Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Hemingway's Critique of Anti-Semitism: Semiotic Confusion in "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." (Ernest Hemingway)

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Hemingway's Critique of Anti-Semitism: Semiotic Confusion in "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." (Ernest Hemingway)

Article excerpt

Hemingway's "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" (1933) seems, at first glance, a scant story; consequently, it has been the subject of only three brief scholarly essays, none of which has appeared in the past two decades. Peter Hays reads the story as a modern revision of the legend of the Fisher King; Julian Smith sees it as an analeptic tale told by Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises with the narrator's identity withheld; and George Monteiro believes that its main interest lies in the light it sheds on Hemingway's attitude toward Christianity and the medical profession but faults it for having an unnecessary and insubstantial first-person narrator who is not meaningfully connected to the plot.(1) The main problem with these readings is that either they implicitly view the story as thin and are therefore compelled to read it through a speculative (in Smith's case, a wildly speculative) intertext, or else they are left with the important questions Monteiro raises: why tell the story through a nearly anonymous narrator?; and, what on earth can the point of the story be? The point of the story, however, is supported by these readings, for Hemingway's odd tale is all about the problems of reading a text and the consequences of misreading. Specifically, it is about semiotic confusion, a confusion caused by the failure of signifiers to point to appropriate signifieds (not merely the subtle forms of slippage that concern deconstructionists, but the sorts of wholesale aberrations that would bother most folks), and about characters who employ the wrong intertexts or misapply sign systems in their efforts to interpret signifiers.

In "God Rest You," an older (and wiser?) narrator recalls a scene from his earlier days in Kansas City when he had been, perhaps, a reporter, hospital worker, or ambulance driver (his occupation is never specified in the text).(2) The story engages the theme of semiotic confusion from the opening sentence in which Hemingway employs a narrative strategy of presenting a description that describes nothing: "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" (43). This sentence presents a non-map with which to locate the story by informing the reader that a present-day sense of spatial relations is unhelpful; that the one concrete image in the sentence no longer exists; and that Kansas City can best be imagined through an intertext, Constantinople, which--even if the reader has seen it--would be of no use since the narrator does not say, aside from the dirt, how the two cities are alike. As if this were not frustrating enough, the reader is immediately told: "You may not believe this. No one believes this; but it is true" (43).

Having struck a Hawthornian note in which the actual blends with the fanciful, the mundane with the uncanny, the narrator proceeds to describe a "4neutral territory" of deserted city streets covered with snow in the early dark on Christmas Day. Through the smoke and snow, an incongruous, concrete image appears--a silver French racing car in a lighted show window with the words "Dans Argent" on the hood. The narrator recalls that he "believed" this to mean "the silver dance" or "the silver dancer" and was "pleased" by his knowledge of a foreign language (43). Implied in his verb tense is that the narrator now knows that it means "in silver"; but what is more important thematically is that in the very first paragraph a signifier has been misread, because of a faulty mastery of a sign system (French), and the character who misread it assumed that he read it correctly. The paragraph concludes with the narrator walking to the city hospital on the high hill (which, given the opening sentence, may very well no longer exist) where he enters the reception room and sees the two ambulance surgeons, Doc Fischer and Doctor Wilcox.

Here, the theme of semiotic confusion is further advanced by the problematizing of cultural stereotypes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.