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Hemingway Falls Short of His Own Hero Characteristics

Ronna Pennington has a Master of Liberal Arts degree (history) and is nearing completion of a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction.

The passport photo of a young Ernest Hemingway, taken when he was married to Hadley and living in Paris.

The passport photo of a young Ernest Hemingway, taken when he was married to Hadley and living in Paris.

Looking at Hemingway Through "The Paris Wife"

Ernest Hemingway is famous for two main reasons: his iceberg writing theory and the development of his Hemingway hero. In many of his own writings, the reader sees glimpses of Hemingway in them. Because it is easy to find a correlation between the author and Nick Adams, a frequent hero in Hemingway’s works, it is likewise easy for the reader to view Hemingway as model of the hero code he developed. However, Hemingway did not fit his own code. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain introduces the reader to the real Hemingway through her research of his life with his first wife, Hadley Richardson.

McLain’s work is fictionalized but backed by research and an intense desire to understand Hemingway’s relationship with Richardson (Neary). While comparing McLain’s fictional Hemingway to his own semi-autobiographical but fictional Nick Adams is not exactly comparing apples to apples, it does have merit. While Nick Adams is based on many of Hemingway’s real-life experiences, McLain’s research into Richardson provides a view of Hemingway from someone who knew him. The reader gets to see an image other than the one the author portrayed either intentionally or inadvertently.

It is important to note, too, that Nick was not always the hero in the Hemingway stories in which he appeared. For instance, in “The End of Something” it is Marjorie who quite stoically accepts the end of their relationship. She demonstrates physical strength in rowing herself back to shore and emotional strength for walking away without a scene (Hemingway). But most of the time, Nick was the protagonist and hero.

Hemingway’s hero archetype is adventurous, courageous, masculine, confident, follows the ideals of honor, and may often appear uncaring because of his stoicism. This appearance of not caring generally comes from trials such as war or loss that callous one’s soul. The Paris Wife shows many of these characteristics in Hemingway, but not all of them.

Love at First Sight or Co-dependency?

According to McLain’s book, Richardson was immediately drawn to Hemingway when she spotted him at a party in Chicago. Even though it happened before he became famous, he had an air about him that exuded confidence. Richardson’s friend warned her about Hemingway. He had the reputation of being an adventurous lady’s man, someone who might not be a suitable match for a young woman from St. Louis who had been out of the social scene for some time.

Actually, the match was perfect. Richardson spent much of her youth and young adulthood caring for her ill mother. When she passed away, Richardson was ready to re-enter the social scene and get on with her life. But she was also accustomed to being needed. Little did she know, the confident man-about-town that she thought she had discovered in Hemingway would also turn out to be emotionally needy.

Early on, Richardson noted Hemingway’s desire for her approval. Shortly after meeting, after spending some time talking together, Hemingway asked her to read something he wrote and then waited anxiously for her response as she read it (McLain 14). She had to return home shortly after that, but the couple built their romance by writing to each other. When she returned to Chicago for a visit, he told her about other women he had met since her last visit. While suggesting he was popular with other women, he expressed his own insecurities. He told Richardson about his first love and told her he worried that since it did not last, he feared what was developing between them would not last either (McLain 18). After revealing his feelings to her, he urged her to stay out all night to dance even though she said she was really tired and wanted to turn in early. She did what he asked (McLain 47).

An Enabled Hemingway

This relationship followed that course throughout their courtship and marriage. He was insecure and anxious, nothing like the strong, confident Nick Adams. She was nurturing at best and an enabler at worst. Eight years older than Hemingway and fresh off caring for a parent with an extended illness, she was conditioned to care for him and meet his emotional needs. He needed that to build his confidence and motivate his writing. There are several characteristics of codependent people:

* They have a tendency to take responsibility for someone.

* Their own self-esteem is boosted from their sacrifices.

* They stay in high-maintenance type relationships.

* They try to change or fix people.

* They attract people looking for someone to take care of them or people in crisis.

* They have a pattern of enabling (Burns).

Hemingway’s relationship with Richardson meets these characteristics. In the above example alone, Richardson puts Hemingway’s desires over her own. Within a year of dating, the two married and moved to Paris to encourage Hemingway’s writing career.

Losing the Heroic Morals

A marriage built on codependency is a marriage built on a rocky foundation. Once they had a baby and Richardson’s attention was pulled in another direction, Hemingway was lost, unhappy that he had to share his wife’s attention with their son (171). He was also threatened by her friend Kitty’s independence (183).

Hemingway flirted with other women in front of Hadley (McLain, 197, 199). This boldness fits his hero code. Richardson tolerated it despite her concern and unhappiness, which further encouraged her husband’s behavior. When she stopped encouraging her husband or talked with him about his relationships with other women, he got upset. “Here’s my good and true wife again. Would it kill you to agree with me once (McLain, 250)?” Hemingway’s lack of confidence demanded constant agreement and encouragement. Richardson’s distraction with their son sent him into an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, who became his second wife after an affair that played out right in front of her (McLain, 288). So much for the upstanding morals of a hero.

The Paris Wife

Everyone's Human

The purpose of this piece is not to paint Hemingway in poor light. But it should serve as a reminder to readers and potential authors that everyone has their fatal flaws and that writing oneself into fiction allows us to become anything we want. Hemingway’s flaws were a lack of confidence that made him perpetually seek attention and acceptance. He overcompensated for this lack of confidence through his dalliances and by hobnobbing with writers originally more famous than he. Hemingway did not always exhibit the morals of a hero, especially when he was seeking encouragement or attention.

Humans are not perfect, and it is difficult to judge people of the past by today’s standards. Hemingway lived in a different time and it is very hard to analyze his personality traits without the understanding of what it meant to live in his era. However, McLain’s book gives the Hemingway fan a chance to see the author through the eyes of a contemporary, someone who loved him and wanted what was best for him.

Works Cited

Burn, S. (2018). Six Hallmarks of Codependence. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: [Accessed 08 Dec. 2018]

Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. Scribner, 2008.

McLain, Paula. The Paris Wife. Center Point, 2011.

Neary, Lynn. “'The Paris Wife' Dives Into Hemingway's First Big Love.” NPR, NPR, 1 Mar. 2011,


Ronna Pennington (author) from Arkansas on January 28, 2019:

Thank you, Liz. "The Paris Wife" gave a very unique perspective.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 28, 2019:

You give an interesting biographical perspective on Hemingway.