Catherine Bourne as a New Woman: A Feminist Perspective of Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden

The emergence of first representatives of sexually liberated, free thinking woman in American literature who comes to be known as ‘New Woman’ took place in the 19th century literature. Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Mrs. Larue in John William De Forest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, Celia Madden in Herold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware, Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Nellie in Stephen Crane’s Maggie are all strong women who design a code of conduct for themselves that is free of the prescribed gender roles and sexual restraints of traditional society. Ernest Hemingway is a witness to and a major participant in the broad cultural struggle of his time especially the rise of modernism and the gender war.

150717-cosgrove-hemmingway-tease_nqp7kwCatherine Bourne in The Garden of Eden is represented as a newly married woman with vibrant imagination, yearning for creative outlets, desirous of sexual adventure, increasingly marginalized by her husband’s career and a tendency toward suicide. She feels trapped within the limitations of her gender and commits seemingly destructive acts, an act of re-vision, in Adrienne Rich’s sense: “If the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment . . . nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name” (On Lies, Secrets, and Silence 43).

Her various experiments, termed as madness, challenge the very categories upon which we base our identities: race, gender, and nationality. The blurring of these categories has historically been at the very heart of various cultures’ greatest conflicts and fears: dread of miscegenation and homosexuality, wars over national borders, struggles to define male and female domains etc. Catherine wishes to inhabit the unstable territory between binaries – a place that breeds extreme tension, anxiety & insecurity.

As a New Woman, Catherine acts as deconstructionist. It means she reads her culture in a way that rejects universals. She believes that one’s identity is an invention, not a cultural given. Much of the novel’s tension revolves around her desire to prove that gender identities are dynamic and fluctuating. Her destructive activities like burning David’s manuscripts, inviting Marita into their life, and playing the role of a boy; all show her larger desire to subvert fixed notions of gender identity, an effort she shares with many other literary women of the twentieth century. In short, Hemingway has created a New Woman in its extreme form through the character of Catherine Bourne.

Throughout the novel she is under pressure to behave in a normal wifely role. This becomes a source of frustration for Catherine and she says: “Who said normal? Who’s normal? What’s normal? I never went to normal school to be a teacher and teach normal. You don’t want me to go to normal school and get a certificate do you” (The Garden of Eden 33)? Catherine, tortured by definitions of normality, is anxious to break beyond uniformity to find a place where her less constrained, personal identity can emerge. Feminist theorist Denise Riley argues in her book “Am I That Name?”: Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History that women, as a group, can have unique experiences but she contends that these experiences in and of themselves do not define womanhood. The category of “woman” is an unstable, fluctuating state of being that can be willfully performed, unwillingly imposed by one’s body or imposed by another individual. Hemingway has shown that there exists a rift between discursive representations of woman and individuals’ experiences of their own identity from moment to moment. If we conceive of Catherine Bourne as a New Woman who accepts her identity as a woman but at times detests the socially imposed category of “woman” then her self-dividedness, her bursts of rage, her desire to enact forbidden sexuality, and even her decision to burn David’s manuscripts can make sense and gets logically explained.

It is not that Catherine despises either herself or other women; rather, she despises the category of women that defines her as hysterical, passive and weak. To get rid of such impositions she embarked on a series of gender transformations with the hope of liberating herself from the codes of female behavior. She simply wants to establish a world without gender stereotypes within the confine of her marriage and says to David: “We’re not like other people” (27). Catherine is skeptical about David’s ability to imagine a world devoid of stereotypes. He doesn’t seem particularly imaginative in his conceptions of her as a woman; she is either his “good girl” or “Devil.” When she proposes the idea that they can be equals, he expresses strong reservations: “I want us to be just the same” (Catherine Says). “We can’t be the same,” “Yes we could if you’d let us.” “I really don’t want to do it” (176). Catherine repeatedly decries the standards of normalcy that determine male and female behaviour: ““Why do we have to go by everyone else’s rules? We’re us.” “Why do we have to do other things like everyone does”” (27)?

Catherine finds the publicly constructed David abhorrent in the same way she finds cultural constructions of woman abhorrent. She wants David to know that she married him for his authentic self, not this culturally powerful identity that exists in texts. And perhaps, more importantly, she wants David to act on the same principle in his affection towards her. “Please love me David the way I am. Please understand and love me” (17).She says so hoping that he can move beyond static definitions of “women,” “wife,” or “bride” to find in her a more complex and complete individual. Catherine wants to explode the notion that gendered subjectivity exists as a single, coherent and unified entity but her husband’s public career works in total opposition to that notion. The clippings construct a static and commoditized author-figure: “There were hundreds of clippings and every one, almost, had his picture and they were all the same pictures. It’s worse than carrying around obscene postcards really. I think he reads them by himself and is unfaithful to me with them” (215).

David, in fact, has usurped Catherine’s role as the cover girl: fetishized, sexualized and commoditized. And yet there is a difference. Unlike mass media images of women and the devaluation that lies therein, male authorship and authority still carry privilege and power. From Catherine’s perspective, David’s interest in these cultural constructions of himself stands in direct opposition to her project. He reveres the cultural image of masculine authority that perpetuates itself in the public sphere and she strives to destabilize such monolithic texts.

