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  • "Sex explains it all":Male Performance, Evolution, and Sexual Selection in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises
  • James A. Puckett (bio)

In recent years, literary scholars have begun to mark the ways in which Ernest Hemingway was influenced by and in turn represented Darwinian or evolutionary theory in his fiction, particularly in regards to sexuality. Notably, both Bert Bender and Paul Civello point to Hemingway's education in naturalism, Darwinism, and natural and sexual selection and the ways which this knowledge affected several of his major literary works—for example, the indifferent universe of A Farewell to Arms (1929), which indiscriminately allows both the morally good and the bad to die (Civello 79). In doing so, they each ultimately argue that by accepting and portraying a Darwinian understanding of human existence, Hemingway, who has often been noted for his "primitivism," can be viewed as a writer within the American naturalist tradition. Drawing upon contemporary research in evolutionary science and psychology, this essay elaborates on their work by exploring Hemingway's representation of male performance as it relates to sexual selection—that is, the succession of certain characteristics because they increase individuals' success in reproductive competition.

Contemporary evolutionary psychology (EP) posits that humans developed the very ability to perform as a result of natural selection, that an obvious and crucial part of this is the performance of reproductive information as part of sexual selection, and that, in general, the reproductive information found desirable (that is, selected), for modern humans as well, is in response to dilemmas faced within past environments in which our minds developed. The gender performances we enact, according to EP, are motivated by our reproductive biology and, by implication, our hunter-gatherer psychology, of which Hemingway seems to have been on some level cognizant, representing masculinity as influenced by our evolutionary history and motivated by sexual selection competitions. [End Page 125] Hemingway's marked emphasis on the observation and critique of male performances in The Sun Also Rises (1926) is consistent with EP research regarding the role of performance in communicating reproductive information, both between mates and mate rivals.

Hemingway's Men: Gender Performance and Science

Sex is pervasive as well as essential to the narrative of The Sun Also Rises, being represented, as Bender puts it, as a "struggle" (359). And as a struggle between male suitors, it is fair to say that sex "explains it all," as Jake Barnes' close friend Bill Gorton jokingly but fittingly tells Jake before they fish the Irati (121). The male characters in the novel compete and fight and insult one another because they want the same woman. And as Thomas Strychacz affirms in Hemingway's Theaters of Masculinity, Hemingway consistently represents performance as being fundamental to his male characters' identity, which is why male performance is integral for understanding sexuality in his work: Hemingway's "male characters are constituted as men through their public relationship with an audience rather than through achieving autonomy; and by performance rather than by a process of internal transformation" (8). Rather than achieving manhood through individuality or self-reliance (characteristics commonly considered essential to Hemingway's masculine code), masculinity for Hemingway's characters is under continuous negotiation and necessarily relies upon the judgment of others, holding no significance outside of a social context.

This can be observed through characters like Francis Macomber, for example, whose story begins with him "showing himself, very publicly," to be a coward, fleeing in fear from a charging lion instead of standing his ground and shooting the animal (6). The most important member of this public audience is his wife, Margot, who rejects Francis because of how he behaves when confronted by the wounded lion.1 The rest of the story consists of his successful effort to manage his fear, regain his social standing, and especially prove to his wife and to his hunting guide, Robert Wilson, that he is in fact a man and not one of the "great American boy-men" (26). Macomber's manliness is therefore validated through his audience's approval of his hunting performance.2

Male performance is underscored with equal importance in The Sun Also Rises. While narrator Jake Barnes attempts to remain...


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pp. 125-149
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