Challenging the Gender Dichotomy in the Victorian Era: Reading Hemingway's Up in Michigan and Mansfield's Frau Brechenmacher Together

By Kimberly Taylor
2018, Vol. 10 No. 03 | pg. 1/1


Sexual violence and coercion became hot topics in 2017, with endless headlines. However, these problems and issues are not new, nor are they confined to a single segment of society. Rather, they have longstanding roots within patriarchal society viewing the sexes as opposite ends of an oppositional dichotomy. This dichotomy is highlighted in two short stories, one by Hemingway and one by Katherine Mansfield. These stories contextualize sexual violence and coercion within Victorian era patriarchal societies revealing the perceived and taught active male/passive female dichotomy such societies were founded upon. This paper analyzes not only how the texts reveal this dichotomy, but also challenge it, through close comparative reading. The expected roles of men and women within the dichotomy are defined, and then challenged. The role of others in teaching the limits of those roles is also explored, culminating in the presentation of the ultimate coercive weapon in such a society: marriage as the only possible avenue open to women at that time. While our society has changed a great deal since the Victorian era, much of what this paper explores is still with us today, and contributes both to the occurrence of coercion and violence as well as the debates and narratives around them.

Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield both moved to Europe to pursue literary careers, writing short stories for magazines to support themselves. Their working years overlapped for a brief period in the early 1920s. This overlap coincided with the rise of the New Woman, literary Modernism, and a myriad of other societal changes which both authors portrayed in their work. The society Hemingway and Mansfield were raised in viewed men and women to be complementary opposites, or a strict dichotomy. This dichotomy was widely accepted in the Victorian era, and described by Welter as “cardinal virtues of true womanhood—purity, piety, domesticity, and submissiveness” (152) as opposed to the masculine attributes of aggression, action, and desire. These two ideas, the masculine and the feminine, were divided into male and female spheres associated with rigid boundaries of gendered values and acceptable behaviors for both (Sanderson, 172). Some texts (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or The Woman in White for example) of that time dealt with those spheres touching -- quite literally. Rooney explores this touching of spheres, termed “the problem of sexuality,” which is framed as a dichotomy of “passivity of the feminine” with the male in an active role of either rape/seduction. Thus, this dichotomy reduces sexuality to an active/passive dichotomy with the male always taking the active role and the female always the passive role (1272). Rooney argues that virtually all texts dealing with the “problem of sexuality” in the Victorian era, and the contemporary criticism of it, display this dichotomy stating “that the object of seduction . . . might act here is unthinkable. Mutual desire is not an issue. Feminine desire itself . . . seems unthinkable. . . . The feminine part is to consent or refuse (to be taken) rather than to desire or will (to take)” (1273).

Mansfield and Hemingway published short stories dealing with this “problem of sexuality” within the context of a patriarchal society they were familiar with. These stories are some of their earliest polished work and contain a disturbingly similar (and familiar) pattern: a woman is left alone with a man who rapes her. Both stories, Hemingway’s “Up in Michigan” and Mansfield’s “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding,” contextualize the sexual violence within a traditional society. Despite being different sexes and from different countries the authors shared many similarities and revised their work heavily, pulling details from their experiences. The style, tone, and subject matter of the stories are also similar, though there are some differences in point of view. Hemingway used an omniscient narrator and Mansfield a limited third person. The setting is also different, one story is set in Michigan, the other in Germany. Mansfield’s story involves a memory, and earlier drafts of Hemingway’s display the same technique though it was cut from the final draft. These stories analyzed together reveal the broader context of a patriarchal society, while also providing individual responses to that society. With careful examination of the two stories together, the active male/passive female dichotomy is revealed to be a variable of dominance within patriarchal society rather than an unchangeable reality of gendered identity (Heberle 70).

