The Process of Manhood

Essay accepted year 2005 by Stockholm University English Department.

The more we delve into men and masculinities, the more is revealed of the complex dynamics of difference, subjectivity, power and identity weaving their way across the social web. These processes are never fixed and never settled. They are under constant revision, negotiation and movement (Whitehead 5)

The word macho[1] and its connotations has been part of the Hemingway legacy. The word has come to form part of the vocabulary that defines his vision of manhood. Thomas Strychacz states that: “Hemingway has been seen by defenders and detractors alike as the quintessential macho writer” (Strychacz 246) something that Rena Sanderson has noted as well though in slightly different words: “The accusation of male chauvinism hangs over the man and his work. From the very beginning of Hemingway’s career, critics made an issue of the “masculinity” in his writings.” (Sanderson 170). The macho concept then is quite central to many critics’ observations of Hemingway’s literary works. Moreover, Sanderson also paraphrases critic, Porter Abbot, by stating that “It is a standard rule of reading imaginative literature that one should distinguish between an author’s actual life and the lives that appear in his or her fiction, but for many readers – especially women – Hemingway’s fame as a man makes this rule hard to observe.” (Sanderson 170) This is a criticism that Thomas Strychacz is quick to reminds us about as well, “Hemingway’s biographers and critics have never doubted that his obsessions with male authority shaped his writing career and life” (Strychacz 246). Sanderson also notes that Hemingway’s critics readily pointed to “his ‘growing antagonism’ to women” (Sanderson 170). These are aspects that rely on Hemingway’s preference for placing his characters in acts that display male bravado, or what has been interpreted as aggressive comportment and rough emotional display. Feminist writer Judith Fetterley, says Thomas Strychacz, “argue[s] that Hemingway, locked into infantile and destructive male fantasies of the tough, autonomous male” (Strychacz 247) Besides, the criticism that has been spent on Hemingway also tends to explore issues that deal with lack of courage or that attempts to understand potential sexual repression. Debra Moddelmog delves into this type of criticism in The Sun also Rises and has observed that “Jake’s relationship’s with Bill Gorton and Pedro Romero constitute two of the most important sources of sublimated homosexual desire” (Moddelmog 159). Jake Barnes has been a much-investigated subject of this type of criticism for many years now. Ira Elliott makes a point of it by stating his project thus, “My project is to consider the ways in which Jake Barne’s male identity is called into question by the genital wound he suffered during the First World War, and the ways in which his fractured sense of self functions in relation to homosexuality and the homosexual men he observes at a bal musette in company of Brett Ashley.” (Elliott 78).

The latter suggests that there is some kind of biological dysfunction in progress indicating an end to masculinity and as stated by Ira Elliott, “It remains unclear, however, whether Jake’s masculinity is in question because of the lost body part (morphology) or because of his inability to express what is regarded as masculine –that is heterosexual performativity.” (Elliott 87). It is as though because of Jake Barnes’s impotency or just because Santiago, in The old Man and The Sea, is old, they are seemingly no longer functional; as though the characters are not “men” any longer. This presents an intriguing portrayal because Hemingway’s characters partake in what are perceived to be male dominated activities despite their suggested disabilities. One is an old man whose best years seem to be long past and questioned by his community, “the passive majority” as Sylvester Bickford calls them, (267) and the other is a man whose impotence apparently renders him unfit to partake in the events where he is the center of all action. However not everything is what it seems, Hemingway’s aforementioned characters are fully developed as individuals and are sure of their manhood. They are capable of change and ready to negociate their sense of manhood. In this essay, I will try to demonstrate the latter through a close-reading method of the books The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

