Brief Thoughts On: Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Birthmark / Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises

Hemingway’s portrayal of the masculine and feminine through his use of characterization in The Sun Also Rises reflects a set of personal experiences from his life just prior to its publication in 1926. Its main characters were based on real people he encountered during this time, “Brett Ashley, Mike Campbell, and Robert Cohn…were to be based on what he knew of the recent histories of Duff Twysden, Pat Guthrie, and Harold Loeb” (Baker 153). There are even scenes directly taken from his interactions with them such as this inspiration for Brett’s reaction to the bullfights, “Duff did not like the wounding of the horses, she was so much ‘excited by bullfighters and general strong emotion that she became a partisan of the spectacle,’ only to drink herself out of all remembrance of it shortly afterwards” (Baker 150). This directly mirrors Brett’s persistent interest in the bull fights and her interaction with Jake, “’Don’t look,’ I said to Brett. She was watching, fascinated. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘If it doesn’t buck you.’” (Hemingway 144). Here Jake must compromise his want to protect Brett’s innocence, one of the later signs of her masculinity or new brand of womanhood. This genuine reflection of Americans of the time adds an intimacy to his writing, but also an accuracy that makes his characters feel honest, natural, and appropriately nuanced as complex people who have both masculine and feminine gender qualities. 

We see this much earlier in The Sun Also Rises, with Robert Cohn’s interesting and unique brand of masculinity as early as the first page when Cohn resists his nature, “He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton” (Hemingway 11). Cohn not only uses boxing as a defense mechanism for his inferiority, but even dislikes the sport altogether, and as we would see later prefers to avoid his problems, not exactly exemplifying traditional masculinity. His life trajectory also reflects this passivity, “He had been taken in hand by a lady who hoped to rise with the magazine. She was very forceful” (Hemingway 13). Frances practically chooses him as a partner and makes their plans for them. This agency, and the way Frances talks to Cohn, begin to reveal a new kind of American woman within Hemingway’s story. One who takes action and chooses her own direction rather than submitting to the “masculine man”. Hemingway then introduces another strong female character who even further exemplifies this new type of woman in Brett, “Brett was damned good-looking...and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey” (Hemingway 30). This very clearly describes Brett as a woman, even a very sexually attractive woman with a highly feminine figure, but one who chooses to display a certain masculinity. Her hair “brushed back like a boy’s” is an intentional decision, a forward-thinking one, that separates her from the traditional woman of the 20th or 19th century and displays masculine features to bolster her status as an independent and fiery woman with agency and her own unique direction in life, something that was uncommon according to Jake and with what we know about 1920s American society. Not much later she even refers to herself as a chap, “I say, can a chap sit down?” (Hemingway 40). There is no mistaking her place among the men of the story despite her feminine features; she is fully independent in her thinking and in her actions.

This is juxtaposed, yet fully complementing in style, Romero’s features. Romero is clearly a very brave man, one who even faces and strikes against Cohn’s dominating bull-like physical presence even after repeated beatings along with his literal bulls while bullfighting, yet Jake notices, “his skin. It was clear and smooth and very brown.” and later “His hand was very fine and the wrist was small” (Hemingway 188-189). These are typically feminine traits, yet one of the characters who acts the “manliest” is described as thin and small, even if he is youthful as well. These seemingly conflicting descriptions of Brett and Romero actually add to their duality and represent a complexity of gender traits, redefining what it means to be a woman or a man. This is made even more interesting by Brett and Romero’s attraction to one another. Brett sees Romero’s bravery and youth as Romero sees Brett’s matching passion and individuality in her masculine forwardness, yet feminine figure. In Hawthorne’s The Birthmark, the masculine and feminine are equally deeply explored with characters displaying qualities of both, but more explicitly displaying their positive and negative connotations. Aylmer, “a man of science”, has married a conventionally attractive wife who is described as “perfect” save for her birthmark. This birthmark is to Aylmer, “the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions” (Hawthorne 2). As a man of science, he is constantly battling with Nature and sees its control over humanity as troubling, fueling his obsession with perfecting his surroundings, particularly his wife’s appearance. This want to change her, however, is rooted in this desire for perfection and a disgust for her imperfection rather than any desire to help or protect her as we hear him outright admit, “you have led me deeper than ever into the heart of science” (Hawthorne 3). Additionally, when he recoils at seeing her birthmark resulting in her fainting in response, “he could not restrain a strong convulsive shudder. His wife fainted” (Hawthorne 4). This is all interesting, as Aylmer himself has many flaws and shortcomings even in his physical appearance.

This sets up an interesting attribution and evaluation of the feminine and masculine, as Georgiana’s feminine traits are viewed by Aylmer as a weakness despite their later being revealed as loving and sympathetic, Aylmer’s obsession with this leading to her death, and his assistant Aminadab’s masculine traits as purely positive to Aylmer as they bolster his effectiveness. All of this despite Aylmer’s ironically pale and slender frame. He is even described as “pale as death” (Hawthorne 7). He then comically despairs at Georgiana’s paleness, “But she is so pale!” (Hawthorne 9). His obsession even directly worsens his own paleness, “Aylmer was pale; but it seemed rather the consequence of a highly-wrought state of mind and tension of spirit” (Hawthorne 8). Aylmer’s masculinity as “a man of science” is criticized by this irony, as is his derision for the feminine Nature, something clearly containing beauty yet all he can see are its minor imperfections. His actions reflect a man who loves science more than his own wife and one who is so entirely obsessed by making his wife into his own image of feminine perfection that he kills her, ignoring all signs of obvious fatal danger. 

Still, Aminadab’s masculinity is strikingly different than that of Aylmer, “With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that incrusted him, he seemed to represent man’s physical nature; while Aylmer’s slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element” (Hawthorne 4). Aminadab is clearly not physically perfect, why is this not bothersome for Aylmer who spends so much time working with this man? Perhaps because feminineness is so deeply rooted in the physical image. Aylmer’s spirituality as opposed to these archetypal, raw masculine traits supports his obsession with science, yet does not seem to help him succeed in any real manner. “His most splendid successes were almost invariably failures if compared with the ideal at which he aimed” (Hawthorne 7). These failures, however, only deepen Georgiana’s love for Aylmer, “So deeply did these reflections affect Georgiana that she...burst into tears” (Hawthorne 7). This again directly conflicts with Aylmer’s reaction to Georgiana’s birthmark, when he recoils in horror at her one minor physical imperfection. An imperfection that is intertwined with her identity and her heart. Aylmer even admits of Georgiana, “There is no taint of imperfection on thy spirit” (Hawthorne 9). He acknowledges her flaw is only aesthetic. So, Aylmer’s masculine interest in science yields him no real reward, but sympathy for his wife’s imperfection could have saved her life. Even a balancing of Aminadab’s over-the-top masculinity and his wife’s feminine sympathy were too much of a compromise for him to bear. The timely ideal of feminine physical perfection is such a flawed one that it very harshly leads to Georgiana’s death.

Works Cited

Baker, Carlos. “The Sun Also Rises.” Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Penguin Books, Middlesex, NJ, 1968, pp. 147–155.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The BirthmarkLiterature Network, 2016,

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2021.