R E V I E W – B O O K
A picture of three men, chatting at leisure while sipping their beers and smoking their cigarettes and having a quiet, harmonious time, unmarked by the presence of women. It was the very quietude of this cover photo that deceived me as I burrowed into Ernest Hemingway’s Men Without Women. In place of a placid read, as the cover had misled me to believe, I was pushed into a world of incomplete men, none of whom had any sense of what they were missing in their lives, and a narration of vapid, masculine vanity.
Comprising fourteen short stories in less than 150 pages, Men Without Women stands as Hemingway’s statement, proclamation even, of what the ideal man should be like. The stories chronicle brief glimpses from the lives of men as they are driven to display “grace under pressure”, upholding their own steadfastness and masculinity. The protagonists are bull-fighters and boxers and other men of sports. They display their bravado — such as in “The Killers” — in the face of challenge from hired hands and gunmen. The stories deal with the effects of wars, as in “In Another Country”, and the utter denial of old age and attempts to grasp on to fading celebrity, as is prolifically reflected in “Fifty Grand”. In “The Undefeated”, we see the struggle of the matador, Manuel Garcia, as he tries to rise for one last breath in his pool of long-lost stardom and performs, unavailingly, for an audience who does not understand his art.
In these stories, men judge other men based on their behaviour as it opposes their idea of purely masculine qualities. The narrative, as a whole, carries forward this image of an unruffled man who maintains dignity and composure in the face of humiliation and unmitigated evil. However, all this did nothing but strengthen my idea that all of Hemingway’s male characters are built on his traditional code of the sociocultural determinants for masculinity, a throwback to the patriarchal norms of a “hardened, disillusioned male”. The protagonists are all the same cookie-cutter shape, befitting an archetype to prove social prowess through unnecessary risk-taking and physical strength.
That is not to say that there are no women in these stories. They exist peripherally, as dead or absent wives, cheating girlfriends, or as mere memories. However, they come across as figments of fancy without actual roots. Ironically, my favourite story from the entire collection was “Hills Like White Elephants”, one of only two stories having any direct feminine presence. But that too is marred by the stubbornness of a man who is convincing his girlfriend to get an abortion.
However, if that is all that there is to Men Without Women, then why should you bother to read it? The thing is, after a thorough reading, the whole anthology comes across as a reflection on what happens due to the societal pressures of stereotyping, of socializing men into behaviours, formulating and, essentially, snatching away their identities. The widespread misery due to the absence of a woman’s soft touch to abate the bleakness and forlornness of these hardened men’s lives, left completely unexpressed by the author, makes one truly think on whether the disaster of societal pressure, deep-seated egoism, and selfish greed might have been redeemed. It brings to light the question of how integral a feminine presence might actually be to a man’s individuality.
The stories themselves are quite immersive and the inexplicable beauty of Hemingway’s prose, economical and muscular, with terse dialogue and an abundance of imagery through objects and landscapes and facial expressions, paradoxically leaving much and very little to the reader’s imagination at the same time, is more than enough reason to pick up Men Without Women and reach your own conclusion.