Queering sexual practices in "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot.
From its opening sentence, Ernest Hemingway's short story "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" establishes reproductive sexual practice within the context of marriage as a central frame of reference: "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby" (CSS 123). The later repetition of this sentence helps to generate an ironic sense of conjugal failure, focused on the husband and protagonist Hubert, with implications of impotence and/or infertility, and eventually of the possibility that some "perverse" tendencies might be at work. Ascertaining whether Hubert is indeed physically impotent may not be as important as recognizing the symbolic significance of the suggestion. His failure to satisfy his wife Cornelia sexually is accompanied by the revelation that she has a lesbian girlfriend, and because of this linkage he comes to be understood as somehow perverse. Like Phil in "The Sea Change" and David in The Garden of Eden, Hubert confronts his wife's lesbian tendencies; yet, while Phil and David are depicted as wrestling with serious male identity crises, Hubert's apparent sexual inadequacy makes him a subject of ridicule.
In a sense, "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" exemplifies the ironic and hierarchized good sex/bad sex binary Gayle Rubin delineates in "Thinking Sex" According to Rubin, sexual values--like other value systems surrounding race, ethnicity, and religion--form hierarchical binaries that counterpose a privileged term residing within a charmed circle against a degraded other residing outside, thereby articulating an imaginary line of difference and implied divergence. The sexual hierarchy is generally constructed from the point of view of heterosexism.
According to this system, sexuality that is "good," "normal" and "natural" should ideally be heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, and non-commercial. It should be coupled, relational, within the same generation, and occur at home. It should not involve pornography, fetish objects, sex toys of any sort, or roles other than male and female. Any sex that violates these rules is "bad," "abnormal" or "unnatural." Bad sex may be homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, or commercial. (Rubin 280-281)
Rubin's study of sexual hierarchy echoes Michel Foucault's argument in The History of Sexuality, Volume I. There, Foucault defines sexuality not as a thing but as a discourse of sexual deviations carefully arranged around genitally centered sexuality. Within such sexual discourse, while perversions come in diverse configurations and are regarded as "unnatural,' the sexual pleasures of the legitimate, heterosexual couple, considered to be the central and "natural" reference point of all other sexualities, come to be taken for granted and are thus "spoken of less and less" (38).
In "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot," though, the sexual practice of the married couple, directed towards a reproductive purpose and therefore theoretically "quieter" (Foucault 38), is spoken of rather more loudly, and in an ironic manner that exposes it to a degree of ridicule. In this essay, I will try to pursue the meaning of this relative volubility and its effect. I will begin by providing some literary discursive context, examining some of the main critical issues that have surrounded the short story, and then will consider Hubert and Cornelia's presumed erotic practices with reference to Rubin's critical elucidation of the good sex/bad sex hierarchy.
Although many critics have already discussed "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot," it is not generally subject to the same kind of exegesis, or perhaps even reading, as other Hemingway works. Most critics focus on biographical background, and specifically on the fact that Hemingway originally titled the work "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" with the apparently mischievous intention of attacking his contemporary, writer Chard Powers Smith, whose wife had died in childbirth in March 1924 whispering a phrase in an 1840s song by Edwin Pearce Christy, "Good-night, ladies, good-night, good-night" (Chard Powers Smith). Some argue that Hemingway changed the title to "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" in order to shift the attack to T. S. Eliot. In any case, the story has been long and roundly dismissed as "a malicious gossip-story" (Baker 133), as "a slight, rather nasty piece of demolition work" (Shepherd 15), as a satire whose object is "quite plain" (Perloff 679), as wholly lacking in "cafe' wit" (Fenton 154), and as "a prefiguration of the bad Hemingway of the early 1930s" (Grebstein 82).
Actually, while it would hardly have escaped Hemingway's notice that Mrs. Smith addressed her final "good-night" to the "ladies" rather than her husband, it is not certain that he sought to mock a man's possibly misplaced devotion to his wife. Critics who discuss this story in relation to T. S. Eliot rather than the Smiths usually associate it with Hemingway's complex attitudes toward a contemporary who was extraordinarily successful when Hemingway himself was still craving literary laurels. Pointing out the resemblance between the characters Mr. and Mrs. Elliot and the couple in T. S. Eliot's autobiographical work The Waste Land, Roger Casey claims that Hemingway's choice of title would seem to "go beyond coincidence" (192). Paul Smith also refers to the influence of Eliot's poetry, especially "Burial of the Dead;' on the story (126). Critics pursuing this connection see the sexual immaturity of both T. S. Eliot and his fictional character as the main targets of Hemingway's satire. Marjorie Perloff goes further, arguing that Hemingway's malice is "directed ... toward the closet homosexuality of rich and genteel Harvard types like Hubert Elliot (a.k.a. T.S. Eliot), who fancy themselves poets and intellectuals and want to have genteel marriages and babies" (679).
