Literary Criticism Response Paper

This is what I turned in for a response to a piece of literary criticism. I am aware that it kind of sucks, but I’m hoping to get some feedback and revise it, since I’m keen on the topic, and I really disagree with the essay I responded to:

Alice Hall Petry’s essay, “Coming of Age in Hortons Bay: Hemingway’s ‘Up in Michigan’” calls Hemingway’s story the “touching portrait of a female character”. Petry goes on to attempt to prove that the female character, Liz Coates is in the midst of a “sexual awakening” when the graphic encounter at the dock occurs, but that Liz is far too young and innocent to know what to expect regarding the actual mechanics of physical love. Petry says that Liz’s passion for him has an “obsessive nature”, but even though Liz desperately wants Jim’s attention, the affection she receives is “literally not what she had in mind”. Furthermore, Petry comments at length on Hemingway’s “obvious” sexual undertones and innuendos, and insists that his “use of sexual diction and puns is so blatant that it seems clear that the very title of the story is an obscenity.”
The gist of Petry’s essay is this: Liz Coates is an innocent character plagued by sexual feelings she does not understand. She is infatuated (nay obsessed) with Jim Gilmore, a boorish, “flat” character, who pays no attention to Liz until she becomes convenient to satisfy a primitive urge. Petry comments that as the story progresses that the language and use of puns become increasingly sexually suggestive – almost indicating that the innocent Liz is surrounded by and consumed by the sexually aggressive world of men and falls victim to urges she cannot possibly understand.

The beauty of literary criticism is that much art is subjective, and no author more than Ernest Hemingway wanted his reader to draw his/her own conclusions about his work. Therefore the purpose here is not to prove Ms. Petry wrong, only to offer an alternate interpretation of the text.

Certain points Ms. Petry makes are congruent with an alternate view. For instance, Jim Gilmore is not a particularly rounded character, but one could argue that neither is Liz. While we have more insight into what Liz is thinking, Liz herself is a primitive character. Her affection for Jim is largely based on simple observations she’s made, as we see in the most often-discussed paragraph:

“Liz liked Jim very much. She liked it the way he walked from the shop and often went to the kitchen door to watch for him to start down the road. She liked it about his mustache. She liked it about how white his teeth were when he smiled. She liked it very much that he didn’t look like a blacksmith. She liked it how much D.J. Smith and Mrs. Smith liked Jim. One day she found that she liked it the way the hair was black on his arms and how white they were above the tanned line when he washed up in the washbasin outside. Liking that made her feel funny.” (81)

Petry makes many statements about this paragraph. One is that Liz’s list of things she likes about Jim “conveys the flimsy basis of Liz’s infatuation.” She goes on to say that because of the list of things Liz likes, it indicates that Liz might not have her mind on the future, that her infatuation with Jim might be fleeting. Additionally, Petry sites Sheldon Norman Grebstein to explain that the repetition contained in the paragraph “conveys the obsessive behavior of her passion”, and that Liz’s affection for Jim is spurred and encouraged by the validation she feels at the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Smith like Jim.
An alternative reading of the same paragraph could yield different conclusions. For instance, the repetition of “she liked” was addressed in The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway (a text mentioned in Petry’s footnotes). In it, Gertrude Stein called the device “wholly a sue of repetition for emphasis and clarification”, which could indicate that Hemingway used that particular device to emphasize to the reader that Liz “liked Jim very much”, and that the basis for her liking were the things she had observed thus far. Her discovery of the fact that she liked to see Jim’s bare arms and the realization that it made her “feel funny” could merely be Liz’s realization that the more she learned about Jim the more she liked him. That alone could make her “feel funny”.

Additionally, Liz’s regarding of the Smiths as parental figures, as well as the assumption that Liz is very young and completely innocent is not necessarily supported by text. It is easy to assume that Liz is young because of her simple sentiments and because of her use of “something” and “it” in her point of view of the sex act itself. Conversely, there is no textual evidence to debunk the theory that Liz might not be quite so young, and quite so ignorant to the mechanics of the sexual act. It is possible that Hemingway’s intention of placing the story in a rural part of Michigan was to show the simplicity and primitive nature of life there. Just because Liz did not assign words to “it”, it does not necessarily mean that she does not have an at least general idea of what “it” entails.

During the dock scene, we know that Liz is frightened and unaware of exactly what is in store. It is not explicitly stated that Liz is completely unaware of what COULD be in store. She thinks that she “didn’t know who he was going to go about things but snuggled close to him”. This would indicate that she knew that there was something Jim had to “go about”, and more importantly, that she is willing to do whatever Jim wants her to do.

