Ménage à trois: Hemingway’s Garden of Eden

Hemingway’s novel dives in and out of androgyny like its two newlywed swimmers who bathe in the salted sea and grow ever darker on its pale and silted beaches. David and Catherine take their honeymoon in the off season. They do everything a little differently.

Garden of EdenThe Garden of Eden · Ernest Hemingway · 1946-‘61
Scribner, 2003 · 247 pages, paperback

David and Catherine Bourne are three months married and vacationing on the Côte d’Azur. The Garden of Eden, though, is a study of division just as much as it is one of marriage: what is yours, what is mine, what is ours. The Garden of Eden has the happiness of marriage. It has its dissolution and it has its estrangement.

True to classic Hemingway, the story takes place between the lines of its sparse prose (if anything, Hemingway’s writing in The Garden of Eden is even more bare-bones than in his other novels), and though it’s David who tells the story it’s Catherine whose words and impulses tell us more.

It’s unclear whether the “Eden” in this book’s title refers to a male’s wet dream of two willing women or to the fall from grace brought on by Eve. Both interpretations are valid, the former as a snide and self-reproaching (or self-congratulatory) allusion to Hemingway’s own life and the latter being more in line with the novel’s themes. Either way, Hemingway must have had a great affection for Catherine to have given her such a story as he did here.

Catherine’s a jealous woman and it’s a jealousy not so much of another woman (she’s the one who brings Marita into their lives after all), as it is a jealousy of David and David as another being with things separate from her and a past that doesn’t have her in it and an entire life before he even knew her. She’s jealous of the stories he writes. She’s jealous because he gives himself to these stories so completely.

Hemingway writes a hard truth in this one: it’s painful to love someone and to know that however big the love is, you will be always separate beings with separate thoughts and separate pasts and separate bodies and separate desires. He tells us in no uncertain terms that this is right and necessary.

So many of his protagonists (and maybe especially Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises), are their fullest selves when he writes of them without relation to anyone else. Hemingway was a proponent of the individual in all things and that particular strain of independence he writes into Eden – this need to sort out some things by yourself – is so very like him.

It’s also why Marita disappoints. Hemingway gives us nothing to substantiate her as a character. The stakes are high for David and Catherine when they sanction her role as mistress to their marriage: outside of admiration for how dark and different David and Catherine look from their days in the Midi there is no reason for her willingness to fill this spurious role. The Bournes intrigued her, sure, but how did they captivate her? She was only a stranger in a café.

The little hints crop up from the start that Catherine can’t really trust David to live outside of her. It all starts in the off season. They’re honeymooners so in love and they have to their love a backdrop depopulated by the searing heat of the Cote d’Azur in Été. It’s them and the maître d’, the harbor workers and (maybe) a handful of people from Nîmes. It’s so easy now, at the center of everyone’s admiring attentions! They have all the charming new things of newlywed life for she took her coffee without sugar and the young man was learning to remember that. Each of them lives only for the other.

But then the clippings arrive, press clippings among the letters and praise for David’s recently finished novel. There’s a minor tiff, and we think it’s brought on by ill-humor and an extra jigger of gin: why do work things when we’re honeymooning after all?

It’s soon very clear that it’s more than this.

And now she wants to be ever darker of the skin, ever lighter of the hair, to do things differently than other people. Catherine’s surprises for David early on of a man’s haircut and the purchase of tailored trousers instead of a fashionable skirt are minor adjustments to the grander gestures of androgyny later in their honeymoon.

Catherine wants herself and David to look the same. She persuades David to share her haircut and its bleached color. She wants to do things with David in the night that can’t be written in the day. She wants to be him and to have her own Catherine and to have David more completely than any love allows. She’s sick in love and exceedingly turned on.

Now you change. Please. Don’t make me change you. Must I? All right I will. You’re changed now. You are. You did it too. You are. You did it too. I did it to you but you did it. Yes you did. You’re my sweet dearest darling Catherine. You’re my sweet my lovely Catherine. You’re my girl my dearest only girl. Oh thank you thank you my girl–

That Hemingway could convey such raw, virile, climactic feeling through such abysmal sentences is exactly why we love him.

Catherine’s jealous of David for his work (those damned clippings!) but she feels she’s to blame. When she married David she gave him the financial means to pursue his writing. Now she knows that she gave him the means to live outside of her and to leave her behind while his soul lives many lives. And it was okay while he wrote about her. But the stories about his father or about Africa or about hunting? These are worthless.

Her jealousy intensifies, and she burns the stories that aren’t about her.

Up before the sun and with an abstinence for breakfast and a hunger for absinthe, we see David at work, writing, writing, writing. Or rather, remembering and reliving and pinning down feeling with the binding reality of words. Shadowed eyes and furrowed brow, the writing hurts him as it satisfies him…and to see it all burnt and smoldering in that great rusted gasoline drum and to know the agony that it can’t be written again because it can’t ever be right again!

When it’s right you can’t remember. Every time you read it again it comes as a great and unbelievable surprise. You can’t believe you did it. When it’s once right, you can never do it again. You only do it once for each thing. And you’re only allowed so many in your life.

For truthful, good, accurate writing yes, but in love, too? Only one chance to get it right?

Wife and mistress are bleeding into the same thing now. Catherine pushes David toward Marita and demands he kiss her and love her. She removes herself from the life she shares with David and appraises him from a vantage that requires no commitment or participation. She sees David and Marita as she thinks others must see David and herself.

Only one chance to get it right? You sure about that? Because her love looks an awful lot like mine.

Catherine promises to come back. At war with herself over how she’s treated David, she’s gone to Paris to have paid into David’s account the worth of those stories she had burned. She begrudges Marita nothing and knows that it’s she who smote ruin on her and David because she could not stand that he had things outside of her.

So different from the beginning when all it was was them and she took her coffee without sugar and the young man was learning to remember that.

The Garden of Eden · Ernest Hemingway · 1946-‘61
Scribner, 2003 · 247 pages, paperback

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