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The Mother Complex

Copyright © 1998 by Timeless Hemingway

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Apart from the discovery of the three psychic zones of the mind, the id, ego and superego, the most famous Freudian theory is the Oedipus complex. Freud explains the origins of the complex in his book, The Ego and the Id:

… the boy deals with his father by identifying himself with him. For a time these two relationships [the child's devotion to his mother and identification with his father] proceed side by side, until the boy's sexual wishes in regard to his mother become more intense and his father is perceived as an obstacle to them; from this the Oedipus complex originates.1

As the genital disparities between himself and his mother become evident, the boy deduces that she has been castrated. His own fear of castration creates in him a growing indignation with his father, the newly perceived figure of authority. Coupled with his original sense of masculine identification, the boy develops "a wish to get rid of his father in order to take his place with his mother."2 His feelings of ambivalence are soon directed towards his mother once he identifies her lack of a penis as a distinction of inferiority.

Psychologists are particularly interested in how a boy's hatred for his mother affects his gender identification. In The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, Nancy Chodorow describes a general truth of both Oedipal and gender identification: "A boy, in order to feel himself adequately masculine, must distinguish and differentiate himself from others in a way that a girl need not—must categorize himself as someone apart. Moreover, he defines masculinity negatively as that which is not feminine and/or connected to women, rather than positively."3 Chodorow also finds that boys and girls experience gender identification differently based on their "personal relationship with their object of identification" (175). Citing the research of Mitscherlich, Slater, Winch, and Lynn,4 she states, "boys develop a positional identification with aspects of the masculine role. For them, the tie between affective processes and role learning is broken" (175). A girl, on the other hand, "can develop a personal identification with her mother, because she has a real relationship with her that grows out of their early primary tie. She learns what it is to be womanlike in the context of this personal identification with her mother" (175).

Like many boys in the embryonic stage of their Oedipal crisis (which Freud situated around age five), Ernest Hemingway struggled through the process of gender identification. His difficulties appear to have been perpetuated by the peculiar gender-oriented behavior of his parents. Kenneth Lynn has described Dr. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway as a "marvelous marksmen with both shotgun and rifle, an accomplished fisherman, a master of every technique for surviving in a wilderness."5 Dr. Hemingway's separation from emasculating feminine forces and his passionate pursuit of the frontier life characterized him as a "muscular Christian," a vision of masculinity widely upheld by a nineteenth-century society and strongly influenced by literature of the day, notably Tom Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days at Rugby.

Clarence tried to instill similar "muscular Christian" values in his son Ernest. He instructed the boy in the precise arts of fishing and shooting and brought him along on hunting expeditions in the Michigan woods. Here, Clarence educated the young and naturally inquisitive Ernest on "such recognized culinary delights as venison, quail, partridge, dove, duck, turtle meat, frogs' legs, and various kinds of fish" (Lynn 35) and also trained him to detect "which berries and grasses were edible and which were not" (Lynn 35). Hemingway's recollections of the boyhood adventures he shared with his father, "Up in Michigan," are vividly recreated in his literature through the fictional guise of Nick Adams.

As Ernest Hemingway matured both intellectually and socially, he was forced to accept another side of his father's "muscular Christianity," one no longer exemplifying masculine individualism, but rather devoted service as both a husband and father:

When Ed was courting the rather reluctant Grace, he promised that she would never have to do housework and kept his word. He always prepared the children's breakfast and served Grace in bed. He bought the groceries, did most of the cooking, took care of the laundry and managed the servants despite his medical responsibilities.6

Whether a remnant of his strict matriarchal upbringing or simply a lack of cojones7 Clarence Hemingway allowed himself to be dominated by his wife. Though they seem to have shared the responsibility for raising their children, Grace was more the disciplinarian8 and almost exploitative of her husband's leniency, rarely seeking his approval in her childrearing experiments. Not that Clarence would have offered much resistance. He was especially nonchalant about her dressing their first-born son in girls' clothing.9 Volcanoes of critical speculation have erupted among scholars regarding this incident, leading many to believe that Grace Hemingway was guilty of feminizing her son.10

In Hemingway's Quarrel with Androgyny, Mark Spilka provides the most persuasive evidence to refute the popular theory of Hemingway's feminization. Spilka believes Hemingway was engendered by a mother who had the most androgynous of intentions:

Her twinship experiments, in which she tried to match Ernest with his sister Marcelline, his elder by a year, have long been misunderstood as attempts to feminize or sissify her son after the popular notion of Fauntleroy. But androgynous dollhood comes closer to her apparent intention. Ernest and Marcelline were her twin Dutch dollies, boy and girl, and the Dutch length of their hair and their matching dresses were androgynous features.11

Spilka also cites Halifax of Dinah Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman as another influential literary character. His moralistic superiority, family-inclined nature and Christian devoutness personified additional androgynous features Grace Hemingway believed to be specifically tailored for her son.

