Hemingway, Chopin & Hate Crimes
About the project: This is an essay I wrote in response to the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. Through close readings of The Sun Also Rises and The Awakening as well as research on hate crimes, the essay examines the devastating effects of forced heteronormativity through the ages and the violence that can ensue as a result.
Hemingway and Chopin paint societies with specific roles for men and women. In the case of The Sun Also Rises, men must be violent and sexual. In the case of The Awakening, women must be wives and mothers. In both stories, the main characters are unable or unwilling to fulfill those roles, thus forcing them into a state of confusion and bewilderment over what it means to be a “real man” or a “real woman.” In their own respective ways, said roles metaphorically castrate them, making their gender identities ambiguous to both themselves and those around them. Edna is woefully lacking in maternal desire and instinct. Jake has lost his ability to penetrate—and by extension, his ability to reproduce—in the war. While Edna blames her moral struggle of not wanting to be a mother on social pressure to become a mother in the first place, Jake wants to regain what he has lost—his sexual ability—and resume his role as a man.
Though Jake is without the physical marker that—by societal standards—makes him a man, he still identifies as a male. When Brett and her homosexual male companions enter the bar in chapter three of The Sun Also Rises, their presence elicits hostility in Jake: “I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they were supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one…” (Hemingway 28). Jake’s anger stems from his frustration with the homosexual transcendence of the male/female binary coupled with his own self-resentment for not being able to do the same, thus making them superior. In their book Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War on Those Who Are Different, Jack Levin and Jack Mcdevitt call attention to the historical trend of the infantilization of certain groups. In the past, Women and African Americans had to “stay in their place,” and play an inferior role to white men. If they began to reject that role, they were no longer categorized as children or infants and instead were seen as villains and dehumanized so the white man’s supremacy would stay in tact. (Levin, Mcdevitt 32) Jake’s anger at the homosexual men’s “superior” attitude generates from his own lack of what is considered male dominance. These gay men have what Jake doesn’t, genitals, but they abstain from being categorized and are dominant in an entirely different way, one that causes Jake discomfort.
This tension between hate and acceptance carries over to his own relationship with Brett. While we can assume that Jake’s inability to perform sexually, inhibiting his relationship with Brett, evokes self-hatred, Hemingway specifically notes that it is Brett who was “with” the homosexuals. Repeating “with them was Brett” and “Brett was very much with them,” (Hemingway 28) shows Brett’s similarity to the homosexual men in that her sexual tendencies prevent her from fitting into the agreed-upon male/female binary as well. If Brett were more of a woman by her society’s standards, perhaps sex wouldn’t be the most important thing and she and Jake could be together. Or, at the very least, she would settle down with a good husband and a family, a scenario Jake might be better able to live with. At least she would have left him to fulfill her duties as a female. Instead, she promiscuously offers herself up to a string of men and defies her role as a female by acting decidedly male. When Jake returns home from the night’s event, he becomes lost in thought as he reads through his mail and finds a wedding announcement. His thoughts soon turn to Brett and her title “Lady Brett Ashley.” Her title in and of itself illustrates her conflicting male/female categorization—her very masculine name “Brett” is sandwiched between a highly feminized title, “Lady,” and her feminine surname, “Ashley,” which were both imposed on her through the patriarchal arrangement of marriage. Jake’s reaction to these thoughts—“To hell with Brett. To hell with you, Lady Ashley” (Hemingway 38)—illustrate his frustration with her refusal to conform.
Later in the chapter, Jake remembers the Italian liaison colonel coming to visit him in the hospital after his injury and his “wonderful” speech. “‘You, a foreigner, an Englishman' (any foreigner was an Englishman) 'have given more than your life.’” (Hemingway 39) Once again, Hemingway brings in the discussion of binary existence by referring to all foreigners as Englishmen and couples it with his impotency. To have lost his life would have been noble and a mark of manhood in war. But Jake lost the physical signifier of masculinity itself while performing a manly role—the act of fighting in a war. Ira Elliott discusses this “more” as Jake’s manhood and potential for offspring, forever linking him to the future, as his ultimate sacrifice. But if we think of Jake’s situation outside of a heteronormative context, it isn’t necessarily his loss of ability to penetrate that is so tragic, but his loss of ability to unequivocally identify as male. He’s lost his claim to binary categorization. He’s sacrificed his gender identity and is now a foreigner, an “other.”