While Petry suggests that the thing that “clicks” inside Liz is still completely unknown to her, the fact remains that Liz is being fondled by Jim, that she feels Jim “right through the back of her chair”, and that she feels “warmer and softer”. One could argue that if Liz was so completely innocent to such carnal things that the fact that she had been groped and that she could feel anatomical evidence of Jim’s intentions, that she would have cried for help or excused herself from the room. She might have slapped Jim, or she might have run away. She might have said no to his request to take a walk. Liz may be innocent, but we could assume that Hemingway does not want us to think she is stupid. Petry suggests that Liz “takes Jim at his word” when she agrees to go for a walk, suggesting that Liz is completely unaware of what is to happen on the dock. Petry says that “Liz was, in effect, destined to copulate with him, in view of both her ignorance, vulnaribility, confusion, and awakening sexuality, as well as Jim’s comparative experience”

Liz’s ignorance, at this point in the story, must be eclipsed by the intensity of primitive human sexual urges she was privy to in the kitchen. After being groped and kissed roughly by Jim, Liz has had a taste of Jim’s intentions, and even the most innocent and ignorant human woman would have to know that Jim’s intentions would take the situation to a more intense place, rather than less of one. Furthermore, if Liz is truly going through a “sexual awakening”, physiologically she would have urges that would drive her to the act with Jim. Our interpretation does not hold with Liz’s preported “sexual awakening” that Petry suggests is separate from Liz’s infatuation with Jim. In fact, our interpretation suggests that any awakening on Liz’s part is directly related to her feelings for Jim, which (right or wrong) increase with this new attention, regardless of the intentions behind them. Put simply, Liz likes Jim very much, and wants Jim to like her. We are meant to understand that, and to understand that while Liz’s understand might not be complete, it is enough for her to have the gist.

There is also little textual evidence to suggest that Jim has so much experience. As Petry pointed out earlier, we do not have a great deal of information on Jim. The earlier st
atement of Jim being a primitive character enters in here. Jim likes to hunt, to work, to drink, to have a nice place to sleep, to enjoy the mainly visceral pleasure of life. All we know for sure about Liz is that she likes Jim. One could imagine that Hemingway took some pleasure in creating this little scene for us, almost a primitive mating scenario, in that Jim and his concerns for the basic comforts run across a patiently waiting and opportunely-placed Liz, and the natural order of things followed. Granted it was painful, frightening, and unpleasant for Liz, but at the risk of sounding insensitive, most female first sexual experiences are. We could imagine that the irony and sadness Hemingway tried to convey relate to, yes, the difference between a man and a woman’s idea of love, romance, and mating, but also to the human condition and how it relates to expectation, love, and life in general. Maybe what Hemingway was trying to say is that in a lot of ways, we are no better than animals. Jim for his need to satiate his desires, Liz in her need to protect and nurture without the comfort of romantic platitudes and pledges.

In her criticism, Petry tries very hard to stress the sexual undertones of the story. In fact, she contradicts herself often by not clarifying how Liz could be completely “non-carnal” while going through a “sexual awakening”. A person cannot be both, even if the person going through the sexual awakening is unaware of what is happening to them. A sexual awakening, by nature, is accompanied by sexual feelings and urges. Petry seems to think that a human animal is able to separate urge from awareness, while we could argue that even if Liz didn’t know the names for things, she felt how she felt, and those feelings were rather explicit.

While Petry suggests that the title “Up in Michigan’ is actually a sexual innuendo, one could argue that the simple title indicates not only a location, but also the state of mind one finds in a rural community. Support for this interpretation is found, ironically enough, in Petry’s footnotes, where she clarifies that Philip Young (Hemingway expert) “argues that the title is a ‘sardonic allusion’ to ‘a popular song of the period which praised the bucolic virtues of life in that region’”.

Petry also attaches sexual meaning to the description of the dead deer when the men come back from the trip, and even ties together the fact that Jim killed a deer with the use of the word “death” as a substitute for the word “orgasm”. If Hemingway was writing a story about the tragedy of human relationships, as proposed in our alternate interpretation, one could doubt the validity of Petry’s argument. Hemingway’s picture of this rural Horton’s Bay and it’s day-to-day life is a vivid enough picture of the mindset “up” there. One could say that the story is more primitively-charged than sexually-charged. In a day-to-day world there is death, work, food, and whatever you can draw out of life.

Petry decided not to tackle a certain statement. Even though Liz tells Jim “no”, she thinks that she “wanted it”, and that “she had to have it”. Just like when Liz thinks “he’s come to me finally”, we get the idea that Liz might have urges, but more than anything she likes Jim very much, and wants Jim to want her, therefore she is willing to do whatever she has to keep him close. “Everything felt gone”, but we propose that everything would have felt gone, no matter what, because that is human nature.
It still is not a pretty picture, which is probably why Hemingway considered this to be a sad story. Ironically, Petry uses the same sentiment at the end of her essay, right after she says that Liz’s experience on the dock takes away her attractive neatness. Liz can restore her neatness, she can restore her composure, but she will never be the same, because she has had a glimpse into the heart of the world, and saw that it was cold there, and that we are ultimately alone.

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