Most of the critical literature understands the depiction of the married couple in terms of impotence and sterility, and sometimes, as in Perloff's case, of a homosexuality that Hemingway supposedly regarded as something of a nuisance. Such interpretations imply that Hemingway had uncovered a homosexual tendency in the life and works of T. S. Eliot. In other words, critics see Hemingway as having "outed" Eliot, and certain critics endorse this "outing." Yet, although the ostensible aim is to produce a poststructuralist appreciation of queerness in what is perceived as perverse desire, this critical endorsement of the outing process could be seen as drawing on the "good sex / bad sex" dichotomy; by emphasizing the existence of "bad sex" it may ultimately strengthen the fantasy that there must be ideal "good sex" somewhere else. If "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" is read as a story about failure in the privileged domain of "good sex;' then the question we might rather ask is why should this failure be commonly associated with homosexuality? What theoretical process transforms this story of attempted "good sex" into a story of supposed "bad sex"? If this process is theoretically inevitable, does a careful reading of the details of Mr. and Mrs. Elliot's sexual behavior provide any logical support for it?
The beginning of the story as it was first published in The Little Review went to great lengths to describe the couple's obsession with procreative sex:
Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They tried as often as Mrs. Elliot could stand it. They tried in Boston after they were married and they tried coming over on the boat. They did not try very often on the boat because Mrs. Elliot was quite sick. She was sick and when she was sick she was sick as Southern women are sick. That is women from the Southern part of the United States. (The Little Review 9)
Before the story reappeared in the 1925 Boni and Liveright edition of In Our Time, Hemingway reduced the repetition of the word "tried,' giving readers a weaker impression of the couple's obsessive pursuit.
Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby. They were married in Boston and sailed for Europe on a boat. It was a very expensive boat and was supposed to get to Europe in six days. But on the boat Mrs. Elliot was quite sick. She was sick, and when she was sick she was sick as Southern women are sick. That is women from the Southern part of the United States. (IOT 109)
When the story was published again in the Scribner edition of In Our Time, Hemingway ostensibly authorized a return to the Little Review version, again accentuating the story's focus on the couple's concern to conceive a child.
As numerous critics make clear, the story does deal with the couple's intense procreative aspiration, or, put more precisely, their obsession with so-called "good sex" As the story unfolds, though, the couple's sexual peculiarities become more and more explicit. The reader learns that Hubert has been keeping himself "pure" (CSS 123) until he marries Cornelia. Cornelia "was pure too" (124), although the story eventually reveals that she had a girlfriend with whom she had probably been making love before their marriage. Finally, the girlfriend usurps Hubert in the marital bed and he devotes himself to writing "a great deal of poetry during the night" (125). There can be little doubt this is a story revolving around lesbianism and a menage a trois, which Hemingway would later dramatize in both "The Sea Change" and The Garden of Eden.
Many critics discuss Hubert's impotence and his suspected homosexuality without examining the couple's actual sexual behavior. In what sense is Hubert "impotent"? Is it a matter of sterility, of erectile dysfunction, or of an ejaculatory disorder? These are not questions scholars have asked, although the word "impotent" is quite often used to characterize the man's wounded masculinity. However, in order to understand the Elliots' many "tries" to have a baby and Hubert's supposed impotence, it will be necessary to answer to these questions.
The story gives a brief depiction of Mr. and Mrs. Elliot's sexual relationship before their marriage:
She had seemed much younger, in fact she had seemed not to have any age at all, when Elliot had married her after several weeks of making love to her after knowing her for a long time in her tea shop before he had kissed her one evening. (CSS 123)
Considering that background, and the declaration within the text that the characters were both "pure," Robert Scholes argues in his reading of the story that their "several weeks of making love" amounts to "only courting and wooing" (46). Scholes notes that the most intimate information relating to that early part of the relationship concerns the process through which Elliot acquires his "special method of kissing" (46).