When we are able to see Jake’s gender confusion as a sacrifice that is more than his life, the similarities between Jake and Edna become all the more clear. In her conversation with Adele Ratignolle, Edna says, “I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.” Madame Ratignolle remarks that “a woman who would give her life for her children could do no more than that…I’m sure I couldn’t do more than that,” to which Edna responds, “oh yes, you could!” (Chopin 40) Their argument sheds light on her sacrifice, which, similarly to Jake’s, is more than giving her life. It is giving her identity. The binary in this case is evident in Edna’s pursuit of independence, which is only granted to men. Through the character of Adele Ratignolle, Chopin creates the idealized woman of the time. This society’s female archetype is the mother-woman, a construct Amanda Kane Rooks in Reconceiving the Terrible Mother says Chopin uses to associate maternity with “all that is nurturing, solicitous, and benign, as well as all that is devouring, seductive, and castrating.” (Rooks 124) To onlooking eyes, Adele is the epitome of a woman. To Edna, Adele has lost her identity in her gender role. In this context, Edna’s poor mothering is a detachment and rejection of the female gender as a set of rules and behaviors. The result of her gender rejection also makes her an “other” in her society, to the point where Adele and Edna do not “appear to understand each other or be talking the same language.” (Chopin 40) Her isolation is reminiscent of the parrot in chapter one of the novella who spoke “a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door.” (Chopin 3) Edna too is only understood by her peers when she is emulating their behaviors and language.
Ultimately, though, both birds live in cages. Gender roles and rejection of gender roles imprison their citizens in their own ways. According to the study Suicide, Culture, and Society from a Cross-National Perspective, there are “strong positive associations with measures of secularization” and in more individualized countries, there is a negative correlation between autonomy and suicide rates. In other words, the more people felt like individuals, the less suicidal they were. Further, the study indicates that gender inequality leads to high suicide rates as well. Edna’s journey to self-discovery doesn’t yield freedom or transcendence, but nonexistence. Her suicide at the novella’s conclusion is often seen as her defeat of patriarchy by many critics, but Payam Abbasi contends in The Masculine Sea and Impossibility of Awakening in Chopin’s The Awakening that Edna is engulfed and swallowed by patriarchy rather than triumphant against it. In tandem, Adele—the ideal mother-woman—was also swallowed by patriarchy through forced social pressures. She gave her identity, while Edna gave her life. Abbasi concludes that this moment of sacrifice for Edna is no more a triumph than Adele’s sacrifice of identity. Rather, it is a reflection of Chopin’s “Kristevaesque belief” that woman do not and cannot exist. Kristeva writes about the socio-cultural formation of women and their slim chances of existence. Chopin’s use of the sea as a metaphor for patriarchy, Abassi argues, is a reflection of Chopin’s same belief. While most will read the sea as an escape for Edna, Edna often describes the sea in terms of fear and terror. When thinking of the sea, she “recalls in terror.” (Chopin 95) Edna is afraid of fighting the waves, which Abbasi says represents convention. Toward the end of the novella, Edna hears “the voice of the sea..seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” (Chopin 94) Even in this moment Edna’s voice is drowned out. Like most of the novel, she is not heard or understood. Abbasi postulates that this signifies Chopin’s belief that it is difficult for women to escape the “web of socio-cultural discourses,” and even more difficult to speak and be heard. In her final moments, Edna sees a bird with a broken wing “beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.” (Chopin 95) Edna didn’t come out from the other side of her gender nonconformity with strong wings to fly above the socio-cultural conventions. Instead, she was beaten and fell into the sea.
Through Edna and Jake, we learn the repercussions of societal constructs that force heteronormativity and strict male/female binary on its people. A study conducted by Rebecca Stotzer reviewed violence against Transgenders in the United States. While the study on suicide risk showed the adverse effects on gender nonconformity internally, Stotzer’s findings determined that transgender people “face violence because of their gender nonconformity.” According to Stotzer, of the gender nonconformists who reported that they were victims of physical assault, “69% felt that for at least one or more of those incidences, the primary reason for victimization was their gender identity.” This sort of victimization is not unlike Jake’s hostility toward the homosexual men in The Sun Also Rises. While Jake’s struggle with his manhood is largely internal, Edna makes bold changes in her life to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable—like moving from her family estate to a small “pigeon house”—and is met with opposition form her peers. Hemingway and Chopin discerned what we know all too well today—when societies put boundaries on gender and sexual behavior, it usually ends in disaster.
Though Jake and Edna both reach the pivotal point of self-actualization and are able to find a new definition of self, free of societal constrictions, their new selves don’t fit in their communities and they ultimately meet bitter ends. Edna’s refusal to keep playing the mother-woman role and her inability to cope with the guilt of being a woman who has abandoned her children, leads her to the decision to sacrifice her life rather than herself—that is, her identity. Though the position is forced upon him, Jake’s realization of himself as a gender nonconformist, pushes him into a state of benign aggression toward other non-conformists and himself. While both characters find out who they are, they also realize that it doesn’t matter that you know who you are if you aren’t allowed to be who you are. Through these ends, we see that Chopin and Hemingway aren’t just telling stories of self-actualization and identities that transcend gender roles and sexuality, but they are telling cautionary tales of the disaster and torment that ensues when you are awakened to the reality that who you are doesn’t fit into the society you’re embedded in.