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I don't understand the last sentence, "Do you suppose the boys in her went before I knew her?"

This is from Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.

He sat at the table and looked at the piano, the sideboard and the radio, the picture of September Morn, and the pictures of the cupids holding bows behind their heads, the shiny real-oak table and the shiny real-oak chairs and the curtains on the windows and he thought, What chance have I to enjoy my home? Why am I back to worse than where I started? It’ll all be gone too if I don’t play this right. The hell it will. I haven’t got sixty bucks left outside of the house, but I’ll get a stake out of this. Those damn girls. That’s all that old woman and I could get with what we’ve got. Do you suppose the boys in her went before I knew her?

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  • Check the title of the book. It is not what you think it is. – Erik Kowal May 20 '14 at 16:36
  • Hemingway (or his characters) often talk in a kind of tough-guy, abbreviated, "shortened" fashion. It's probably because he was incredibly drunk almost always, or, he could have just been trying to be cool. – Fattie May 20 '14 at 19:19
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In this sentence, Harry Morgan wonders if the woman's potential to give birth to boys was somehow expended by her having children with another man prior to the beginning of his relationship with her. This is important to him in the context that cultures with strong patriarchal systems value men who can produce sons.

Source: Jopi Nyman. Men Alone: Masculinity, Individualism, and Hard-boiled Fiction, Volume 3, p. 129, in which the author cites D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making, Cultural Concepts of Masculinity, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1990. p.41.

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  • Good point. Now it's clear thanks to you. Thank you very much! – Windy Forest May 20 '14 at 17:04
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Without more context, perhaps incorrect, but...

This portion of the paragraph begins "and he thought," so the man is thinking to himself about his life.

The sentences leading up to your question refer to girls and the old woman. I assume the man is talking about being disappointed with having only daughters with "the old woman" (his wife) and wishing he could have had a son.

"Those damn girls. That’s all that old woman and I could get with what we’ve got."

Then your target sentence,

"Do you suppose the boys in her went before I knew her?"

is the man asking himself if his wife perhaps could never have had sons since he knew her. Because biologically, or poetically, or in the context of his life story, she was incapable of giving him a son. He doesn't necessarily mean that literally none of the eggs in her ovaries would have produced a viable male fetus. Perhaps he could be making a judgment about his wife, or the course of his life. He may also not know exactly what he's saying, this is the kind of thing you mutter when you blame other people for your circumstances.

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