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Masculinity in Literature in the Early 20th Century

Updated on April 13, 2018

The writings of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and London touch on countless subjects, with a plethora of themes, but one theme that these three authors all explore is masculinity during their time in the early 1900's. But to fully understand their literature, one must first understand the authors behind the works.

F. Scott Fitzgerald


F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota in 1896. He went to Princeton University and was often considered a smart individual. He always enjoyed writing, receiving praise at a high age. He joined the military after school and became a lieutenant. After serving, he dedicated his life to writing. Despite a few years of modest success, he never received a lot of praise while he was alive. He became a degenerate drinker, and died fairly young at the age of 44.

Ernest Hemingway


Ernest Hemingway was born in Illinois in 1899. Hemingway wrote for a newspaper before joining the war for the Italian army as an ambulance driver. He sustained injuries during the war and earned the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery. He went back home, where he worked again as a reporter and met his first of three wives. He soon moved to Paris, where he began writing many of the iconic works that are still read today. When he returned from Paris, he spent most of his time (while not writing) doing all types of activities including big game hunting, deep sea fishing and many other outdoor activities. He would remain adventurous for a while, spending time all over the world. His later life was less fortunate, as he suffered from depression and other diseases. He would end up taking his life at the age of 61.

Jack London


Jack London was born in California in 1876. His father abandoned his family when he was young, and Jack took the last name of his step father, a veteran of the civil war. Jack grew up in a working class household, holding many manual labor jobs throughout his teenage years. Jack loved to read and write, but only received up to an eighth grade education. Jacks experiences on the sea and in the Yukon territory were the basis of many of his authored works. His later years were plagued with kidney disease and he died in 1916.

Themes of Masculinity

All of these men, while leading completely different lives, had a few things in common: They were all white men in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This commonality between these three authors leads to some interesting comparisons between their works, lifestyles, and overall contributions to not only the world of literature, but to society as well.

Rich Boy

In Fitzgeralds "Rich Boy," The main character was brought up with parents who were well off. This leads to a main character that does not feel that he truly needs to work for anything. This carry's from his education to his treatment of women. The main character, Anson has the tendency to control women, while also not being able to commit to them. his mistreatment of women encapsulates the role of most men during this time period. Men believe that every thing in their life should be under their control. Anson is quoted as saying, "If she wanted to know to whom she belonged she would see," which further illustrates his need to control the women that he is with. This leads to unhealthy relationships for him throughout the story.

Hills Like White Elephants

Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" centers around a man and a woman on a train ride through Spain, as they have an awkward discussion about a topic that is not disclosed to the reader. A close reading reveals that the couple is most likely talking about an abortion. While the story takes place over a matter of 40 minutes (as inferred by train departure times in the work) their is only about 5 minutes of dialogue. Naturally in an instance like this, much can be determined from the silence in the conversation. The male character, described only as, "The American" is somewhat easing the female characters tensions about the "procedure." Their conversation is not exactly comfortable however, as it is clear that the female is undoubtedly questioning their decision. These lines from the story add some potential insight into their decision making and the relationship between the two characters. "We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before." "What makes you think so?" "That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy."

The male in the story attempts to calm the female by telling her that things will be okay once the procedure has taken place, and that this is the only thing that is making them unhappy. I think that this is a blatant show of power. The male in the story, consistent with the theme, does not wish to concede his power in the situation. Having a child with a woman from another country greatly limits him going forward, and I believe that, although the dialogue in the story might not completely suggest it, the woman is being used and controlled by this man. This theme sadly comes into play often when encountering women during this time, as males were most often seen as the dominant of the two genders and men felt that they must prove this whenever possible.

To Build a Fire

Jack London's story "To Build A Fire" centers around a man who wishes to make the trek to a mining camp in the Yukon. To make it to the camp, he must travel through snow and temperatures of -50 degrees and below. He is informed by a man a camp further south and is warned that no man should be traveling alone in such bitter cold. This does not stop our main character, however, as he feels that he can make it through any thing. He starts on his way with a half wild dog to accompany him, but quickly learns that cold like that is deadly. He accidentally steps in a stream which freezes his toes, and has trouble starting a fire once he cannot feel his hands. He eventually dies in the wild, alone, as even the dog left his side in search of the warm fire. This story truly encapsulates the male ego of the time period. Although males in this part of history were accomplishing ground breaking things, their egos, and ability to be over confident about just about anything can often times be their down fall. This man sets out on his path thinking that he is the most powerful being on the earth. The bitter cold proves that he is no match for no man.The dog was sorry to leave and looked toward the fire. "This man did not know cold. Possibly none of his ancestors had known cold, real cold. But the dog knew and all of its family knew." This quote allows the reader to view what our main characters mistake was. The dog in the story runs only purely instinct, and his instincts told him to stay at the camp. The man, fueled purely by his ego, thinks that he can make it based on might alone.

How Does It All Come Together?

All three of these stories are have completely different authors and plots with different characters and settings. But, They all were written in a time when masculinity thrived in not only American culture, but across the world. These writers wrote stories based on their life experiences and observations. They were a product of their environment. In both their personal lives and their works, these authors and their characters had at all times to maintain their manhood and sense of masculinity, because it was virtually the only option presented to them at them time. Their works of literature are an important part of history, as they enable us to view how society functioned during the late 19th and early 20th century and take our shortcomings and turn them into a more desirable future.


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