Hemingway and Mansfield present their female characters as possessing the Victorian ideals of domesticity, purity, and submissiveness within the first few paragraphs of their stories. “Up in Michigan” introduces Liz Coates with “Mrs. Smith, who was a very large clean woman, said Liz Coates was the neatest girl she’d ever seen” (81). Frau Brechenmacher spends the first several pages preparing herself and her husband to attend a wedding. She has already made supper and “packed four of the five babies to bed, allowing Rosa to stay with her and help polish the buttons of Herr Brechenmacher’s uniform. Then she ran over his best shirt with a hot iron, polished his boots, and put a stitch or two into his black satin neck tie” (3). Both women have respectable positions within their communities. Though Liz is a servant Mrs. Smith treats her with respect (4-5) and she eats meals with the family. After Frau Brechenmacher arrives at the wedding she “straighten[s] her brooch and fold[s] her hands, assuming the air of dignity becoming to the wife of a postman and the mother of five children” (5).

The male characters also fit within the ideas and roles ascribed to their gender. Jim is introduced as “a good horseshoer” who is welcome to eat with the Smith family as well (81). He participates in economic talk, politics, as well as fishing and hunting expeditions with the other men (82), these details locate the story in the late 1890s. Jim and the other men drink in celebration upon their return from a successful hunting trip with none of them becoming overly intoxicated, instead “feeling hilarious but acting very respectably” (84). Herr Brechenmacher is shown in much the same light, he is “greeted with acclamation as he entered the door” by his colleagues (5) and is given the honor of a speech to the newlyweds (7).

The female characters fit within the passive role proscribed to them in the expected male/female dichotomy, while the male characters fit within the active role. Having contextualized the roles as expected with the character’s behavior Hemingway also undercuts them. From the beginning Liz is shown to possess sexual desire for Jim, the third paragraph of “Up in Michigan” is devoted to an exploration of her unnamed desire which is coded as “it” (81). Liz is unaware of what her desires mean or what might happen between her and Jim, and she also enjoys them, “she discovered it was fun to think about him too. If she let herself go it was better” (82) presenting a complicated feminine sexuality. Liz is neither innocent nor promiscuous, she does not fit into one half of a dichotomy, but rather occupies a continuum. She pursues contact with Jim, asking him about hunting, a masculine occupation, “did you shoot it Jim?” (83) and waits up with her book because “she wanted to see him” (84). The narrator remains distant from Liz, detached and ironic, shifting in and out of Jim’s point of view as he fondles her breasts and finally out of both their heads as Jim overrides her refusals and rapes her on the dock, providing a journalistic, and thus more universal, scene. After the rape the narrator dives into Liz’s thoughts, she is “terribly frightened” and “he had hurt her,” personalizing the universalized experience (85). Her actions remain within the passive role during the rape, but after, she takes over the active role again, as Jim sleeps she leans over and kisses him (85). This kiss is not tender though, as we can hear her thoughts, “she was cold and miserable and everything felt gone” (85) a shift from the excitement and desire she had displayed before Jim raped her. As the point of view is omniscient, the narration is detached and there is no judgement ascribed to either Jim or Liz. The reader is witness to how Liz’s desires were used against her, and to wonder what could have happened on a continuum of unified actions instead of the active male/passive female dichotomy presented in the story.

Mansfield’s Frau Brechenmacher acts the submissive feminine role for most of the story to both her husband and the older women she talks with, yet her thoughts reveal this role does not match her inner self. These thoughts are withheld until late in the story, with a limited narrator describing the scenes, actions, and dialogue without any input from the character that narrator is tied to. Frau Brechenmacher has prepared her children and the house for the night out, yet when her husband nags her upon returning home she doesn’t defend herself, instead presenting his clothing. At his request “you go and dress in the passage” she leaves (4). She returns and fastens his belt buckle before admiring him as he “strode up and down the kitchen” and helps him put on his coat (5). She asks him to slow down, which he refuses and she allows. He jostles “her against the banisters” as they enter the Festaal for the wedding and then proceeds to ignore her for the rest of the night (5). She assents that “every wife has her cross” and says, “girls have a lot to learn” about marriage and husbands to the older women (7). The shift into Frau Brechenmacher’s thoughts is as disconcerting as the moment is for her, “Frau Brechenmacher did not think it funny. . . she imagined that all these people were laughing at her . . . all laughing because they were so much stronger than she was” (7). This laughter is then connected to her husband “he tilted back in his chair, chuckling with laughter” as he recounts her resistance to his sexual advances on their wedding night, “such a clout on the ear you gave me . . . . But I soon taught you” (8). The revelation of her feelings is tied to being raped by her husband and so the unnatural absence of Frau Brechenmacher’s thoughts from a limited third person narrator is connected to the rape. Thus, Mansfield’s use of narration shows Frau Brechenmacher’s submission is not natural, or in line with her own feelings; revealing a culturally imposed false self derived from the laughter, or shaming, of others. This passive role is unnatural and created by those “so much stronger than she was” (7) as part of a dichotomy to reinforce a patriarchal society (Shen 196). Frau Brechenmacher is required to fill that passive role, to “lay down on the bed and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in” (9), for survival within that society.

