Literature Study GuidesA Moveable FeastA Good Café On The Place St Michel Summary

A Moveable Feast | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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A Moveable Feast | A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel | Summary

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Summary

Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley Richardson, have recently moved to Paris. Their apartment is at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine in a working-class section of the city.

Hemingway describes the feeling of walking through Paris in bad weather, passing the Café des Amateurs, "a sad, evilly run café" and the "cesspool" of the rue Mouffetard, a market street. Hemingway describes his room on the top floor of the hotel where the poet Paul Verlaine died, his purchases of firewood to keep the room warm, and his walk in the rain to the "good" café on the Place St.-Michel.

As Hemingway writes in the café, he thinks about how the location of his writing affects his work; sometimes "transplanting yourself" is necessary for a good story. He notices an attractive woman. The writing is going well, and he gets lost in his story for hours. After he has finished writing, he feels "empty and both sad and happy." He orders oysters and looks forward to leaving Paris during the winter to go skiing. Maybe he can write about Paris when he's out of the city, the way he can write about Michigan once he's in Paris. Hemingway goes home, where he and Hadley discuss leaving the city to ski.

Analysis

Ernest Hemingway was 22 when he and Hadley Richardson moved into their small apartment in 1922. He enjoyed living among working-class Parisians and lived more cheaply than he needed to. Between his income as a Toronto Star reporter and Hadley's family money, they earned enough for a middle-class way of life. But Hemingway was famously thrifty and liked the idea of living as a down-and-out artist, focusing on work rather than wealth.

Hemingway's paragraph-long portrait of the working-class neighborhood called the Place Contrescarpe (or Place de la Contrescarpe) shows his memories as images. Though he is describing one specific journey to the café, the events in the chapter could have happened over and over again as a continuous picture of one section of Paris. He appeals to readers' senses when he describes the "smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness" at the Café des Amateurs and the "squat toilets ... with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations on each side of the aperture," so someone using them would not slip.

By using "you" in describing the walk to the café, he brings the reader into the story. The walk to the café could be anyone's walk, or guided tour, in Paris. Only when Hemingway sits down to write does the story become completely his own, and he begins using "I."

Because he chooses to live as he does, he views poverty with a certain romance. Hemingway explains people have as good a time as they can afford and use alcohol to cope; even those poorer than he is "stayed drunk all the time." He pays as much attention to the darkness and "cesspools" of Paris as he does to the more conventional, beautiful sights. The comparisons of the Café des Amateurs and the café on the Place St.-Michel reflect two extremes of the city—its despair and its creativity, one reeking, filthy, and filled with drunks, the other "warm and clean and friendly" with good food. Interesting to note, too, are his observations of the women in both locales—the women drunks at the Café des Amateurs and the attractive, healthy-looking young woman obviously waiting for someone at the St.-Michel café: alcoholic despair versus nourishment, literally and figuratively.

Hemingway's Paris is steeped in history and ghosts. He writes at "the hotel where Verlaine had died," implying his connection to poet Paul Verlaine and his tragic life. The young Hemingway hopes to be a famous writer someday and recognizes the writers and artists who came to Paris before him with the same hopes. He already feels an ownership of the city: "all Paris belongs to me."

A sense of place is significant to his writing. He needs physical and psychological distance from a setting, and a deep knowledge of the place itself, to write about it thoroughly. Paris in A Moveable Feast is one of the best examples of setting as a character. Paris has distinctive traits: the whims of the weather and the habits of large groups of people inform the personality of the city.
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