The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: Is It Possible to Love Someone Too Much?

“Sometimes I wish we could rub out all of our mistakes and start fresh, from the beginning…And sometimes I think there isn’t anything to us but our mistakes” (McLain, 220).

This is what Elizabeth Hadley Richardson says in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. She is the first wife, “the Paris Wife,” of Ernest Hemingway (he has a total of four wives in his life). After their divorce, Ernest Hemingway moves on to become the famous author that we all know – the author of The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, along with others. Meanwhile, Hadley is left with a broken heart. Even though she eventually remarries, she is never able to fill up the space in her heart that was taken by Ernest (at least, that’s the impression I got from reading McLain’s novel). After all, Hadley is the one who told Ernest, “I’d love to look like you…I’d love to be you” (58). How much do you have to love someone in order to want to be them?

The main reason for Hadley and Ernest’s divorce is Ernest’s affair with Pauline Pfeiffer, Hadley’s friend. Pauline Pfeiffer “Pfife,” and Ernest start spending more time together and meeting up in secret behind Hadley’s back. However, that is not to say that Hadley is unaware of their love affair. It’s shocking enough that Ernest and Pfife continue their affair right under Hadley’s nose. What is worse is that Ernest wants to keep both women. Why can’t he do what every other man around him is already doing? The narrator says:

[Earnest] loved them both and that’s where the pain came in. He carried it in his head like a fever and made himself sick thinking about it. And sometimes, after hours lying awake, it came to him clearly that he only had to change his life to match his circumstances. Pound had managed it. He had Shakespear and Olga both and no one doubted he loved them. He didn’t have to lie; everyone knew everything and it all worked because he’d kept pushing and hadn’t compromised or become someone else…Why couldn’t Pfife be his girl? (256)

It needs to be acknowledged that Ernest is surrounded by people who are always drinking and throwing lavish parties and showing off their wealth, and that Ernest is inevitably influenced by this to a certain degree. However, the idea of wanting to keep a wife and a lover at the same time seems to be too much. It is not fair to use the excuse that everyone else is doing it, so why can’t he?

Ernest’s foolish hope of wanting to keep both his wife and his lover is not fulfilled. However, “Ernest Hemingway spent the last months of his life tenderly reliving his first marriage in the pages of his memoir, A Moveable Feast” (331), and this was the last thing he wrote before his death. Why did he relive his marriage with Hadley in his memoir when he had been so cruel to her when they were together? Was he really resentful of her losing the valise containing all of his work of writing? Is it possible that he missed her even while he was with his other wives?

A sidetrack: There is a song, called “Destiny” by a South Korean group called “Cool”. This song came out in 1996, I believe, and contains a storyline that is similar to the one of The Paris Wife. The protagonist of the song “Destiny” already has a girlfriend when he meets a girl who is everything he has ever dreamed of. He believes this new girl is “the one,” and is now torn between his girlfriend and this other girl. He says something along the lines of:

If I ask my girlfriend to leave me because I’ve found “the one,” it will ruin me.
But if, because of my girlfriend, I can never meet this other girl again, then I’ll be ruined, too.
It’s so frustrating, I can’t stand it, what should I do?
I can’t keep them both with me.
I’m so mad, I can’t let go of either.

Whenever I would hear this song, I used to feel nostalgic because of the way it brought back memories of when I was living in Korea with my family. However, my feelings towards this song changed while reading The Paris Wife. I still like the song, but because I’ve recently finished reading The Paris Wife, all of the pain and suffering Hadley had to face is brought to my mind when I listen to the lyrics. I think it’s wrong to love two people at once. You’d only end up hurting more people than you need to in the end.

In the end, Ernest Hemingway commits suicide by shooting himself. When Hadley hears of this, her husband, Paul Mowrer, asks her if he can get her anything, to which she says no. She says:

There was nothing Paul could possibly do for me except let me go – back to Paris and Pamplona and San Sebastian, back to Chicago when I was Hadley Richardson, a girl stepping off a train about to meet the man who would change her life. That girl, that impossibly lucky girl, needed nothing. (314)

When Hadley wishes she could go back in time, I’m reminded of how she wished the same thing when she realized that she and Ernest’s marriage was beginning to fall apart. It seems that sometimes people fall in love, and sometimes they fall out of love. Hadley had fallen in love with Ernest and had done everything she could to try to keep their love strong. As much as people try to keep their love, and their marriages intact, it does not seem to be as easy as they would like. Still, Hadley Richardson’s story makes me wonder, can a person can love someone too much? What are the consequences of that?


<Works Cited>

McLain, Paula. The Paris wife: a novel. Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2012.



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