The Masculine and the Misogynistic
Ernest Hemingway’s very name evokes a sort of intellectual machismo. He was a thinking man who was preoccupied by classical notions of masculinity. From bullfights, to the Spanish Civil War, to The Old Man and the Sea; in his life and his writing Hemingway was engaged in the pursuit of a romanticized notion of what it means to be a man. Of course, a major part of the traditional concept of machismo is relations with women. Just because one finds it easy to have relations with women does not, however, mean that they find it easy to relate to women. Women can hold a certain power over men and have a seemingly alien thought process. Becoming immersed in the world of manliness, men frequently experience subconscious fear and resentment of the feminine. Certainly Hemingway had such issues, made evident in much of his writing. One superb example of the author’s internal struggle is the short story “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.”
The importance of the relationship between the sexes in the story is first conveyed by the title. In this very short tale, the female title character does not appear until after the halfway point of the story. The Doctor appears throughout, being the closest thing to a main character that exists. There are only about one and a half pages during which the two title characters interact. Yet there they are together in the title, giving weight to their one scene together.
At the opening of the story Dick Boulton, “a big man” (24) who is a “half-breed” (23) Ojibway Indian, has come with his son and a fellow Indian to cut up driftwood for the Doctor. These are actually stray logs belonging to lumber companies that are rarely collected. Straight away, this initial situation begins the undercurrent of masculine themes. There is a strong man who comes from “out of the woods” (22), the wilderness being the realm of survival of the fittest. His name is Dick, an abbreviation of Richard that has performed double duty in the English language as a slang term for the penis since the mid-nineteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (“dick, n.1”). As the exchange between the Doctor and Dick escalates, he is described as a man who “knew how big a man he was” (24). This line comes as the conflict between he and the Doctor over the rightful ownership of the phallic logs has reached its peak. It is not simply Dick’s height or muscle mass that he is conscious of. In this conflict between men the ultimate judgment of superiority is based squarely on who possesses the larger genitals.
To further reinforce the power and importance Dick commands by virtue of his size, he has other men following his lead. One is his son and therefore expected to do what his father tells him, an idea that will become important at the end of the story. The other is simply another Indian, a “fat” (24) man by the name of Billy Tabeshaw. While these on-lookers have come in service to Dick, they would obviously be aware that Dick has come at the command of the Doctor, possibly because “. . . Dick owes . . . [the Doctor] money for pulling his squaw through pneumonia” (25). So the Doctor is the ultimate power figure until Dick begins chiding him over the “stolen” (23) status of the timber. When the Doctor backs down before their conflict can come to blows, Dick has effectively knocked the Doctor down before these other men, reasserting him self as the dominant figure. At this point, any deference to the Doctor that Dick may have shown is tossed away. When the Indians first arrive, they enter the yard through a back gate that cuts off the cottage from the woods. After they enter, “He [Dick] turned and shut the gate” (22). After the Doctor has been forced to back down, they exit the same way but “Dick left the gate open” (24). It is the other Indian, Billy Tabeshaw, who “. . . went back and fastened it” (24). Tabeshaw is still in a lesser position to both men, though the act is more in deference to Dick, since it is Dick who should have closed the gate.
After the conflict the Doctor enters the cottage where the interaction between he and his wife takes place. By way of the Doctor’s Wife Hemingway offers a rather scathing critique of women. She talks to her husband from another room where she is “. . . lying with the blinds drawn” (25). When the Doctor offers his explanation as to why Dick may have wanted a fight, “. . . so he wouldn’t have to take it [the owed money] out in work” (25), the Wife replies that she “. . . can’t really believe anyone would do a thing of that sort intentionally” (26). The woman is ignorant to the ways of men; she is, in fact, ignorant to the very realities of human nature. She is blissful and comfortable in her ignorance, being in “. . . bed in the darkened room” (25). But the Wife is not merely a woman, but a Christian. She quotes to her husband from the Bible, which sits with her in the darkened room. So religion joins women in the darkened room of ignorance.