While popular literature of the time period played a substantial role in influencing Grace Hemingway's androgynous childrearing practices, her unusual conceptions of motherhood had familial origins as well. Caroline Hall had taught her daughter to be the creator of her own success and took every opportunity to encourage the girl's ambitious pursuits, reminding her that "there is no use any woman getting into the kitchen if she can help it."12 Due to her family's considerable affluence and lifelong dependence on hired help, Grace never had to acquaint herself with a kitchen or burdensome domestic chores.

Shortly after her mother's death in 1895, Grace traveled to New York to begin her training as an opera singer. About this time, she'd begun to reevaluate her relationship with Clarence Hemingway, the gracious and handsome doctor who assisted Mrs. Hall in the months prior to her death. It now seemed inevitable that Grace decide between her aspirations to be an opera singer or mother. She chose the latter and married Dr. Hemingway in 1896. As folklore goes, Grace declined an invitation to sing at a gala honoring Queen Victoria, for the engagement conflicted with the date of her marriage.13

Though Grace Hemingway ultimately chose to marry and raise a family, her dreams of professional acclaim lingered. Having strongly identified with her father as a young girl, admiring his success as a businessman and desiring a similar level of success for herself, Grace's "personal identification with her mother," to use Chodorow's phrase, never thoroughly developed. By continually emphasizing self-sufficience and abstinence from domestic duties, Caroline Hall merely complemented the attributes of her husband. Whether she was as persistent in familiarizing her daughter with nineteenth-century feminine ideals remains questionable.14

In raising her son Ernest androgynously, Grace Hemingway may have been compensating for the lack of symmetry in the gender roles of her own parents. The abnormal identification she enjoyed with her father could have evolved into the more abnormal wish-fulfillment she played out through her son. The insightful Spilka notes:

What Grace wanted for her son Ernest, then, was very much what she wanted for herself; and when she twinned him with his older sister, Marcelline, and began experimenting with their hairstyles, first Dutch-length in infancy, then close-cut when Ernest began school and received his first boy's haircut, she was telling her firstborn son something about the gender she favored in creating such twinships. (332)

Hemingway would flirt with similar wish-fulfillments later in his own life. Rather than displacing his fantasies upon a vulnerable child, he skillfully implanted them deep within the psyches of his fictional characters.

As a result of being raised by essentially dually gendered parents, Ernest Hemingway was never able to attach himself to a singular model of femininity or masculinity. In this respect, his sense of gender confusion reflected the gender confusion of his parents. When she was not exercising authoritative control over her husband, Grace Hemingway was a loving mother who reminded her son (after he had written a letter home joking about getting married), "It was only yesterday that you were Mother's little yellow headed laddie, and used to hug me and call me 'Silkey Sockey.' "15 When he was not teaching his son the manly leisures of hunting and shooting, molding him "as the frontier scout he had always wanted to be himself,"16 Clarence Hemingway subsided into his submissive role as husband.

Considering the gender reversals of his parents, one might theorize that Ernest Hemingway's Oedipal crisis was also reversed. As he observes his mother's domination of his father, he begins to question his father's masculinity. He believes that his mother has castrated his father, thus symbolizing her as the authority figure. For this reason and not the reason of genital disparities, as Freud attests, Hemingway develops feelings of hatred towards his mother, which are intensified by the fact that she never assigned him a specific gender because of the androgynous approach she'd taken in constructing his identity.

The distinction between sex and gender is crucial and must be clarified in order to better understand Hemingway's "mother complex." I use these terms narrowly: sex refers to that which is physically defined through our genes and sexual organs; gender refers to that which is socially defined through our parents and other agents of society. As a child, Hemingway is capable of discerning the sexual differences between himself and his mother. His sense of gender, however, might have been confused. Having never been socially defined by his parents, never nurtured exclusively as a masculine or feminine entity, his gendered identity remains unconceptualized. A gender-confused boy grows into a gender-confused man, who devotes the remainder of his life to the pursuit of his own sense of self, an "idealized self," one defined neither by his parents nor by society.

Freud believed that "most of our actions are motivated by psychological forces over which we have very limited control. He demonstrated that, like the iceberg, the human mind is structured so that its great weight and density lie beneath the surface."17 The resemblance of this analogy to Hemingway's famous remarks concerning his style of writing is obvious. By obsessively controlling his style of writing, Hemingway controls the psychological forces that dictate his thinking, the thinking of his characters and the thinking of his readers.