Both Frau Brechenmacher and Liz display confusion and helplessness in the face of sexual violence. Frau Brechenmacher “felt muddled and stupid” (4), “she was afraid to look anybody in the face” (7), “she stumbled after him” (7), and lies on the bed expecting to be raped again by her husband at the story’s close. Liz cries, looks down at the water, tries to wake Jim, and finally drapes her coat over sleeping Jim before walking home in the cold (86). Their behavior is better understood when we understand that “for an individual to understand how to interpret and respond to an event, they must first appraise the experience. . . People often base their appraisals on the social norms of the dominant society” (Young and Maguire 40). Within the patriarchal society of the late Victorian era these stories are set (Simon, Smith), their experiences reinforce the norms of an active male/passive female dichotomy underpinning a patriarchal society. As “the naming of sexually violent experiences is worked out and negotiated in interaction with other people” (Young and Maguire 46) the individuals who Frau Brechenmacher and Liz interact with give clues to their confused and helpless reactions to their rapes.

As Frau Brechenmacher enters the Festaal to celebrate the wedding she “knew that she was going to enjoy herself” but she is then wedged between two older women who begin to criticize everything, the wedding, the groom, but especially the bride (5). Their gossip about Theresa, her bastard child, wild ways, and being forced by her family to marry for respectability places firm expectations for passive female behavior. Sex outside of marriage (or an active role) is wrong. However, forcing a woman into a marriage she doesn’t want (or a passive role), essentially ensuring continual episodes of rape, is acceptable. As the story employs limited-third person, we feel the older women’s gossip in much the same way as Frau Brechenmacher. She sits and worries with the older women in a passive role while the men take an active role dancing, drinking and making fun. Theresa’s father tells her mother “cheer up. . . . this isn’t Theresa’s funeral” (6). One of the older women hints at Theresa’s future (and Frau Brechenmacher’s present), “nice time she’ll have with this one. . . . He was lodging with me last summer and I had to get rid of him” (6). It is revealed through their dialogue they are aware of the potential for sexual violence within the marriage, while also making clear there is no viable alternative available to Theresa, and therefore to Frau Brechenmacher. As feminist criticism has revealed, this gossip is part of how one becomes a woman within a specific society, and which behaviors are acceptable. Submission to the cross of a husband is essentially the only avenue Frau Brechenmacher has available to her because of the patriarchal structure she lives within. The older women’s acknowledgement of this further solidifies the passive role within the passive/active dichotomy of that society and causes Frau Brechenmacher to act as a helpless child when confronted with rape (9).