The only explicit detail of the period during which Elliot was "making love" to Cornelia is that of Elliot's special method of kissing. The text is not explicit enough to tell us what this method involves: we are expected to fill that in from our own sexual encyclopedias. But the text is wonderfully explicit in telling us how Elliot achieved this erotic breakthrough: "He learned that way of kissing from hearing a fellow tell a story once" (paragraph 6). This is both funny and pathetic. What kind of person learns such elementary things from stories? Life imitates art here in the most absurd way. (Scholes 46-47)
Scholes clearly implies in this argument that the relationship between life and art should be unidirectional and should proceed from the former, yet it is surely possible, and indeed advisable, to refute that simplistic formula: almost any human behavior refers to and imitates other people's acts, either directly or through instances related (through stories, for example) from the past. Here, however, my concern is less with the philosophy than with examining the specifics of Hemingway's text.
Scholes points out that Hemingway ridicules Hubert's act of learning "elementary" sexual behavior from stories. (Here, again, we could debate whether the "kiss" is really an "elementary" sexual act.) However, while Scholes admits that Hubert's kissing is a "special method," his interpretation does not account for Cornelia's particular delight when Hubert performs this erotic experiment on her. Hubert explains that he learned "that way of kissing" from a story told by one of his fellows. But the text does not fully elaborate what manner of kissing was learned and performed with his future wife and "developed" with her "as far as possible" (CSS 124). In her enjoyment, Cornelia says, "Kiss me again like that" (124). Like what, exactly?
Here I should mention Warren Bennett's interpretation of "The Sea Change" In his essay '"That's not Very Polite': Sexual Identity in Hemingway's 'The Sea Change;" Bennett claims that Phil's detection of lesbian desires in his girlfriend during the course of their heterosexual relationship could well have come from oral sex. Listing the various sexual activities a reader might presume, he writes that "the one logical sexual activity in which Phil and the girl could have engaged that would enable Phil in any way to 'understand' the girl's lesbian urges would be cunnilingus" (232). Although there is no particular reason to regard cunnilingus as the prototype of lesbian sex, it might be possible, as Bennett insists in his reading of "The Sea Change" and other Hemingway texts, including the manuscript of Islands in the Stream, to say that in Hemingway's understanding, oral sex, and in the much narrower definition, cunnilingus, is the primary activity through which lesbians give sexual pleasure to each other. Read in that context, the special kissing technique that Hubert performs on Cornelia, who turns out to be a lesbian, might well be understood as cunnilingus. If so, the sexual activity presented in this story of failed attempts at "good sex" turns out to be a "bad" one from the beginning, with the pleasure obtained from oral sex, a non-procreative sexual act.
In an 8 November 1952 letter to Edmund Wilson, Hemingway mentioned that he owed his writing of "The Sea Change" to a conversation with Gertrude Stein:
She talked to me once for three hours telling me why she was a lesbian, the mechanics of it, why the act did not disgust those who performed it (she was at this time against male homosexuality but changed later out of patriotism) and why it was not degrading to either participant. Three hours is a long time with Gertrude crowding you and I was so sold on her theory that I went out that night and fucked a lesbian with magnificent results; ie we slept well afterwards. It was this knowledge, gained from G.S., that enabled me to write A Sea Change, which is a good story, with authority. (SL 795)
The letter does not mention the exact date on which this conversation took place, but the description in A Moveable Feast suggests it took place in the early stage of their friendship. In that story Hemingway relates the same episode, adding that he "got home to the rue Cardinal Lemoine and told my newly acquired knowledge to my wife" (ME 30). As Hemingway lived with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in the apartment on the rue Cardinal Lemoine until he left for Toronto in 1923, we can establish that he had this conversation with Stein before the first publication of "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" in 7he Little Review's Autumn-Winter 1924-25 issue. Although we have no evidence that Hemingway ever mentioned owing anything in his writing of "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" to the conversation with Stein, Hubert's learning about cunnilingus from "some "fellow" may be an inscription, conscious or otherwise, of the instruction Hemingway had received from Stein.
In fact, it is not only from Stein that Hemingway learned about lesbian sexual practices. According to Kenneth Lynn, Hemingway "enjoyed talking about sex and called on Hadley to describe to him every romantic adventure in which she had ever been involved" (143). In her stories, Hadley described her experience of being attracted to and receiving displays of affection from her college roommate's lesbian mother, Edna Rapallo. In 1920s Paris "sexual inversion was everywhere" and Hemingway encountered lesbians "with such frequency that it was as though he had a tropism for them" (Lynn 320): Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson, Georgette Leblanc.
In "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot," the couple, who are both virgins and yet may well have enjoyed oral sex for several weeks before their marriage, attempt genital sex for the first time on their wedding night and are "both disappointed" (CSS 124).
