The Paris Wife Question as Sentimental Yuck

The book in question.

The book in question.

My last blog was a review of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. After posting I glanced through book club questions in the back, and the last one intrigued me:

Ernest Hemingway spent the last months of his life tenderly reliving his first marriage in the pages of his memoir, A Moveable Feast. In fact, it was the last thing he wrote before his death. Do you think he realized what he’d truly lost with Hadley?

To answer yes is to make a legion of first wives’ hearts flutter with pleasure. I believe he did wish he hadn’t caused the suffering and loss of his marriage to Hadley. In the last paragraphs of A Moveable Feast is the sentence, “I wished I had died before I had ever loved anyone but her.” For me, it’s also a question written by the blindly romantic for the the age battered justifier.

For a sacred moment in respect to the institution of marriage, I’ll

Doesn't this photo of Hadley Richardson just scream Innocent First Wife?

Doesn’t this photo of Hadley Richardson just scream Innocent First Wife?

acknowledge Hemingway’s sincerity that Hadley was his best and truest wife. He did love her and even in the worst moments of their crumbling marriage, I believe he truly felt deeply for her.

I’ve now paid my respects and the glow is faded, in fact out. I think Hemingway’s sentence is sincere, but it is also poetic delusion.

Perspective later in life

Hemingway wrote that tender sentence after decades of living a life of astounding first-hand experiences, world-renowned literary success, countless affairs and three additional marriages. He began as a young man with emotion and promise, he finished as a man with a life passionately lived. From that far perspective he had a deep well of experience that helped judgment.

Ernest left Innocent First Wife for (notice shifty eyes) Pauline Pfeiffer.

Ernest left Innocent First Wife for (notice shifty eyes) Pauline Pfeiffer.

He also had the history of his later marriage choices, knew what each woman gave and took, as well as his part. If he had stayed with Hadley his life would have had the tethers of marriage.

Marriage is a compromise

Long-standing marriages always involve compromise. It doesn’t always mean compromise is from two sides; it means at least one of the partners gives when another takes. Compromise means slogging through jealousies, disappointments, and angers when you don’t get your way.

This is especially risky and difficult in a marriage that also claims to desire freedom to grow for its members. Compromise not given from a

Wife #3 was a real woman for sure. I always suspected  Martha Gellhorn was his intellectual equal.

Wife #3 was a real woman for sure. I always suspected Martha Gellhorn was his intellectual equal.

full heart that can forgive and reasonably not think about what was compromised will grow and fester to ugly proportions in at least one partner. Could Hadley and Ernest ever have achieved this? I would guess most divorced couples believe they have already compromised more than should have been necessary.

What had he “lost” by losing Hadley?

Really. A youthful innocence? A listening support to his art? A spirit who loved him when he was a nobody? A woman who didn’t compete for her own fame? A rudder keeping him on a steadier course instead of encouraging or allowing his excesses? Anything sweet I’ve forgotten here?

In rereading the list I notice they are all about Hemingway and what every person encounters when they step into the arena of being an adult. Perhaps he had lost his gatekeeper, the warmth of a nest, a sweetness not to be found again. I feel a little twinge of empathy for Hemingway here because all of these are good reasons to miss a person, but they don’t reflect any future the two would have had together. They are a reflection of Barbra Streisand’s nostalgic song, “The Way We Were.” It is time-stuck romanticism.

The Paris Wife read like a The Bridges of Madison County on a French stage. They are both for a “good woman” reader who wants to look back at a relationship and believe she and she alone, was the best thing he ever had.

What about Hadley?

Hemingway’s sweet reminisce idealizes a time he lived over thirty years earlier to a woman who would have changed. How long would she have stayed as she was and how likely is it she would have continued to

Hemingway's last wife Mary is often discounted, but she was married to him the longest time.

Hemingway’s last wife Mary is often discounted, but she was married to him the longest time.

mature in the way he needed? At age sixty he was comparing a memory of a woman he knew with the woman she became through the more nurturing marriage she had lived the past twenty-five years with Paul Mowrer, and without him, Ernest.

Hemingway knew himself

Get down, dirty, and real. Lives of passionate people who chase experience, learning, and new love experiences are littered with detritus. I’ll give Hemingway credit for knowing himself well enough to write he should have “died before loving anyone but her.” He was an insightful man. He saw through facades to deeper layers within himself and believed he would have had to die to live a life with Hadley as his only love. It was not his nature, nor within his ability, to have stayed with her or to have made her happy.

Why am I so wordy here?

First layer: McClain’s sappy book club question was aimed for cheap sentimentality.

Mr. Hemingway, from the looks of your four wives, I'd say you covered your bases well.

Mr. Hemingway, from the looks of your four wives, I’d say you covered your bases well.

Second layer: I’ve been married over forty years and I know people have delusions about long-term marriage when they have not had one. (I have delusions, just not this one.)

Third layer: I have my own sentimental wishes of regret in life and by smashing Hemingway’s I can smash my own and free myself to the realization that, to me, is a truer belief.

There is music and purpose in God’s universe beyond what we realize. I believe in an ultimate goodness that is taking all of us through time in our slow, shadowed, groping steps and we should not regret our lives, though we should appreciate, love, and remember.

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6 Responses to The Paris Wife Question as Sentimental Yuck

  1. Hemingway hated his mother and called her ‘the bitch.’
    Until he had dealt with this hatred for women, there was no way he could have had a fulfilling relationship with another woman. I feel he only knew himself at a very superficial level. The depths of his true nature, both good and bad was unknown to him. – facing one’s shadow takes the sort of spiritual fortitude that Hemingway didn’t have.
    As you can tell I’m not a fan !!!!

  2. Well, you are an insightful non-fan. I don’t understand his avid following either, but he did introduce a new style and I think men and women secretly like his bad boy appeal. Our history with our parents makes a huge impact, doesn’t it?

  3. These posts about Hemingway have been interesting. Yes, he was a bad boy but he KNEW he had charisma, didn’t he, and used it to his advantage?. I agree, he was a bit damaged but still, his name hasn’t died with him. As humans, we are all quirky in one way or another. We can’t all be good at all things, including relationships. (I pretend to be all understanding here.)

    • Dear Pretending, he did use charisma to his advantage. I think he may have been the one to anchor the ugly turtle neck sweater into the American psyche. Yes, we are all quirky in one way or another, which is a very kind word considering the topic. Sincerely, Another Pretender (and doesn’t it feel good sometimes to pretend we know these things?)

  4. Kate is says:

    I agree with you. He’s looking back on his own fictional version of what might have been, perhaps out of pity for himself more than what was lost. This has been in my to read pile for awhile and you’ve bumped it up.

    • Thanks, and I’d like to hear what you think about when you’re finished reading. I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s been so popular. Well, no I’m not. I’m just always surprised how many women like reading something written to take advantage of female sentimentality, though it was also an informative book.

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