As Catherine becomes increasingly aware of David’s dividedness, she too becomes torn between her role as a “good girl” and her desires. She tries to ease his mind by proving that she is committed to the role of wife: “I’ve started on my good new life and I’m . . . looking outward and trying not to think about myself so much” (53). Submissive, dutiful and accommodating, she attempts to live according to the standards of wifeliness. After a short time, she cannot sustain such a divided self, and pleads with David: “Do you want me to wrench myself around and tear myself in two” (70)? She begins to feel even more desperate once she realizes that their gender role reversal is having only a limited and temporary effect. In an ingenious plan, Catherine sets up a kind of puppet regime in her marriage by importing a girl named Marita to fulfill the obligations of a “good wife.” As such Catherine gains the space to breathe freely and acts out her own desires without feeling self-conscious about her lack of enthusiasm for the wifely ideals.

Catherine, as a New Woman, is intolerant of any limitation and, therefore, attacks the very texts that enable David to strengthen his role as a powerful cultural producer. David in turn not only abandons Catherine but also spends his time with the conventional and good girl, Marita. He thinks: “Tomorrow he must go back into his own country, the one that Catherine was jealous of and that Marita loved and respected” (193). Marita respects the writerly world by simultaneously reverting it, maintaining distance from it, and encouraging David to become even more entrenched in his own manhood. She prods: “I want you to have men friends and friends from the war and to shoot with and to play cards at the club” (245).

Catherine’s refusal to embrace a unified and socially acceptable form of female sexuality has now become intolerable to her husband, the ultimate arbiter of her success or failure. His stiff response, “Go to sleep, Devil” literally puts to rest the possibility for her to explore and develop the diverse aspects of her own identity within their marriage. As a result Catherine Bourne burns the very foundation of David’s cultural identity like Bertha who in Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre takes her revenge upon Rochester in a release of primal rage, rebellion and destruction. As though making an allusion to Bronte’s novel, David says to Marita: “We’ve been burnt out . . . Crazy woman burned out the Bournes” (243). The burning of the stories by Catherine indicates stripping David of his former authority: “He had never before in his relatively short life seen impotence but in an hour standing before the armoire on top of which he wrote he learned what impotence was” (442).

We can appreciate Catherine’s activities more favourably if we allow the narrative to conclude where the manuscript leaves off. It also raises one question: what precisely was Catherine’s failing as a wife? The narrative reveals one more difference between Marita and Catherine in their nighttime reversals: Catherine, as a New Woman, has insisted on being a boy and, therefore, the dominant partner while David was forced to position himself as a female. Marita, on the other hand, allows David to retain the position of dominance; he remains in the male role, and she positions herself as a boy, presumably the submissive role. Catherine’s failing as a wife, therefore, is the result of the fact that she wants to be equal in marriage where the husband cannot relinquish his dominance. In the end, David finally acknowledges his responsibility for the destruction of his young wife: “His changing of allegiance, no matter how sound it had seemed, no matter how it simplified things for him, was a grave and violent thing” (238).

Moreover, the New Woman qualities of Catherine resemble those of Hemingway’s wives. Michael Reynolds has shown that in 1922 Hemingway wanted to let his hair “grow to reach the bobbed length of Hadley’s so they could be the same person” (Hemingway: The Paris Years 98). In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway says he and Hadley “lived like savages and kept our own tribal rules and had our own customs and our own standards, secrets, taboos, and delights” (4). During his later courtship with Pauline, she repeatedly remarked “we are one, we are the same guy, I am you” (Kert 186). Mary Welsh’s autobiography explains that she (Mary) had always wanted to “be a boy” and loved Ernest to “be her girls.” Moreover, in a handful of letters, Hemingway nicknamed himself “Catherine” and referred to Mary as “Peter.” Only his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, seems to have refrained from the gender experimentation Hemingway enjoyed with his other three wives.

Carlos Baker has rightly said that Hemingway’s New Women can be grouped as: “. . . deadly females. Their best-realized (because most sympathetically presented and most roundly characterized) representative is Brett Ashley. The horrible example would presumably be someone like Margot Macomber . . . these women are selfish, corrupt, and predatory. They are bad for the men with whom they are involved” (The Writer as Artist 110). To encapsulate, this type of female figures are found throughout the whole spectrum of Hemingway’s work and he has portrayed them so minutely and elaborately that it’s not possible to miss any chance to appreciate them as the representative figures of his times.

Works Cited

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Benson, Jackson J. The Writer’s Art of Self-Defence. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1969.
Hemingway, Ernest. The First Forty-Nine Stories London: Arrow Books, 2004.
______. A Moveable Feast. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964.
______. The Sun Also Rises. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 1999.
_______.The Garden of Eden Manuscripts. The Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library, Boston.
Kert, Bernice. The Hemingway Women. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983.
Reynolds, Michael. Hemingway: The Paris Years. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.
Riley, Denise. “Am I That Name?”: Feminism and the Category of “Woman” in History. London: The Macmillan Press, 1988.
Sanderson, Stewart. Hemingway. Writers and Critics Series. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1961.

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Categories: American Literature, Feminism, Gender Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Research Papers

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