They spent the night of the day they were married in a Boston hotel. They were both disappointed but finally Cornelia went to sleep. Hubert could not sleep and several times went out and walked up and down the corridor of the hotel in his new Jaeger bathrobe that he had bought for his wedding trip. As he walked he saw all the pairs of shoes, small shoes and big shoes, outside the doors of the hotel rooms. This set his heart to pounding and he hurried back to his own room but Cornelia was asleep. He did not like to waken her and soon everything was quite all right and he slept peacefully. (124)
One possible interpretation of this paragraph is that they did not achieve the so-called "consummation of marriage," that they failed to have "good sex." This would account for the couple's disappointment and Hubert's nocturnal excursion. If he had become erect and ejaculated somehow in his bridal bed with Cornelia, he would not have had to spend a sleepless night prowling the corridor of the hotel in his new Jaeger bathrobe. Cornelia's disappointment tells us even more. If the motive of their connubial activity was procreative, then Hubert did not need to practice that special way of kissing he'd learned. What may have been the very new experience of heterosexual intercourse could have failed to give Cornelia the erotic pleasure that oral sex would otherwise have brought her.
Perhaps the most derisive point here is that it is not his wife but pairs of shoes that give Hubert an erection. As the story goes, it is when he sees the shoes that he finds himself sexually "pounding" and hurries back to Cornelia to restart their wedding night activities. A bridegroom's sexual excitement over shoes rather than his bride seems somewhat perverted, not what might be called a "good," sexual catalyst for a newly married couple. The possibility that Hubert is a shoe fetishist is only implied here and not fully explored in the text. Instead, readers' attention is drawn in a different direction, to how everything becomes "quite all right" when Hubert returns to the marriage bed. Referring to this point, Scholes explains:
We must masturbate Hubert, and we may well feel resentful at Ernest for requiring us to do it. Otherwise, Hubert's rapid lapse into peaceful slumber remains a mystery--and interpretation hates mysteries. (48)
Here, masturbation, a non-productive sexual act, makes everything "all right" and brings a peaceful sleep to the new husband. The supposedly dismal course of erotic events, from an unfulfilled procreative act, through fetishism, to a masturbatory resolution, inscribes fetishism and onanism within the category of "bad sex," and simultaneously erases differences within that category.
If we can infer the sexual reality of Mr. and Mrs. Elliot from what happened on their bridal night, then their unsuccessful effort to have a baby signifies their futile endeavors to get Hubert physically "pounding." As for the idea of "trying to have a baby," Scholes argues that Hemingway "has reduced this great matter to one feature: copulation" and "the act of love-making is described as hard labor" for Cornelia (42). In Hemingway's Genders, Scholes and Nancy Comley suggest that the thing Mrs. Elliot could not stand is "sex as procreative duty" (83). However, as far as the first night of their marriage is concerned, they did not have sex at all, if sex means exclusively penile penetration of a vagina. Rather, the thing that torments Mrs. Elliot could be the effort she probably has to employ in order to arouse her young husband and make him "ready" for the reproductive "good sex" of copulation. Her marital bed becomes a place of labor as, without having any actual sexual relationship, she is alienated from any kind of sexual pleasure and divested of the role of desired sexual object.
In what would seem to be a very different context, but which becomes full of significance with regard to the couple's sexual situation, the text mentions Cornelia's typing technique. Her inability to master the touch system she is learning suggests there may be problems with the technique she is using on Hubert's sexual organ. Her girlfriend has a better technique ("She was very neat and efficient and seemed to enjoy it" [CSS 125]), but it is obvious that she performs the act on someone else--Cornelia.
Hubert rents a chateau in Touraine and the Elliots go there with Cornelia's girlfriend and several of Hubert's friends. During this time the girlfriend, who calls Cornelia "Honey" is the counterpart of the friends who call Hubert "Hubie," the juxtaposition implying that both are homosexual. Although Hemingway does not indicate the gender of Hubert's friends, we assume they are gay men anticipating an amorous adventure with the young poet. Here, the story seems to suggest homosexuality as the cause of the "bad" sexual behaviors it depicts. Of course, this solution is not reasonable. Homosexuality, fetishism, and onanism are separate entities that should be discussed individually; homosexuality should not be understood as the "cause" of Hubert's other sexual behaviors. At the end of the story, however, "Touraine had not turned out the way it looked when it started" (CSS 125). Disappointed with Hubert's sexual immaturity, his friends desert him to target "a rich young and unmarried poet" (125) as their new homosexual companion. Eventually, Hubert is alienated from sexual relationships of any kind, either "good" or "bad." What he has created in the end is "a great deal of poetry" (125), a literary compilation, perhaps, of all of his sexual fantasies.
