The Consequences of Catherine's Dissent from Gender Norms in The Garden of Eden
Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published The Garden of Eden bursts with indications of nontraditional gender roles. The main focus is on Catherine Bourne, and how her unconventional gender performance influences a perceived insanity, which ultimately causes the decline of her heterosexual relationship with her husband, David. David is eventually reunited with a socially normalized relationship at the end when he and Marita decide to commit to each other. Following a seemingly linear structure of the novel’s progression, it shows Catherine’s expression of her desire to be a boy and the transformation she gives herself, evidence for how Catherine’s behavior as a boy seems to influence her steady decline into insanity, and the repercussions of Catherine’s actions and eventual elimination of her from the story.
Catherine’s internal struggle with her gender identity causes her to make changes in her appearance and behavior that better suit the sex with which she identifies. Catherine is a young woman who, at the beginning of the novel, seems to simply be enjoying the pleasures of her honeymoon with her husband, David. However, there is something lurking within Catherine that is yet to be seen, but it begins to emerge when she says to David, “‘I’m the destructive type…And I’m going to destroy you’” (Hemingway 5) in response to David’s declaration that he is the inventive type (which is true because he is a writer). She feels empowered when she cuts her hair like a boy’s, but she is still struggling with her gender identity when she says, “‘I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything’” (Hemingway 15). The ambiguity between which sex she identifies as is shown in this dialogue, and it shows that Catherine is feeling that ambiguity herself. Catherine shows the dissonance between gender and natural sex with her desire to be a boy, with her behaviors such as cutting her hair, taking on a male role in bed with David, how she seems to be in control of their relationship (sexually, emotionally, and financially). She cannot find harmony between the socially constructed female gender roles of her society and how she wants to act.
From her first introduction, Catherine seems to follow a path leading into darkness, irrationality, and insanity. The first step happens when she cuts her hair, then she begins to become a boy in bed, and finally she brings the girl Marita into her marriage with David. These actions follow the same progression into her perceived insanity, and it is also mirrored in her physical appearance by her incessant desire for her skin to become darker and darker. David also begins to call Catherine “Devil,” which is probably the darkest name that one can be called, and she seems to make a hell out their perfect little haven by her progression into madness. However, the tipping point for Catherine seems to be when she sleeps with Marita and how she begins to have irrational fits of jealousy and hostility toward David and Marita. Since Catherine is the one who brought Marita into their relationship, she has created this “hell” for the three of them (and her hell may be her insanity), but she doesn’t seem to take any responsibility for her encouragement of David to fall in love with Marita. After sleeping with Marita, Catherine tells David, “‘There isn’t any us…not anymore’” (Hemingway 117), which acknowledges “the beginning of the end” of their happy, heterosexual relationship.
Furthermore, the thing that causes David (and also Marita) to decide to exclude Catherine from their affair is her jealousy toward Marita and David’s bond over the stories about Africa that he writes. David wouldn’t let Catherine read these stories, and he has also put the narrative he had been writing on their (David and Catherine’s) lives in order to work on these Africa stories. This jealously infuriates Catherine, and after David has completed the stories she burns them all and then she thinks that this will solve her problems and now he will only work on their narrative. However, her plan seems to backfire. David says, “‘All I want to do is kill you…and the only reason I don’t do it is because you are crazy’” (Hemingway 223), and he finally seems to have broken free from any commitment he might feel for Catherine. He states that she is crazy and expresses his desire to kill her, to have her cleared from his life. Catherine must be eliminated though, to go back to Judith Butler’s argument, in order for Catherine to be punished for dissent from traditional gender roles which have influenced her insanity.
Since Catherine can no longer fit into the ideal of a traditional, heterosexual wife, she is forced to leave the story so that it can end with the monogamous, heterosexual couple reunited in David and Marita. Catherine no longer has a place in the story or in David’s life because she could no longer fit the standard of her socially constructed gender norms, which seemed to cause her madness. Catherine is now easily forgotten, and David tells Marita, “‘We’re the Bournes. It may take awhile to have the papers. But that’s what we are” (Hemingway 243). This solidifies the reemergence of a “victorious” heterosexual couple, falling into the gender norms of society.
Society constructs gender roles into which people are supposed to fit, and a cognitive dissonance between someone’s sex and their perceived gender role can lead to personal struggle, or even insanity (in society’s eyes) as shown by Catherine. In The Garden of Eden, Catherine is used as an example for the “queer” who is punished by society for not fitting into the role that she is supposed to occupy. Catherine is punished, as Judith Butler states, for failing “to do [her] gender right” (405) by being pushed out of the story, not only by her husband and his mistress, but by Hemingway as well. David and Marita punish her by eliminating her from their lives, and then proceeding to assume a socially “normal” heterosexual couple. Hemingway also punishes Catherine by creating the dialogue that she is crazy, and implying to the reader that this madness is caused by her refusal to accept gender norms. Catherine fails to fit these roles constructed for her by society, so she is punished and eventually eliminated from the story.
This blog is the narration of our group's journey through our class on Queer Modernism and Literature. We have learned all things jazz from the Harlem Renaissance culture, loved despite class boundries in Maurice, and explored gender inversion on a trip to Eden. These are the responses, and further research that has been sparked by what we have been exposed to within the class. Feel free to ride along with us...