This point is made sharper by the fact that the Wife is not merely a Christian, but a Christian Scientist. Not only does this reinforce her ignorance but also indicates something fundamental in the relationship between her and her husband, and therefore about Hemingway’s view on women in relationships. Christian Scientists are a group that believes that faith will heal all ills and that medicine interferes with the workings of God. It speaks volumes that in this story one is married to a doctor. Since the Wife does not believe in medicine, by inference she does not believe in her husband, a man of medicine. Her questioning of Dick’s suggested motivation further reinforces this idea. It is not merely that she is naïve to the motivations of people. She is also doubtful of her husband’s ability to grasp the situation. Because she doubts him, she asserts a more authoritative role in the relationship, albeit in a passive-aggressive manner. There is a tremendous amount conveyed by the line “If you see Nick . . . tell him his mother wants to see him” (26). Not only is she telling him what to do, but there is that crucial bit of phrasing, “his mother.” Why not simply say “I want to see him?” She is simultaneously asserting authority by citing her maternal status and distancing herself from the Doctor. By making “[Nick’s] mother” into a role that can be referred to in the third person, she distances her self from that connection between her and the Doctor. In fact, had the Doctor not been referred to as “Nick’s father” (22) at the opening of the tale, then the reader would have no way of knowing at this point if the Wife were talking about her self or some other character. Whether this desire to be separate and yet in control is entirely predicated on her pre-existing lack of faith in the Doctor or the conflict with Dick has helped bring it to be is unclear. Moments later, the Doctor lets the door slam behind him and immediately apologizes. More likely, the Doctor’s failure in the confrontation with Dick stems from this dynamic with his wife, rather than vice versa.
There is another aspect to the conversation between the two that has not yet been touched upon. During much of it, the Doctor is sitting in a separate room “. . . cleaning a shotgun” (25). This takes place on his bed. He proceeds to load the gun and then “pumped them out again” (25). After this the shells are “scattered on the bed” (25) and “The doctor wiped his gun carefully” (25). The shotgun is yet another phallic symbol, one which the doctor is “very fond” (26) of. This symbol of manhood is never used for its intended purpose; it simply appears in this masturbatory context. It is stuck inside the cottage, “. . . in the corner behind the dresser” (26). The Doctor’s manhood is taken away from him by the cottage, the place where his wife resides. In a sense, he loses his manhood in the marriage. By entering into this relationship with a woman, he is deprived of that which made him a man.
At the close of the story, the Doctor heads out of the gate into the woods, where he finds his son Nick. The Doctor informs his son of his mother’s desire to see him, to which Nick replies, “I want to go with you” (26). His father acquiesces and the two go off into the woods to find black squirrels. What is the meaning of this portion? There is certainly a message about the nature of the male role model. The son does not want to go be with his mother because he does not want to be like the mother. He wishes to follow his father’s path into the world of manhood. But Nick’s father has lost his manhood. Perhaps through his son he shall find it again. This is suggested by the fact that it is Nick suggesting that the two stay together against the will of his mother, not the Doctor. Also, it is Nick who “. . . know[s] where there’s black squirrels” (26). So it is Nick who is leading his father into the woods, the world of manhood. This is another hint as to the Doctor’s emasculation and a parallel with Dick’s son Eddy following him out from and back in to the woods earlier in the story. It is therefore through fatherhood that the married man regains his masculinity. This could be that in raising the boy the father remembers what it is to be a man, or it could mean that he continues his masculine life vicariously through the son. Either way, the father/son relationship is the crucial component.
It is astounding what a great author can accomplish with few words. The length of this essay has already exceeded that of the story it self, yet has barely scratched the surface of the meaning of the story. There are few people in the history of the English language capable of constructing such a terse and meaningful tale. Every word was chosen with exacting attention. Yet, despite this artistic beauty he was capable of achieving, the subtext of the story reveals ideas that some may see as ugly. This is not a bad thing, though. Artists are frequently tortured psychologically and whether or not it is easy to understand their precise world view is insignificant. What is important is that they respond to these internal struggles with the creative process, leaving a legacy of great art behind them. Hemingway may have been a misogynistic male chauvinist. He was also a genius, who left behind a body of work rivaled by very few.
“Dick, n.1”. Oxford English Dictionary On-Line. http://dictionary.oed.com, 2005.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Nick Adams Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972.