There is evidence that these characters have developed emotional traits that are hardly discussed or are just thought of in passing mention, for example Rena Sanderson says that”[Jake’s] impotence is paradoxically a badge of manly courage” (Sanderson 178). The mental processes these characters undergo, especially when it comes to their manhood and the environments where they revolve, which is to say, the privacy of their own thoughts, seem to be altogether absent. I will then proceed to discuss how these men’s manhood, by way of the processes they undertake, process their manhood. Manhood will here mean those values that appear in the novels The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and Sea. These values can be represented by the fishing trip Santiago takes. These values are a litany of reminders of how a man ought to be or not to be. “It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so, and respected it.” (31); “pain does not matter to a man” (72); ‘A Man is never lost at sea’ (77)“But man is not made for defeat” (89) and lastly what a man has to do “I will show [the Marlin] what a man can do and what a man endures” (55). “In The Sun Also Rises” there is afición (138), a distincly male trait that men seem to recognize only between them, such as in Jake’s case. Manhood in afición is recognized only in the private. Manhood is also learning to endure.

The characters in question are Jake Barnes, male, impotent and under recurrent attack over his sexual performance and Santiago, an old fisherman who has gone without catching a fish for 84 days and which has become a ridicule of his seaport community. Allows us to remember that it is precisely due to these exterior forces, society, that these men accomplished what they set out to do. Indeed, the characters that I have looked at have a full understanding of their weaknesses and demonstrate that manhood is not necesseraly all about physical strength but of life itself, they dare love.

Both of Hemingway’s novels bespeak a complex relationship with society. Hence society presents them with exigent demands of what constitute a man. It is their physical prowess that fails them yet for the same token it is their failure which makes them men in the end. The Old man and the Sea is a good place to begin in combating our persistent tendency to reduce and distort Hemingway’s complex portrayal of the human condition” say Bickford Sylvester (263).

These characters have male codes of conduct. In other words, these men live their manhood as they know by the only way they can. What are not discussed either are how the processes to achieve manhood work. Some have hinted at it, for example Thomas Strychacz states that Jake Barnes gains “psychic renewal” (Strychacz 255) out of the corrida.

Each process is unique for these men. Just as killing the bull in the arena is not the end of the corrida, but the corrida itself that matters. Why else go out and try to fish? Why insist in an impossible love affair such as the one Jake Barnes has with Lady Brett Ashley?

This essay will not discuss very much further than it already has what the findings of gender critics have encountered. The reason being is that this kind of criticism tends to, in the words of Stephen Whitehead delve into “gender stereotypes [which] are rooted in dualisms such as passive/assertive, strong/weak, irrational/rational, gentle /forceful [and] emotional/distant” (Whitehead 10). Hence, the essay will be more about the process that men go through in their manhood. A process here is taken to mean a series of actions that produce a change or development (Collins 2003). This essay also takes distance as well with the accusations that have accosted Hemingway as mentioned before in Strychacz (246) and Sanderson (170). Recent work can attest that Hemingway is a much more influential writer when it comes to gender issues than once thought of, “Hemigway is, as Jerry Varsava suggests, proving to be a ‘more influential writer than we ever thought he was…more influential than he ever intented to be” (Elliot 84).

Jake Barnes

Jake Barnes is impotent from a scar he received in Italy during the I World War (122). Impotency carries a host of psychological traumas that determine everyday activities. Impotency does not necessarily mean that one lacks feelings or that biological processes cease to work. Indeed, much of the trauma involved in impotency is due to this question of being unable to perform. It is not a question of whether one ceases to want to perform; impotency is about still having the desires to perform in a dysfunctional body as Ira Elliott has noted, “Jake considers himself to be heterosexual … Jake’s sex can no longer penetrate a woman (and so all sexual relations are apparently ruled out), but he remains heterosexual by virtue of his desire.” (86); Rena Sanderson has also observed this desire in Jake Barnes as well, “ Jake has received a war wound that has left him impotent but still subject to sexual desires” (178). Jake Barnes impotency could also explain his alcoholism. However, I take distance from Matts Djos argument that Jake Barnes is a “terminal man; tangled up in a vicious cycle of emotional self-mutilation” (142). It could very well be that he simply wants to numb his sexual desires. Despite his drinking, there is more that tells of wanting to live life than destroy it. “Enjoying living was learning to to get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. … All I wanted to know was how to live in it” (156). In fact, his outdoor leisure trips are a case in point and further more, his relationship with Lady Brett Ashley has much to say as well. His process of manhood takes on a new radical turn; he chooses to live out another cultures’ form of manhood to compensate for his physical loss.

