Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk upon hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor's wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.
- Proverbs, Jewish, Old Testament (B.C. 1000?-200?)
As much as I love Hemingway and hold him as the gold standard for sharp, concise and yet picturesque writing in the English language, I’m a little ashamed to say that I haven’t read more of him. Back in junior high, we read The Old Man and the Sea, and subsequent to that I read Islands in the Stream, drinking steadily with the characters throughout the book, and I’ve also read The Complete Short Stories, a wonderful big, thick book that I’ve both read and then later listened to on audiobook narrated by Stacy Keach. (Brilliant!) I really loved the fact that many of those short stories from the collection didn’t even have a plot or a resolution, just sketching out a scene really, and it was like being able to thumb through the private sketch book of a masterful painter.
So I’ve resolved to dig more deeply into Hemingway’s writings and the following scene was really the first time I can remember noticing a romantic scene after those first three books I’ve mentioned. True, a lot of Hemingway’s writing is romantic in a “Men without Women” sort of way (to borrow from one of his titles) but this scene from A Farewell to arms is the first scene from Hemingway I can remember as pure lovely dovey romantic talk.
From “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway
“Tell me. How many people have you ever loved?”
“Not me even?”
“How many others really?”
“How many have you — how do you say it? — stayed with?”
“You’re lying to me.”
“It’s all right. Keep right on lying to me. That’s what I want you to do. Were they pretty?”
“I never stayed with any one.”
“That’s right. Were they very attractive?”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
“You’re just mine. That’s true and you’ve never belonged to any one else. But I don’t care if you have. I’m not afraid of them. But don’t tell me about them. When a man stays with a girl when does she say how much it costs?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course not. Does she say she loves him? Tell me that. I want to know that.”
“Yes. If he wants her to.”
“Does he say he loves her? Tell me please. It’s important.”
“He does if he wants to.”
“But you never did? Really?”
“Not really. Tell me the truth.”
“No,” I lied.
“You wouldn’t,” she said. “I knew you wouldn’t. Oh, I love you, darling.”
Love the back and forth in her not wanting to know, but wanting to know, the way he knows what she wants to hear and it’s only when she insists that he give up a few words of the truth. You can tell she knows the truth through most of it, but towards the end, I’m reading it as her buying the lie in the feminine way a woman can often believe what she chooses to believe.
As Hemmingway continues on, we reach a part which could make a feminist cringe (or more likely, seethe with rage) as Catherine pledges her complete subservience to Frederic, but we should remember that this was just after the turn of the 20th century and really, even a modern day “liberated woman” could express the same sort of sentiments if the feeling were mutual.
Outside the sun was up over the roofs and I could see the points of the cathedral with the sunlight on them. I was clean inside and outside and waiting for the doctor.
“And that’s it?” Catherine said. “She says just what he wants her to?”
“But I will. I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you?” She looked at me very happily. “I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?”
“What would you like me to do now that you’re all ready?”
“Come to the bed again.”
“All right. I’ll come.”
“Oh, darling, darling, darling,” I said.
“You see,” she said. “I do anything you want.”
“You’re so lovely.”
“I’m afraid I’m not very good at it yet.”
Wow, good stuff, Papa. If you’ve made through to another life, I wouldn’t be surprised to find you’ve been writing for an American soap opera or a Mexican novella!