The Garden of Eden

Finished reading The Garden of Eden this morning. As its title suggests, the story is sort of a parallel to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. An idyllic setting with a married couple, David and Catherine Bourne, whose honeymoon on the coasts of France and Spain becomes interrupted by temptation (although temptation may be too strong of a word, given the male protagonist’s passivity), which eventually dissolves the marriage. The temptation, it turns out, is that traditional green-eyed monster, jealousy.

David and Catherine begin their idyll peacefully enough. Then it slowly dissolves as Catherine begins an experiment in sexual persona, first by cutting her hair short like David’s and referring to herself as a boy. She takes her persona into the bedroom. Further into the novel she introduces another woman into the picture, Marita. Hemingway makes vague references to erotic experience between the women, but does have a sexual relationship develop between David and Marita.

Of all the male leads in Hemingway, David might be the strangest. Like most, he has been damaged emotionally in the past–which as a writer he attempts to deal with during the progress of the novel–he isn’t damaged physically, as is Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, and like most male leads he doesn’t seem to be able to cope with this emotional damage, except in Bourne’s case through writing. Like other Hemingway heroes, he follows the code–he has one thing in his life that he is devoted to, and he opts to be the best at it he can be, and to hell with everything else. At the point the novel opens, he is a somewhat successful novelist, about to get started on his next book. But, David seems to be the most passive of Hemingway’s males.

And that’s where the trouble begins: Catherine introduces her new sexual persona into their honeymoon idyll; David passively accepts this role, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his writing. When he begins to spend time apart from Catherine, though, she becomes increasingly needy of his attention. At about this time, she introduces Marita into the relationship.

David begins to become involved with Marita. Catherine tries to avoid jealously, but eventually it outs itself as David begins to pay more and more attention to Marita, and she makes a transference of the emotion to an attack on his writing. She eventually burns all of his manuscripts. This action dissolves the marriage and David falls in love with Marita, who is a passive though sensual woman that encourages David’s writing.

David seems to be a passive-aggressive personality. He passively accepts Catherine’s new sexual persona, only to aggressively try to demolish it by pursuing Marita, to the point where the marriage dissolves. He never questions Catherine’s change, and yet, since the narrative voice is his, he seems to perceive that change as the beginnings of a mental breakdown on Catherine’s part. All the while, he accepts Marita’s decision to join into a menage a trois.

Within the course of the novel, none of the characters truly undergo a change, or nothing that we can noticeably trust. Catherine undergoes the most noticeable change, and has to make a separate peace with her decision to bring Marita into the relationship by leaving altogether, which will eventually dissolve her and David’s marriage, thus, presumably allowing David and Marita to marry. However, we can’t trust the possibility she may be experiencing a mental breakdown, because we only see what David perceives, and he progressively begins to turn away from his wife, becoming dissatisfied and then outraged by her behavior when it destroys his work.

The characters just seem to drift together and then apart, rearranging their lives in the end, much as Lost Generation might. Which may be a fault of Hemingway’s minimalism: character analysis is almost always at a minimum, as he operates on his own "iceberg theory" of writing, sort of the "show don’t tell" dictum every fiction writer gets taught carried to its highest measure.

As a reader, I don’t necessarily like to be told everything about a character; however, in such a novel as The Garden of Eden, in which so many unusual (for Hemingway at least) characters and states of mind appear, some character analysis seems necessary. Is Catherine crazy or is she acting on something she’s desired? Is the psychological wound that David carries the whole reason he seems so passive? Why does Marita become involved with the couple? I think the book could’ve been stronger with some contemplation of these questions, and perhaps lengthened by a hundred pages or so.


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