17 April 2012

Hemingway's Garden of Eden

Spoilers ahead for those who haven't read the book.

The more I study Hemingway, the more I think that his Garden of Eden is one of my favorites.  Not many people agree - this novel was only about half-finished at the time of Hemingway's death, and I am virtually the only person to consider the result of the posthumous editing to be worthy of inclusion next to The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, or Hemingway's other great works.  I do have good reasons, though - they just require a lot of explanation.

Garden of Eden tells the story of David Bourne and his wife Catherine as they honeymoon on the French Riviera, lazing on beaches and drinking in cafes.  David, a writer, spends much of his time working on some short stories, but becomes increasingly distracting by his wife's growing instability.  Catherine is obsessed with androgyny, and her preoccupation with gender identity and her jealousy of David's writing steadily grow worse.  Catherine invites a young Spanish woman named Marita into their marriage and marriage-bed, but the sexual role-playing in which they indulge goes awry when David - repulsed by Catherine's growing madness - falls in love with Marita.  At the climax of the book, Catherine burns every last scrap of David's writing and flees, leaving her husband to pair off with Marita while she goes to seek help.

Hemingway and first
wife Hadley Richardson.
(J.F.K Library collection)
Part of the reason why I love this book is that it was obviously so deeply meaningful to Hemingway.  The burning of the papers that occurs at the end is obviously a reference to Hemingway's own loss in 1922, when his first wife Hadley Richardson Hemingway packed a valise with all of his work (even the copies) and lost it on the way to Geneva.  I don't believe Hemingway ever really got over this trauma, and shades of it informed all his writing about tragedy during his career.

Hemingway at eighteen months.
(J.F.K. Library collection)
Further, Hemingway was fascinated with androgyny himself.  Obviously, we can only speculate on his own personal experiences, but it is known that his mother dressed him as a girl until the age of ten, a practice no longer as common at the turn of the century, and maybe central to his lifelong hatred of his mother ("that bitch").  The games that Catherine and David play - tanning to the same tone, cutting and styling their hair the same, and dressing the same - are all ones that are touched upon in other stories by Hemingway.  In Garden of Eden, the intended central metaphor of the text is that you can never return to Eden once you have tainted it: Catherine's reckless sexual experimentation ruins an idyllic paradise-existence, and that cannot be undone.  But it is my belief that this metaphor fails, with another unintentionally taking its place: there is no earthly unflawed Garden of Eden, and an attempt to build one from ignorance will fail.

The main reason why I love Garden of Eden, though, is the character of Catherine herself.  Vivid, responsive, and powerful, she is one of the few Hemingway female characters that is an active and intelligent force against the protagonist.  Indeed, her only companions in that sense are The Sun Also Rises Lady Brett Ashley and For Whom the Bell Tolls' Pilar.  But whereas Lady Ashley can only be a friend to the embittered Jake Barnes (thanks to his war wound), and Pilar is disgusted and superior to a husband that has lost his dignity with cowardice, Catherine is a full partner both in their marriage and in the story.  She pushes for what she wants, seeks closure for emotional conflict, and emphatically refuses to be a mere accessory.  Even the fact of her instability and her final cruelties don't sully her in my eyes: Catherine doesn't read like a truly insane woman, but simply as a woman out of her time and place.  I don't mean that in a progressive "nowadays being bisexual is okay" sort of way, but rather that the beach with David is simply too small for her.  It always seemed to me that troubled, vibrant Catherine would find her own world, elsewhere.

As described in Robert E. Fleming's 1989 paper, "The Endings of Hemingway's Garden of Eden," the original manuscript was three times as long as the published text before Scribner editor Tom Jenks began cutting.  Among the pages that were eliminated were a whole subplot involving another couple, Barbara and Andy, who engage in the same games as David and Catherine and go down the same road.  Barbara eventually commits suicide, unable to handle her shattered life.  One of the possible alternate endings of the text was a final scene, many years later, of David and Catherine back together and back on the same beach.  Fleming describes the manuscript:

David and Catherine's relationship has become a parody of the one they shared in the early pages of the novel, furthering the theme that the discovery of evil makes it impossible to dwell in the Garden of Eden. Other manifestations of the lost Eden are evident in this ending. David rubs oil into Catherine's breasts, a lover's action in the early chapters but a nurse's ministration in this ending.
Catherine is broken and sad, forgetful of their life and having difficulty functioning, and at the close of this alternate ending she extracts from David a promise to commit suicide with her when she can no longer manage.  Polished up and finished, what a remarkable thing this might have been!  Fleming rightly points out that it would be more in keeping with Hemingway's other endings, which are universally dour, than the published version which features a new, happy couple of David and Marita, and a retreating Catherine.  But even more this would be a magnificently tragic statement about relationships and in keeping with that central metaphor I see in the book: two people - even broken people - can work to build a flawed paradise in a flawed world.  Terribly sad, but terribly poignant!

Hemingway in Cuba, 1960.
(J.F.K. Library collection)
It would have been impossible to actually publish these passages, unfortunately, because by all accounts they simply do not make sense in their unfinished state.  A guiding rule of publishing for Hemingway's posthumous editors (ostensibly, anyway) has always been never to add, but only to subtract.  With that rule in mind, there was nothing to do but cut away all that was unfinished and all the cruft that didn't work in the main plot.  But I think that the final Garden of Eden, if Hemingway had ever managed to finish it, would have been much more than just one of my favorite things he wrote.  It might have been his best work of all.

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