When the narrator describes how Liz likes Jim, one of the salient features of that desire is that the Smith’s approve of him -- “she liked it how much D. J. Smith and Mrs. Smith liked Jim” (81). When Liz wants to make something special for Jim she knows “Mrs. Smith would catch her cooking” for him, but she also knows that, “it would have been alright with Mrs. Smith” (82). This approval strengthens her desire, setting the stage for what follows. The Smiths invite Jim into their home after the hunting trip. They get drunk together, before the Smiths leave Jim and Liz alone while they go upstairs, presumably to their bedroom. That both men are in pursuit of the same thing is a reasonable conjecture. Both Smiths are aware of Liz and Jim’s developing desire for one another, but they ignore any risk to Liz and leave her alone late at night with a drunk man. After the rape Liz has no one to turn to and so “she looked down to the water” (85), a passive action, instead of at the boats tied to the dock which would have implied the ability to take an active role. She has no thoughts of reporting the rape; “she walked across the dock and up the steep sandy road to go to bed” (86) where she is expected to be by her employers next morning. Anything else risks ruining her reputation, and thus her ability to earn a living. By raping her, Jim has potentially deprived her of her livelihood were anyone to find out, and she turns to Jim repeatedly hoping he will wake up and make everything right with a marriage proposal – the only way to salvage a reputation taken from her. With marriage as the only respectable possibility for a potentially pregnant woman within a patriarchal society which proscribes passive helpless femininity Liz is left dependent upon her rapist (Shen 196).

That both stories situate the rapes within, or near, a marriage required by a patriarchal society underscores sexual violence is a variable of that dominance and not an intrinsic or natural factor in male/female relationships; thus, separating out the active male/passive female dichotomy of sexuality from those relationships. The cut beginning of “Up in Michigan” opens with, “her name had been Liz [Coates]. Jim [Gilmore] married her when he came from Horton’s Bay,” a gossipy and whitewashed version of the events leading up to that marriage (Smith 586). The rape is nullified by the marriage just as Frau Brechenmacher’s resistance is futile not because her husband is stronger but because of “all these people” laughing at her “because they were so much stronger” (7). With commitment assured Herr Brechenmacher can be as violent as he chooses with the marriage acting as a form of social power over her.

Mansfield’s exploration of that social power does not condemn or engage in political or philosophical debate, and Hemingway dropped the marriage from his story. Instead, both authors chose to focus on the individual experience of women betrayed by the society around them and thus forced into a passive role through more than violence. Mrs. Smith does not caution Liz, perhaps because as a member of patriarchal society she understands the logic of such violence and therefore does not see the need to warn Liz (Lykke). She assumes Liz already knows the rules and that she must remain within her feminine (passive) role. Theresa’s mother knows she is condemning her daughter to the same slow death of self Frau Brechenmacher experiences, though she states, “I am cheerful” at her daughter’s wedding after experiencing the same shaming laughter Frau Brechenmacher does (6). Once Theresa is married her name too will change like Liz Coates, into a Frau married to an Herr and her encapsulation within the (passive) feminine role of the societally created dichotomy is complete.

The threat of violence as well as social ostracism compels women like Liz to look to their rapist for help, and for women like Frau Brechenmacher to submit over and over again to rape without any resistance – to fully become passive. Without viable alternatives they remain trapped within an objectifying dichotomy supporting a patriarchal society. These personalized stories highlight not only the plight of women within such a system but they also question the system itself. Sexual violence is a part of the process masculine power uses to enforce dominance (Heberle 65) within a patriarchal society. Hemingway reveals this by portraying a woman who is sexually interested in her assaulter. Jim didn’t need to rape Liz, if he had courted her their relationship could have culminated in a mutually satisfying experience. The marriage could have begun on more equal terms, a unity instead of a dichotomy. Instead, his actions reduce them both to objects; he becomes “a tool of masculinist domination” (Shen 201), and she becomes “rape space” (Lykke 241). Such a marriage leads to the situation depicted in Mansfield’s story. Frau Brechenmacher is treated worse than a servant by her husband, dreading interactions with him while he is shown relishing his position of dominance (6, 8). This relishing is not private, he enjoys upsetting Theresa with the presentation of the coffee pot (7). This enjoyment is not shared with his wife, instead with a room full of people who ascribe to the patriarchal system, but with whom he has no real intimacy or unity. By choosing domination he is also choosing isolation; his wife does not laugh at his speech, she does not eagerly greet him at the door; they are two objects within a proscribed marriage instead of two human beings experiencing a relationship together. Commitment to such a system must be enforced not just by sexual violence, but also by accepted roles for the genders, because who would want to become merely an object occupying either the passive or active role if they knew an alternative existed?

