The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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World War I Marines with Gas Masks, circa 1918
World War I Marines with Gas Masks, circa 1918
Photo by Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections

Many critics think that ``The Sun Also Rises`` is probably Ernest Hemingway`s greatest novel, mainly because it is more original in its description of love and war than his other works. In fact, this book gives us two stories in one: a love story and a war story.  As the novel begins, we get acquainted with American expatriates who live in Paris. We meet Jake, who likes his life in France, despite his general feeling of sadness. Jake and Lady Brett Ashley share mutual affection.

However, Jake`s impotence makes their relationship impossible. Besides Jake, Cohn and Mike also have strong feelings for Brett. Bret decides to go to San Sebastian, in Spain. Cohn has an affair with Brett in San Sebastian. Brett reveals this secret to Jake. Her confession only intensifies Jake`s jealousy. Jake and his friend Bill travel to the Spanish countryside and check into a small, rural inn. They spend five pleasant days fishing, drinking and playing cards. Jake receives a letter from Mike. He writes that he and Brett will be arriving in Pamplona shortly. Jake and Bill decide to join them. They meet with Brett, Mike and Cohn and the whole group goes to watch preparations for the bullfights during the fiesta. The fiesta begins.

The highlight of the first day is the first bullfight, when nineteen-year-old Pedro Romero amazes the audience. Brett cannot take her eyes off Romero. A few days later, Brett persuades Jake to introduce her to Romero. Later that night, she asks Jake to help her find Romero. Jake agrees to help, and Brett and Romero spend the night together. Jake meets with Bill and Mike, who are both very drunk. Cohn arrives and he wants to know where Brett is. After an exchange of insults, Cohn beats up Jake and Mike. He also beats up Romero.

At the next bullfight Romero fights brilliantly. After this last bullfight, Romero and Brett leave for Madrid together. Cohn has left that morning, so only Bill, Mike and Jake remain as fiesta draws to a close. The next day, the three remaining men go their separate ways. Jake heads back to San Sebastian. He receives a telegram from Brett and he goes to meet her in Madrid. She informs him that she has sent Romero away.  Bret eventually decides to go back to Mike. 

The main characters of the novel are mainly war veterans: Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Bill Gorton and Mike Campbell. One the novel`s central disagreements is between those characters who were war veterans and those, like Robert Cohn, who are not. The main character of the novel is Jake Barnes, an American veteran of World War I, who works as a journalist in Paris. Despite the fact that he appears rather composed, he is tortured by the moral emptiness which is the outcome of the war. Besides, he struggles with pain over his unrequited love for Lady Brett Ashley.

Jake is an observer who uses his wisdom, intuition and cleverness in analyzing the events and people he sees. His narration is subtle. However, he indirectly tells us much about himself. As a soldier in the war, Jake was wounded. The result of this injury is his disability to have sex.  He is very insecure about his masculinity. The fact that Bret doesn`t want to have a romantic relationship with him intensifies this problem. Jake`s animosity toward Robert Cohn is probably the result of his own feelings of unsuitableness. Jake`s experiences in the war weakened his belief in justice, morality and love.

He wanders through Paris, going from bar to bar. He drinks heavily and he can be sometimes very cruel. Without any ideals, he lives a goalless existence, full of immoral self-indulgence. Nevertheless, Jake is different from the people around him. He is still able to recognize his own cruelty. Furthermore, he admits in an indirect way that his soul is tortured by his war injury and by his unrequited love for Bret. Although he realizes the problems in his life, he seems either reluctant or powerless to solve them.  Lady Brett Ashley`s life is aimless as well. She served in a wartime hospital. The war has also played a crucial part in the creation of her personality. Bret is a very beautiful and charismatic woman. Men think that she is adorable and irresistible. However, she doesn’t want to commit completely to nobody. She loves Jake. But, she is reluctant to commit fully to a relationship with him because it will mean giving up sex.

Brett cherishes her independence, but it doesn`t bring her happiness. She feels restless when she is alone. That`s why she goes from relationship to relationship. Brett drinks heavily too. In her opinion, her life is a life without a purpose. Robert Cohn is also in love with Brett. He is a wealthy American writer who lives in Paris. He is restless and he wants to travel. Jake tells him: ``You can`t go away from yourself by moving from one place to another``. (Hemingway, 2006: 19). Although he is an emigrant like many of his friends, he differentiates himself from others because he had not participated in the war. He passionately believes in naïve prewar ideals of love and justice. Because of that, Jake and his friends enjoy mocking him and being cruel to him.

