Men Without Women is Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story collection and a more apt title for a piece of fiction I have yet to find! There is practically no women in this short story collection. There are fourteen stories here and I only remember two stories that had women as characters and those were the now very famous “Hills Like White Elephants” and the potent “A Canary for One.” Some stories like “Ten Indians” only mentioned women in passing and in others, ladies are absent entirely.
This is my foray into Hemingway and unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the experience. Lucky for me, Men Without Women is only 160 pages. If it were over 400 pages, I would have given up. I persevered for the sake of finishing, not for pleasure.
I’m sure most readers know that Hemingway’s prose is famous for being blunt, short, and muscular. Meanwhile, his themes and subjects were very masculine, revolving around boxing, war, bullfighting, more war, and other sports.
The prose itself I had no problem with. I liked Hemingway’s to the point approach. Yet the stories themselves I found dull and plodding. The opening story, “The Undefeated” is the longest story in Men Without Women at nearly fifty pages. To me, it is also the most tedious. “The Undefeated” is meant to be a classic tragedy, chronicling the fall and disgrace of an aging bullfighter. The bullfighter stubbornly rejects all talk that he is growing too old for the sport. For all the talk about Hemingway’s brevity, the story dragged on far too long. We all knew what was going to happen by the first few pages, that the bullfighter will humiliate himself in this endeavor. The buildup to get there was much too sluggish. Hemingway famously disliked providing character backgrounds, but without a motive, it was difficult to feel anything for the bullfighter. All I felt was irritation that he was endangering others.
There are war stories, with soldiers suffering what we would now diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder. But I felt these stories have aged unfavorably. These days, Hemingway’s war stories have nothing new to tell us.
Hemingway utilized what is called the “iceberg theory.” He wrote the tip of the iceberg, the surface only. The massive roiling underneath we must figure out ourselves. Depending on your mileage, this could be fun or this could be frustrating. There is no correct interpretation. But I just found that I didn’t care. Because I cared for none of the characters, I didn’t even bother analyzing the stories. I just wanted to get this book over with. Admittedly, themes of war and sports interest me very little so my apathy could be subjective.
The two stories I mildly enjoyed were the stories that had women in them: “Hills Like White Elephants” and “A Canary For One.” Misunderstandings between men and women were fun to immerse in after all that war and sport. Even then, I missed the pep and vivacity someone like Dorothy Parker would inject into the same theme.
Ultimately, although Hemingway’s prose is renowned for being muscular, it lacks life and excitement. Which is why I found myself not caring about any of the content. I still have The Snows of Kilimanjaro on my bookshelf but it will be a long while until I pick it up.