While we know that Jake Barnes is an expatriate (122) little do we know why he has chosen to live in countries such as Spain and France. These countries are often associated with love or romanticism in anglo states, Jake Barnes is an American. However, we do know Jake Barnes has been in Spain before (16) and even knows the local language (16). This indicates he has taken the time to understand his summer pilgrimage and the value he places on it because, in essence, he is refusing an all expenses paid trip to South America that Robert Cohn has offered him (15). He instead spends his time in Spain where not only did he get into a love quarrel involving Lady Brett Ashley (199) but also expresses being jealous at Robert Cohn for having a love affair with Brett Ashley (105). He is recognized as ‘a real aficionado’ in Pamplona (138). He goes to Spain every year to a hotel where real aficionados stay. ‘These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full.’ narrates Jake Barnes (138). Jake Barnes derives his manhood out of the privacy of his thoughts, as Jake narrates, we are let to know what he thinks about the men who were aficionados, “[T]hey saw that I had afición, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of spiritual examination” (139). ‘Buen hombre’ say the aficionados to him (139).

The nurture that he receives in spain is rewarding, to witness this old and ancient ritual of life and death where manhood is tested before others gives a sense of belonging. This is a place where he is accepted as he is, for why else go to Spain every summer if not to regain a sense of manhood? Other men see it in him, ‘Buen hombre’ they say, which is good man in spanish (138). Now compare that scene with the one where his own friends are throwing cracks at him for his impotency, “He had been going on splendidly, but he stopped. I was afraid he thought he had hurt me witht that crack about being impotent”. Then there is what Keneth Kinnamon calls “the brotherhood of afición” (Kinnamon 127). “The almost mythical, certainly spiritual, fellowship of afición for the bullfight was the bond which cemented Jake’s relationship with Spain” (Kinnamon 128). Why seek this fellowship? “Psychic renewal” says Thomas Strychacz (Strychacz 255). Looked from the view that Jake is impotent and how this issue affects him this retreat reinvigorates him, makes him feel better. Jake Barnes undergoes a process, he is still “a man dramatizing his manhood before other men” (Strychacz 255) and that is enough since an effort to undergo a process to attain a sense of manhood is indicative of development. It happens. It is there despite all the travails that Jake suffers. He is a man, his manhood is reciprocated in Spain.

It has been also suggested that Jake Barnes “performs” his masculinity (Elliott 87) and that his process to manhood is a painful process because, according to Thomas Strychacz, “…if Jake’s pilmigrage to sacred places wins spiritual peace, his psychological travail in the arenas where men demonstrate their potency is painful indeed.” (Strychacz 255) and still more, that his sort of manhood is an unaccomplished one since, according to Strychacz, “manhood requires successful performance” (Strychacz 260). It is to be remembered that up until now it is not an issue of whether Jake Barnes has manhood or not, it is rather more of what kind of manhood he has, which more often than not, it is a sort of manhood that it is quite undesired, an anathema, “never mention that,” Bill said, “That’s the sort of thing that can’t be spoken of.” (122). There is no sexual culmination point for Jake, much criticism has pointed out this, for example Ira Elliott has mentioned that “Although his desire is “normal,” his body prvents him from actualizing his ‘manhood’”.(82) Yet what basically remains unaccounted for is Jake’s choice of values such as love and afición. He ponders his roll as a man in love with Brett Ashley and the issues that arise with a relationship between a man and a woman, as he says to himself, lying in bed, “In the first place, you had to be in love with the woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it.” (156). He wonders at that Spanish fraternity called afición. He says that ‘aficion means passion.’, so it is in the private realm, in the mind, that he achieves manhood because he is accepted by that fraternity, “When they saw I had aficion, and there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent, there was this same embarrased putting the hand on the shoulder, or a ‘Buen hombre’.” (139)

