what is happening.
It is obvious that the
cultural legacy Hemingway has been given is quite unfair. Kriegel writes that he wishes
Hemingway would have paused before he pulled the trigger "to frame in a sentence what
he had learned...a single sentence into which he might have put all that he knew about the
ambiguities of manhood" (110). Hemingway did this, but not even he could be that
terse. What Hemingway knew about manhood, sexuality, and the connection between the two,
exists in many of his works if one is willing to look. Hemingway was empathetic to
homosexuals because they were examining and questioning gender and sexual roles as he did.
As critics continue to study American literature in terms of gender and sexuality, they
should not banish Hemingway into the realm of the enemy and ignore what he has to say
because of his cultural legacy. It would be best, instead, to listen.