These texts display the degradation and suffering women suffer under a patriarchal system, as well as the reasons they remain trapped within such a system. Poignant examples such as Liz’s attempts to fend of Jim and the image of Frau Brechenmacher waiting for inevitable rape, reveal the damage believing in the active male/passive female dichotomy can cause. Examining the contextualization has illuminated the ways in which the dichotomy is maintained and revealed its falsity. But there is a temptation for a modern reader; the world has changed a great deal since the late Victorian period and it can be easy to pretend these problems no longer exist. Women now have viable alternatives to marriage as well as a myriad of legal rights, protections, and various other supports. While “Up in Michigan” and “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” contain details setting them in the late 1890s, changing just a few of those details moves those stories into the present. We could reframe what happened to Liz as “date rape,” or an on-campus rape after a dorm party. We could reframe Frau Brechenmacher as a victim of workplace sexual violence. Herr Brechenmacher is a gatekeeper, if Frau Brechenmacher attempted to leave him she would be left with nothing, just as supervisors and managers have the power to deny the women they abuse careers and livelihoods. Standing up to her abuser would send Frau Brechenmacher into exile, and possibly her children too. Many women are locked into the same dilemma because we as a society still believe in this active male/passive female dichotomy and allow ourselves (male and female) to be used or viewed as “rape space” objects or “tools of masculinist power” (Marling) (Heberle).

There are still economic disparities between men and women, and the perpetuation of the active male/passive female dichotomy instead of an approach toward unity stand in the way of making further progress. Women’s gains do not need to come at the expense of men’s losses. We all lose when we perceive women as “rape space” objects and men as “tools of masculinist dominance” as in doing so we all lose our essential humanity and individuality (Heberle). Aggressive tirades positioning all men as potential rapists are just as poisonous as questioning female accusers or suggesting “she was asking for it.” Both reinforce the active male/passive female dichotomy driving patriarchal power structures by dividing the sexes from each other and from within. Both sexes are used to secure power for a select few at the price of degradation and the loss of humanity for most. Individual voices are better heard and individual experiences are better understood when we look at problems like sexual violence with an awareness of the culturally mandated dichotomy while simultaneously seeking to find unity. We all have some level of personal complicity, but we also all have some level of personal ability to chip away at this dichotomy and unitedly move toward healthier relationships.


Fenstermaker, John. “Hemingway’s Modernism: Exploring Its Victorian Roots.” South Atlantic Review. Vol. 76, No. 3, Summer 2011, pages 77-92. Web.

Heberle, Renee. “Deconstructive Strategies and the Movement against Sexual Violence.” Hypatia. Vol. 11, No 4., Women and Violence, Autumn 1996, pages 63-76. Web.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Short Stories. Scribner. 2003. Print.

Lykke, Lucia C. “Visibility and Denial: Accounts of Sexual Violence in Race- and Gender-Specific Magazines.” Feminist Media Studies. Vol. 16, 2016, pages 239-260. Web.

Mansfield, Katherine. Selected Stories. Oxford University Press. 2002. Print.

Marling, Brit. “Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent.” The Atlantic, Oct 23, 2017. Accessed Nov 13, 2017

Rooney, Ellen. “Criticism and the Subject of Sexual Violence.” MLN. Vol. 98, No. 5, Comparative Literature, Dec 1983, pages 1269-1278. Web.

Sanderson, Rena. “Hemingway and gender history.” The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, edited by Scott Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, 1996, 170-196. Print.

Dan Shen. “Subverting surface and doubling irony: Subtexts of Mansfield’s “Revelations” and others.” English Studies, Vol 87., April 2006, pages 191-209. Web.

Smith, Paul. “Hemingway’s Apprentice Fiction: 1919-1929.” American Literature. Vol. 58, No. 4 Dec. 1986, pages 574-588. Web.

Young, Stacy L. and Katheryn C. Maguire. “Talking about Sexual Violence.” Women & Language. Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2003, pages 40-52. Web.

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