I said before that Jake Barnes process of manhood takes on a new radical turn because in essence his manhood is so opposite the macho stereotype that he has been made out to be so far. How does one otherwise interpret Strychacz’s comment that Jake Barnes manhood is not successful? (Strychacz 255-58). Yet just because it is stated that he has not succeeded does not mean that he has no manhood at all. He does and he passes the performance test in Spain. His type of manhood is far more advanced than thought of before and even more so in areas untraditionally associated with manhood: his emotional constitution.

Jake Barnes is perhaps placed in the most ardent male contest of all: he competes for a woman, Brett Ashley. This is seen through Jake Barnes jealousy (29). He is constantly at odds over Robert Cohn’s rivalry; in other words, even though Jake Barnes is impotent he still competes to protect his one true love, Brett Ashley. Jake loves Brett (62). Just as Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea trusts, Jake trusts as well in the sense that he “lets go” and has “no desire for control” (Whitehead 171). Let us remember that when Jake and Brett Ashley are together in a bedroom scene as the Count goes out for champagne, Jake readily admits that “[He] stands it now” when Brett Ashley told him that it would be impossible for him to put up with her as she would “tromper [him] with everybody” (62). Furthermore, Whitehead (171) reminds us that “One must accept one’s inadequacies, limitations and needs, while being prepared to submit these needs to the hands of another”

This is a process that requires a great amount of recognition from one’s part; his manhood is being placed in the hands of Lady Brett Ashley. It is a courageous act for a man who is well aware that he cannot perform physically towards Brett Ashley. Although Jake Barnes does not successfully achieve manhood in the Strychacz sense it strikes one as curios that it is Jake Barnes the one we see last with Brett Ashley (260). It is understood that “the pure relationship comes to exemplify women’s and men’s desire for emotional fulfillment and, thus, new forms of intimacy between equals.” (Whitehead 172) Jake and Brett Ashley have an emotional relationship unrivalled by no one else. Brett Ashley confides in Jake (191; 216; 254) who is more than willing to listen to her and even trusts him enough to ask him for help (251). These two care for each other intensely and as Rena Sanderson has noted “Brett and Jake understand each other, communicate well in few words, and feel mutual sexual attraction. They might make for a good couple, were it not for Jake’s impotence” (Sanderson 178). Manhood in this respect abides by other codes of manhood; Jake is willing to take care of Brett Ashley in every possible way, in this respect this code is not synonymous with female control but one that holds in high esteem the caring of a woman, Jake goes out of his way to see her and help her out of her troubles (152). This brings no loss of true manhood or for that matter, as in the case of Santiago, true pride.


Despite the untowardness that accosts Santiago, it is interesting to see the only instance in the novella where he is seen relaxed and unburdened by his problems. We find him seated at the local tavern where ‘it was pleasant and sunny on the Terrace’. ‘Santiago,’ the boy said. ‘Yes,’ the old man said. [Santiago] was holding his glass and thinking of many years ago (7). He is oblivious to his surroundings until addressed by Manolin. Allow us to remember that once seated he was being ‘made fun of’ and that ‘the older fishermen looked at him and were sad’ (6). This matters because it shows that Santiago is not as bothered about his current situation as appearances are wont to deceive us. In fact, the pathos of the novella are moving to the point that one ends up feeling sorry for Santiago when Santiago only laments that the boy is not with him in his fishing trip, “I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this. No one should be alone in their old age …” (39). This is an important point for our discussion since it shows and reaffirms a confident man (20) reinforced as well by the narrator of the novella (8). He is sure of his manhood. He seems to know enough about it to bestow it upon Manolin, ‘You bought me a beer’, the old man said. ‘You are already a man’ (7). The fishing trip in itself is a litany of reminders of how a man ought to be or not to be. “It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so, and respected it.” (31); “pain does not matter to a man” (72); ‘A Man is never lost at sea’ (77)“But man is not made for defeat” (89) and lastly what a man has to do “I will show [the Marlin] what a man can do and what a man endures” (55).