By the late 1930's, the Hemingway hero had undergone several significant changes. Gabriel Motola recalls, "the major difference between the Hemingway hero before and after 1937 is not his method of conduct but the realization that that conduct is necessary if his life is to be meaningful"18. In Hemingway, the shift from a narrator observantly relaying the experience of characters to one who analyzes their "conduct" is the clearest indication that the author has begun to lose stylistic control of his prose. Analysis complicates the relationships among characters, which overshadows the surface simplicity of the narrative, defeats Hemingway's aims of ambiguity, and thus gives readers more interpretive accessibility to the text.

Jackson J. Benson sees the inability to create narrative distance as another dangerous stylistic deficiency. This lack of effective narrative distance is most noticeable in Hemingway's later works (particularly Across the River and into the Trees, A Moveable Feast and The Old Man and the Sea). Benson warns, "when the author does not deliberately create such distance, the fiction fails, because that which has motivated the daydream tends to adulterate the discourse—as self-pity and wish-fulfillment step over the implied author to express themselves nakedly"19.

In Our Time, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms are outstanding literary achievements not only for their delicacy of theme, simplicity of dialogue and subtlety of language but also for the exceptional maturity with which this young and experimental writer approached them. Here, the conscious control of style, the characters' control of themselves, and the progressive evolution of the "idealized hero" merge together while leaving the required seven-eighths of the iceberg underwater.


1. Qtd. in Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Third Edition, 125.

2. Ibid.

3. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, 174.

4. Alexander Mitscherlich, Society Without the Father, 1963; Philip E. Slater, "Toward a Dualistic Theory of Identification," Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development 7, 113-126; Robert F. Winch, Identification and Its Familial Determinants, 1962; David B. Lynn, "A Note on Sex Differences," 1959 and "Sex Role and Parents," 1962.

5. Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway, 35.

6. Jeffrey Meyers, Hemingway: A Biography, 7.

7. Spanish for "testicles," a favorite term among critics when referring to the valor of bullfighters or the "grace under pressure" demonstrated in Hemingway's characters.

8. There seem to be some discrepancies in the Hemingway biographies over who in fact was the disciplinarian of the family. Carlos Baker attests that Dr. Clarence Hemingway "was by far the stricter of the two" and that Grace was "a good deal more permissive" and basically "wanted her children to enjoy life." In using the term, "disciplinarian," I am referring to Grace's stature in matters pertaining to her husband and not her children. I admit my interpretation may be culturally biased. See note 14.

9. Though critics have not reached a general consensus as to when Grace Hemingway stopped dressing her son in girls' clothing, Mark Spilka attests that Hemingway received his first boy's haircut at age six. It should be noted that Clarence was the one to insist that his son receive the shorter haircut. See Mark Spilka, Hemingway's Quarrel With Androgyny, 46.

10. I am not interested in what specifically influenced Grace Hemingway to dress her son in girls' clothing, whether a product of the time period (it was perfectly common for boys to wear infant dresses during the Victorian age) or her own wish-fulfilling desires. I am more concerned with how her behavior affected her son's process of gender identification. Those who have condemned Grace as a domineering woman and authoritarian mother also see her as responsible for feminizing her husband and son. Such an interpretation, however, may be culturally biased. Hemingway scholars (many of whom are men) bring to their research their own preconceived definitions of masculinity. If a man does not conform to the tenets of their masculine ideal, they are more apt to assume he has been feminized.

11. Mark Spilka, Hemingway's Quarrel With Androgyny, 46.

12. Ibid., 22.

13. I thank Mark Spilka for this tidbit of Hemingway folklore. Ibid., 24.

14. For a further discussion of feminine ideals prevalent during the Victorian era, see "Contemporary Ideologies" in Francoise Basch's Relative Creatures, 3-15. I am grateful to Elaine Showalter (A Literature of Their Own) for bringing this particular work to my attention.

15. See Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes, Hemingway's Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text, 26.

16. Mark Spilka, Hemingway's Quarrel With Androgyny, 331.

17. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Third Edition, 118.

18. See Gabriel Motola, "Hemingway's Code: Literature and Life," In Modern Fiction Studies, 10 (Winter 1964-1965), 320.

19. See Jackson J. Benson, "Ernest Hemingway: The Life as Fiction and the Fiction as Life," In Hemingway: Essays of Reassessment, ed. Frank Scaffela, 165.