Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Hemingway's Girls: Unnaming and Renaming Hemingway's Female Characters

Academic journal article The Hemingway Review

Hemingway's Girls: Unnaming and Renaming Hemingway's Female Characters

Article excerpt

HEMINGWAY'S LOVE STORIES are inhabited by couples in conflict, couples whose lives we get a glimpse of at some moment of high tension, illumination, or dramatic change. Hemingway reveals the nature of their lives and their relationships in various ways in the short stories, and one of the most subtle and consistent means by which he does this is by naming, renaming, and "unnaming" his characters, especially the women who are central to the stories. When asked by George Plimpton to explain how he named his characters, Hemingway gave the iceberg answer: "The best I can" (33). Hemingway, however, does not simply give his characters significant names, although, of course, he often does this: Catherine, Cat, Jig, Helen, Renata. More precisely, the references to the women in much of Hemingway's work are common nouns that, along with their modifiers, pinpoint a woman's place in a relationship, with these references remaining static or changing depending upon how a given relationship unfolds during the course of a story. These references become mirrors of the conflicts in which the women find themselves. A close study of the manuscript versions of many of these works shows Hemingway's use of the nouns "woman," "wife," and, especially, "girl," to be important and purposeful, a necessary link between technique and theme. Such a look at the creative process finds Hemingway working at an exacting level as he explores the women's dilemmas and reveals to us something essential about their lives.

The noun "girl" was, of course, a colloquialism that Hemingway heard used and used himself in its then-accepted form. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word reminds us of all of the word's subtle connotations. "Girl" meant, variously or with overlapping connotations depending upon context and intention: "any young unmarried woman," "a maid-servant," "a sweetheart" or "ladylove," and "'a girl of' or 'girl about' town"--a prostitute. Note the connotations of the word in the following manuscript fragment, published as "Night Before Landing," as two young men are talking:

"I never slept with a girl."

"I've been with them in houses...."

"That isn't what I mean. I done that. I don't like it. I mean sleep all night with one you love."

"My girl would have slept with me."

"Sure. If she loved you she'd sleep with you."

"We're going to get married" (JFK Item 239a, 26-27).

In the opening pages of A Farewell to Arms, the captain and Rinaldi speak of the "girls" in the town, "the fine girls...beautiful young girls," alluding to the prostitutes in the town where the men are stationed (7-8). Such references continue as Catherine Barkley is introduced in the novel: "beautiful girls... New girls...beautiful English girls...Miss Barkley." Rinaldi immediately declares "I will probably marry Miss Barkley" (12). It is into this atmosphere of sexual tension, built on the repetition of "girl/girls," that Frederic Henry first goes to Catherine.

In an excised section of the To Have and Have Not manuscript, Tommy and Roddy discuss Tommy's wife, Helene Bradley, referring to her at once as "a beautiful woman" and "an awfully romantic girl" (JFK, Item 212.3, 73-74). In a manuscript fragment, Hemingway writes of "...a man from up north [who] marries a Key West girl" (JFK Item 827a, 1). Then, the word "girl" could be loaded, carrying with it a sense of youth, sexual availability, marriageability, and/or subservience. And because it was, and is, so charged, the word's accepted applications have become narrower today. As Hemingway's letters reveal, this then-accepted colloquial noun was one he used freely and naturally all of his life.

Not only did Hemingway refer to the women he married and was attracted to throughout his life as "girls," and to his friends' wives and mistresses as "girls," in several of his letters he also purposefully confused gender-specific nouns, both to emphasize a woman's inclusion in the group, the company of "the men," and to point to a person's homosexuality. …

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