We are reminded as well that Santiago was once called El Campeón (59). He proved he was a strong-arm wrestler; something the old man is proud of and makes him feel confident about himself (58). Surely enough he comes back at the end of the fishing trip, exhausted after having battled sharks at sea. He returns knowing ‘what a man can do’ (55). He holds the community, despite his loss, in awe ‘What a fish it was’ (106). His dexterity becomes the talk of the town, ‘’Many fishermen were around the skiff looking at what was lashed beside it’ ‘He was eighteen feet from nose to tail’ (106), a formidable size indeed.

He moves the whole town. This is due, in no small part, to what Bickford Sylvester refers to as “his stringent code”, and his “inflexible honor” (Sylvester 261). Remember that it is society that has posed the challenge; people had made fun of him (6). The physical prowess challenge serves a purpose out in the sea, not just in the tavern where he arm-wrestled “the great Negro from Cienfuegos” (58). He has ‘tricks’ (10) and convinces himself several times to eat in order to be strong (73). He is confident that he can haul in the big fish (76). Once the fish is hauled in sharks attack him. He manages to kill several sharks with his strength. The process for Santiago then is one where his physical prowess has been questioned and he proves that he still is a strong man despite his old age. ‘I told the boy I was a strange old man,’ he said. (9) ‘Now is when I must prove it.’(55). Yet, there is only one person that he proves that his manhood remains, himself.

This is a process that Santiago undergoes; he demonstrates by proving his manhood all over again “… I will show [the marlin] what a man can do and what a man endures. I told the boy I was a strange old man, he said. Now is when I must prove it. The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.”. Santiago’s constant tries out at sea are part of that process, his failures proof that he has been trying. His triumph evidence that his sort of manhood is an effective method for survival and worthy of emulation, perpetuation, and Manolin will carry on that tradition as Sylvester says, “to honor the values central to him, whatever the cost.” (Sylvester 262). Manolin shows this by accepting to go with him once again as he needs to learn lots from him yet (108). Santiago is a welcomed hero in his community upon his return. This process involves recognizing that manhood is not entirely about a defined set of stringent values but one that requires a process, this is most obvious when we read in the novella that Santiago “had attained [humility] and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.” (9) To attain carries the connotation of space and time and it is therefore safe to conclude that there has been a process in the attainment of his manhood.

Santiago has at some point realized that manhood was not all about physical victories. While Santiago may not be as strong as he once was he has ‘tricks’ (10), and these ‘tricks’ make-up for his potential physical loss, that is why they are stressed and once again it is shown that manhood is not entirely about physical prowess, but something that comes along with life, experience.

That is why Santiago goes out to sea everyday: to prove that he can, and that is why it is so rewarding to return with a catch. He is an accomplished man. He proves his know-how once again (55), his competition-able self by going “out too far” (104). He has proven that the code by which he abides continues to be meaningful as it perpetuates values (Sylvester 262), his exploits are retold (109), to show others how one can be a man to the last (89), for is not that implicit in his affairs? Fight like a man to the last? (55) Bickford Sylvester sums it up quite succintly when he says:

Thus Manolin’s tears are not a child’s tears of grief and loss, but of those emotions compounded by adult remorse, as he sees the result of the suffering he has contributed to by accepting social and parental pressures and letting Santiago go out alone. They are also tears of wonder at the final price Santiago has paid for his choice to go out “too far”. For it is the price Manolin will someday pay for the choice he now makes – the choice every “boy” makes when he becomes fully a man. (Sylvester 262)

This is a process they live out, is it bad? Is it macho? One can even go so far as to say that there is a certain criticism of society for the changes that are changing, at the rate they are, without taking into consideration the old ways, the old manly rituals (Sylvester 259).