War veterans feel enmity and jealousy toward him because his soul`s purity remained untouched. When he was a student at Princeton, Robert started a boxing career. ``He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton``. (Hemingway, 2006: 11).  Mike Campbell is Brett`s fiancée who is always drunk. He is a bankrupt Scottish war veteran and he can be very violent, especially during his dinking sprees. He feels sorry for himself because of Brett`s unfaithfulness.  Bill Gorton, a war veteran, is Jake`s best friend. He is a drunkard who uses humor to cope with the emotional and psychological wounds of the war.

Pedro Romero is a very handsome and very young bullfighter. Everyone is fascinated by his talents and courage in the bullfight arena. Romero`s personality is completely opposite of the personalities of Jake and his friends. He is honest, self-confident, dignified and strong. His life has meaning because of his passionate love for bullfighting. In a world of corruption, demoralization and dishonesty, Pedro stands out as a figure of morality, fairness, sincerity and honor. The most important themes in this novel are: aimlessness of war veterans, male insecurity and the destructiveness of sex. World War I weakened conventional beliefs of faith, justice and morality. War veterans don`t believe any more in the traditional ideas that make life worth living. Everything seems pointless to them.

Jake and his friends spend their time doing insignificant and utopian activities, such as an endless drinking, dancing and an immoral self-indulgence. However, their constant reveling does not satisfy them. Their parties are without true joy and they are driven by alcohol. Although they spend nearly all the time having fun and going out, they remain sad.  Thus, their way of life is just an attempt to stop thinking about themselves and their lives.

Male insecurity is another theme in the novel. The prewar idea of courageous, strong soldiers was completely opposite of trench warfare of World War I. Traditional beliefs of manliness were degraded by the war.  Soldiers had to sit in trenches as the enemy bombarded them. Survival was not a matter of courage. It was a matter of luck. Jake`s character represents these cultural changes. The war injury makes his manhood useless.  Jake`s personality represents the most obvious example of devalued manliness. But, all war veterans feel insecure about their masculinity.

The writer shows it indirectly, when he describes war veterans` cruelty toward Cohn. They mock him when he follows Brett around and they criticize his weakness. By making fun of Cohn`s weakness, they cope with their fears of being weak and not manly enough.  The third theme in the novel is the destructiveness of sex. For instance, sexual jealousy makes Cohn forget about his moral code and assault Jake, Mike and Romero. Besides, Brett doesn`t want to enter into relationship with Jake because he is not able to fulfill her sexual desires.

She rejects their deep mutual love, just because of sex. Brett`s unconstrained promiscuity makes her lovers unhappy and it disrupts relationships among them. Brett thinks that she is a peril to Romero because her strength and independence will, in future , weaken his strength and independence. The most significant motifs in the novel are: the failure of communication, excessive drinking and false friendships. Jake and his friends cannot talk sincerely. In other words they cannot communicate.

Their conversations are almost never truthful. Although their memories of the war torture them, they are unable to share this anguish with others. They can talk about the war only in a very humorous or banal way. Another motif in the novel is excessive drinking. Nearly all war veterans are alcoholics. Alcohol abuse allows them to endure their aimless lives. They turn to alcohol in an attempt to ease their emotional pain. But, the writer implies that the state of drunkenness only aggravates their pain. 

Hemingway describes the disadvantages of alcoholism. Alcohol often brings out the worst in a man. For instance, war veterans have uncontrollable outbursts of rage, cruelty and violence when they are intoxicated. Nevertheless, Hemingway does not portray drinking in an entirely negative light. He indicates that it can sometimes be a relaxing activity. False friendships present the third motif in the novel. War veterans often experience failure to communicate. Their friendships are rarely founded on affection.

For example, Jake meets a bicycle team manager and they have a drink together. They have a pleasant conversation and agree to meet the next morning. But, Jake oversleeps their meeting, disregarding the fact that he will never meet this man again. Jake and Cohn display a very dark side of false friendship. Cohn truly likes Jake. However, Jake is forced to hide his hostility toward Cohn. Furthermore, Jake is jealous because of Cohn`s affair with Brett.

CORPUS- Hemingway, Ernest. (2006). The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner.

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