Hemingway’s last novel: a gender-bending ménage à trois

I’ve long been a Hemingway fan, but much more of his earlier work then later, when hyper-masculinity and hunting seemed to take over. However, I recently finished reading his last published posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, and saw his later years in a completely different light. A fascinating read, it throws a wrench in the “Hemingway myth.”

Worked on intermittently from 1946 until his death in 1961, Hemingway’s last novel feels very modern, especially in this period when so many are exploring the notion of gender fluidity. Published in 1986, the novel opens with David Bourne and his wife Catherine on their honeymoon in Le Grau-du-Roi, France. Married for three weeks, they are celebrating both their new union as well as the successful publication of David’s second novel. One day she says she has a surprise for him, that she’s “going to be changed,” but gives no indication what that means. Kissing him goodbye, she rides her bicycle into town. Returning later, she is sporting a boys haircut. “That’s the surprise,” she tells him, “I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.” (Pg. 15)

From that day forward, Catherine moves back and forth between seeing herself as male or female, speaking at one point of them as brothers, and at another point saying that she would be female during the day and male at night. They travel to Spain and tension builds between them, with David questioning the relationship. After a return to France they meet Marita, a young woman, which ultimately leads to a ménage à trois and, naturally, a series of issues between the three.

Well worth a read, Catherine is one of Hemingway’s strongest female leads, while David is perhaps one of his weakest males. Marita is not nearly as fleshed out as a character, but one wonders if she would’ve been had he finished the book himself. The original manuscript that Hemingway’s widow, Mary, brought to Scribners in the 1960s was 48 chapters and over 200,000 words long. Editor Tom Jenks, assured critics he stayed true to Hemingway’s work, but with so much cut out, and, at least as far as I can tell no complete manuscript released, it’s kind of impossible to tell.

A film adaptation of The Garden of Eden was released in 2008. It starred Mena Suvari as Catherine, Jack Huston as David, and Caterina Murino as Marita. I haven’t watched it but as of this writing it has a 4% rating on Rotten Tomatoes so there’s that.

Including the trailer below, judge for yourself:

Next time we’ll look at how hunting is portrayed in this book, in complete opposition to so many of his other works.

References

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