However, there is another process that involves an emotional level of manhood that is valued by Santiago. He can confide to Manolin his current burdens and they readily count a few others as friends, as he says to himself, “ I cannot be too far out now, he thought. I hope no one has been too worried. There is only the boy to worry, of course. But I am sure he would have confidence. Many of the older fishermen will worry. Many others too, he thought. I live in a good town.” There is trust. “Trust is highly problematic for men and masculinity, for before one can trust, one must let go of fear and of a desire to control” (Whitehead 171) Santiago lets go, he does not blame Manolin for having abandoned him (6). Santiago has a relationship with Manolin that borders on the fatherly and promotes and shares what Santiago deems manly things such as Manolin buying him a beer (7), so despite his male code of conduct his emotional development is also a process of his appreciation of what manhood is. He bonds with Manolin through affection. ‘I missed you’ (107) he says to Manolin. Santiago tells him the suffering he underwent out in the sea and confides to Manolin his weaknesses, for how else is one to interpret Manolin’s tears as he ‘went out the door and down the worn coral rock road he was crying again’ (109)? The bonding acquires greater sentimental value when Manolin cries in front of everyone at the sight and condition of the old man after his fishing trip (106) as well, he is deeply moved by the old man’s effort and accomplishments, “We need not overspecify his thoughts to know that his tears reflect all these considerations during the brief passage into complete manhood we observe in the concluding dialogue with his dying mentor” says (Sylvester 262) These tears are definitely not macho as described before and even Bickford sees that, these are tears that bring about “complete manhood”.

Manhood here is then a series of values and codes. The need to learn ‘tricks’ (10), ‘tricks’ that Manolin needs as well so he can get know la mar (23) as well. That is why he will defy his parents when Santiago asks him ‘what about your family? ‘I do not care’ (108) answers Manolin. Santiago’s manhood is an experienced manhood beyond physical prowess. That is why despite his failings out in the sea he returns welcomed by the others because he underwent the process to prove his manhood (55), albeit in the private realm, alone out in the sea.


I hint at an intrinsic aspect of manhood operating at a level of the inner self. Santiago and Jake Barnes are emotionally mature men; they bond with their friends and lovers which are uncharacteristic traits for a macho man. They take greater emotional risks and, as in the case of Santiago, readily realize that changes have occurred to them as man. Manhood is a modus vivendi and not a sexual drive as been demonstrated in the novels. Thus the process of manhood in the Hemingway world is far more complicated than the traditionally macho traits with which Hemingway has come to be associated. Indeed, the characters that I have looked at have full understanding of their weaknesses and that manhood is not all about physical strength nor physical performance but of life itself instead. They dare love.

The power struggles that arise in the Hemingway novels bespeak a complex relationship with society as both Santiago and Jake are affected by society and its exigent demands of what constitutes a man. In the eyes of their society. It is their physical prowess that fails them though they meet those demands in other ways as suggested here. They achieve manhood in the privacy of their thoughts. Santiago out in the Sea and Jake out in Spain with the unspeakable world of passion that exist in the corrida.

The last word on the issues of what constitutes a man has not been said yet. Manhood so often carries the implication that it is all about sexual performance. “The world’s failure to understand what [Santiago] has done is a matter of indifference. He still has his dreams, his private landscape.” (Sanderson 192) The same can also be said of Jake Barnes.

[1] For the purposes of clarification macho and machismo are to be understood as denoting or exhibiting pride in characteristics believed to be masculine, such as physical strength, sexual appetite (Collins) and a strong or exaggerated sense of masculinity stressing attributes such as physical courage, virility, domination of women, and aggressiveness (Bartleby).


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