Rewriting the Self against the National Text: Ernest Hemingway's the Garden of Eden

By Tellefsen, Blythe | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Rewriting the Self against the National Text: Ernest Hemingway's the Garden of Eden


Tellefsen, Blythe, Papers on Language & Literature


Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden. . . .

When Ernest Hemingway entitled his last, posthumously published, unwieldy behemoth of a novel The Garden of Eden and described the book's theme as "the happiness of the Garden that a man must lose" (Baker 460), he inserted it into a long tradition of Christian mythology to which America's own history is most intimately connected. Hemingway's explicit connection of his novel to the story of man's expulsion from Paradise indicates the major themes of his novel: creation, love, temptation, desire for forbidden knowledge, longing for eternal life, evil, destruction, and loss. Such a catalog of themes describes most of Hemingway's major works-The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms, In Our Time, For Whom The Bell Tolls-all of which focus on the frustration of his major characters' most basic desires, a frustration almost always connected intimately with love and death.

To describe Ernest Hemingway as an author of stories primarily about love that draw on a long tradition of Christian mythology would be, perhaps, somewhat surprising to readers more familiar with Ernest Hemingway as the author of action novels with the "Code Hero" as the central character. And yet, the obstacles faced by all these famous American Heroes-Robert Jordan, Jake Barnes, Frederic Henry-are obstacles posed by love (of a woman, country, humankind), knowledge (of good, evil, fate) and death (emotional, physical, spiritual). Hemingway's work breaks with Christian mythology, however, in suggesting that death is not the door to new life but the end of life. And so Hemingway's texts, although permeated with death, remain focused on the question of how to live.

That question emerges in Hemingway's work as an exploration of identity; a subset of the primary question is formed by questions about sex, gender, nationality, race, nature, art, and the family. These questions usually, although not exclusively, are faced by a white American male who must define himself through his actions. The constant strife in the Hemingway novel, the continual struggle to "live the Code," does not seem to me to valorize unquestioningly the American Hero as represented in national myth, but rather to evince a profound sense of the instability of the category of white, male American and a deep ambivalence about that identity.[1]

Thus, although Hemingway's texts exploit and valorize the authority vested in white, Protestant males, a subversive subtext undercuts such authority, founded in an intense ambivalence about, and manifested in an equally intense examination of, the identity of that subject.[2] In fact, a subtext to Hemingway's primary plot seems always to be an obsessive reiteration of the question "What does it mean to be a white male American?" The exploration of that question culminates in the highly controversial and heavily edited novel entitled The Garden of Eden, which seems to me to be both the culmination of his long career and a kind of repetition of it.[3] The Garden of Eden can be read as Hemingway's attempt to construct a new garden-a new America, if you will-by reimagining the categories of race and gender, the structure of the family, and the meaning of artistry. All of these categories are deeply imbricated in one another: race and sexuality intertwine in provocative, productive, destabilizing ways (as does the most repressed element, class); the role and the work of the artist are examined and emerge as a stabilizing entities that work against the reinvention of identity; Africa functions in a multitude of highly unstable ways throughout the text; and a ghostly America shadows the entire novel with a haunting, proscriptive presence.

In this novel, the Hemingway male is split into two people who struggle to reshape their identities against cultural norms. …

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