The narrator of "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot" ridicules the couple's abortive effort to have "good sex" by emphasizing that they have to do it "very hard." The text does not give concrete details of the couple's sexual behavior, yet the repeated phrase, "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot tried very hard to have a baby,' encourages readers to imagine what is going on. As Scholes perceives it, this would mean copulation, or at least the effort toward copulation. What a couple actually does to have a baby, which means the very substance of"good sex" becomes something that people do not actually have to articulate because everyone is assumed to have a certain knowledge about it. However, their failure easily perverts the meaning of "good sex." If the act of "good sex" fails to produce a good result, progeny, it turns out to be a "bad" act. This irony not only suggests that "good sex" and "bad sex" might not be so easily dichotomized as commonly supposed, but also provides a more sophisticated understanding of the dichotomous relationship between the two. Even if people do not have to articulate the details of "good" sexual behavior, it does not necessarily mean that "good sex" is self-evident, or even "natural"; rather, "good sex" can only be presented in contrast with "bad sex," a fact that must remain concealed and unquestioned.
In "Mr. and Mrs. Elliot;' those points in the text that depict the failed endeavor to have "good sex" contain a discourse on "bad sex" next to which "good sex" resides as a sign of emptiness. Although heterosexuality preserves its sense of "normalcy" by ridiculing homosexuality and other sexual perversions as "bad sex;' this story, so much concerned with sexuality, is only able to speak of "bad sex." In other words, the continuous production of discourses of sexuality around "bad sex" sustains the domain of sexuality, preserving a trace, and nothing more than a trace, of "good sex" within a charmed but empty center. In depicting a married couple who try to have "good sex" while their actual sexual behavior turns out to be "bad," Hemingway's short story illustrates the central irony of modern sexuality.
Queer studies scholarship has elucidated the asymmetric relationship between the heterosexual and the homosexual, the latter being articulated with relation to the closet. The closet is prepared only for the homosexual; a heterosexual cannot be "outed." In a heterosexist society, a heterosexual couple's sexual activities are believed to be "natural," and therefore remain generally unexamined and unexplained. When the sexual behavior of a heterosexual couple is "outed," it is only in cases like that of Mr. and Mrs. Elliot, where the couple conducts some sort of "bad sex," not necessarily with homosexual or homoerotic tendencies, behind the veil of the desirable "good sex." So, the incessant "outings" of various forms of "bad sex," which includes the sexual exertions of a heterosexual couple, constitute the very discourse of sexuality, the construction of which has been a focus of queer studies. On the other hand, there are indeed differences within the category of "bad sex," to which queer theorists should give more careful consideration.
When Hubert's "bad sex" came out of the closet, many critics would understand it either as immature heterosexuality or as latent homosexuality. In these established interpretations, we can witness the process whereby a deviation from nominally "good sex" between a heterosexual couple is perceived as a counterpart of homosexuality. This view answers any question about sexual identity in terms of a binary opposition between homo and hetero sexualities. The in/out model exists behind this linguistic/conceptual framework, organizing the sexual realm by fearfully visualizing the closet in which the homosexual is forced to hide him/herself. Queer readings and other critical discourse about Ernest Hemingway's work should dissect this model, constructed not only through heterosexism and homophobia, but also through other kinds of sexual taboos, including those against fetishism, onanism, and incest, which Hemingway thoroughly explores in his texts. Thanks to recent queer studies, we are gaining the vocabulary to address the stigma that has long been attached to homosexuality. Why, then, don't we address more fully other taboos, such as that against fetishism, for instance?
This close reading of Mr. and Mrs. Elliot's sexual activity has attempted to demonstrate that "good sex" inevitably contains "bad sex" in its practice. Desires, fantasies, and practices that very often relate to "bad sex" in some form are what makes sexuality such a rich area of human behavior. In this sense, Hemingway is right when he concludes Hubert is "quite happy" (CSS 125). Although he is in neither a homo- nor a heterosexual relationship, he may indeed be literally "quite happy" alone in the room with his erotic imagination. There is no need for us to render him the subject of ridicule. As the girl in "The Sea Change" declares, "we're made up of all sorts of things" (CSS 304).
* I thank Mark Weeks and Lucy Glasspool for their many useful comments on the structure and expression of this essay.
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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