Allusions to the Merchant of Venice and the New Testament in "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen": Hemingway's Anti-Semitism Reconsidered

Article excerpt

"God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" has confused readers and critics alike. The essay points out allusions to The Merchant of Venice and the New Testament, describing how they combine with other subdued references to form an attack on puritanical attitudes in contemporary America. In breaking up the stereotypical view of the Jew and in setting up the Jewish Doc Fischer as a Christ figure, Hemingway deliberately, atones for previously anti-Semitic writing. Study of the story's composition and early publication history also supports these findings and argues for a reconsideration of commonly held views concerning Hemingway's anti-Semitism.

I. The Story and Its Critics

When Hemingway's Winner Take Nothing was published in 1933, Louis Kronenberger (in the New York Times Book Review) objected to the new collection not on moral, aesthetic, or human grounds, but on philosophical grounds, because of "the ultimate wastefulness of showing us things without infusing them into a more spacious canvas, without providing them with transcending values" (143). "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"--"a really terrible story," according to the Times Literary Supplement (378)--could have served him as a particularly relevant example, for--as the Kansas City Star had it--"Admirers of the raw stuff of the world will find this their book and Kansas City readers in that category will find special interest in a tale of self-mutilation at General Hospital under the title of 'God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen'" (140).

What to contemporary reviewers and to the untrained reader in general appears to be simply raw stuff, a naturalistic slice of life, a particularly gruesome tale, a straightforward account of an incident encountered by a Kansas City Star cub reporter, still has not failed to engage the Hemingway scholar. Not a few serious critics have been puzzled by the story's several oddities and have begun to suggest interpretations that integrate such details into a meaningful, larger whole. None has succeeded in accounting for all such details, however, and the loose ends that remain have nearly always induced scholars to call the story a failure. (1)

Rather than concur with such dismissive views, I shall try to demonstrate that "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" is a story of challenging complexity with a well-developed allusive subtext that accounts for most of its seeming disparities. In addition to re-examining the text, I shall consider its genesis, sources, and publication history as well as its surviving manuscript versions. All of these contribute to a surprising reassessment of the story's artistry and of its significance as a biographical document shedding new light on Hemingway's alleged anti-Semitism.

II. The Story and Its Narrator

"God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" tells the story of a 16-year-old boy who considers his sexual excitability, his "awful lust," as he himself calls it, a sin against purity. On Christmas Eve, therefore, he goes to the city hospital to ask to be castrated. Of the two ambulance surgeons on duty, Doc Fischer (the competent one) tries to explain to him that what he considers to be a sin is "a natural thing" (SS 394), whereas Doctor Wilcox (the incompetent one) gets impatient and tells the boy "Oh, go and [jack-off]" followed by the rude command "Get him out of here" (395). (2) That night the youth mutilates himself with a razor. He is returned to the hospital, but Wilcox cannot cope with the emergency, and as a result the young man may die from loss of blood. These occurrences lead to a dispute between the two surgeons in which Doc Fischer's dexterity in handling verbal ambiguity reveals the latent antagonism between his own Jewishness and his colleague's professed Christianity.

Its crude subject matter notwithstanding, Hemingway's story begins with an altogether arresting sentence: "In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that have now been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople" (SS 392). …