1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 18: The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

I am having a hard time making up my mind about this book. When I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I was really excited about having discovered such beautiful and tender, and empathetic prose. Prose that really seemed to be cured in cultural sensitivity and understanding. In reading The Sun Also Rises, I feel as though the book were written by a completely different person. Misogynist overtones, anti-Semitism, and classist biases seemed to be hanging over every character. Are these views just put out there as a matter of documentation? Commentary for? Or against? Some have read the book as one that indulges in misogyny and anti-Semitism, but having read The Old Man and the Sea, I’m inclined to believe that the characters in The Sun Also Rises are meant to be a critique of social norms, and not approval of the attitudes that permeated the era.

The novel focuses around an emasculated protagonist who lost his manhood but not his life in WWI. He is in love with a woman named Brett, who has great affection for him, but a libido so insatiable that a seven-nation army couldn’t hope to satisfy it. She also saw he only true love die of dysentery. In the middle of a divorce that will see her lose her title as a “lady”, Brett and is looking forward to marry a bankrupt high-society fellow named Mike. Jake has a Jewish friend named Cohn who expresses and interest in Brett to Jake, who subtly discourages Cohn’s affections, seemingly out of jealousy, but to no avail as Cohn eventually succeeds in having an affair with Brett. The entire party, plus a friend of Jake’s named Bill all head off to Spain to watch some bullfighting. Brett runs off with a young bullfighter, leaving her fiancé in the wind, loses the bullfighter shortly thereafter, and has Jake pick her up in a cheap hotel to take her home, and on the way she decides to go ahead with her plans to marry Mike while discussing what could have been between she and Jake.

Ernest Hemingway

There seems to be overarching themes of emasculation throughout the novel. Jake literally has lost his manhood and is incapable of having sex. Cohn, who falls in love with Brett, follows her around whilst she is with her fiancé Mike, Mike has to bear witness to Brett’s constant and never-ending affairs (as does Cohn and Jake). And Brett takes on the roll of the traditional male figure in search of perpetual sexual conquests. All the men in Brett’s life (save Bill who is a friend of Jake’s and takes no particular notice of Brett other than to comment that she is attractive), are in love with her, and a whirlwind of tension ensues. Cohn is abused by Mike who berates him, hurls anti-Semitic insults at him and in a socially awkward moment tell Cohn that nobody wants him around, and asks him why he doesn’t leave when it is so clear that nobody wants him there. It is at this moment that I imagine most readers would wonder if Mike should be on the receiving end of this tantrum. But because Jake knows Brett will side with Mike, and Bill is their as a friend of Jake’s, Cohn, though the victim of Mike’s ignorance, is viewed as the one at fault by all involved, but nobody will admit that Brett’s affair with him is what has incited him to behave in such a way. Mike, who is bankrupt, no doubt sees himself emasculated by Cohn, not only because Cohn slept with his wife-to-be, but also because Cohn is Jewish, and well off, and Mike no doubt correlates the two, hence he makes particular effort to insult Cohn based on his ethnicity. Cohn does not stand up for himself and Brett apathetically states: “I hate his damned suffering”, a comment that could be taken to speak to the Jewish community as a whole. Watching one’s suffering at your own hands reminds one of the brutes they are, and it seems like all of Cohn’s ‘friends’ would rather blame him for their own inhumanity than stand up for him.

The misogynist overtones stem mostly from the conflicts caused by Brett. She is the source of every dispute. She is the reason Mike berates Cohn. She is the reason Cohn beats both Mike and Jake, and the bullfighter, and she is the reason that Jake wallows in subtle self pity and self sacrifice throughout the novel (Brett tells Jake repeatedly that she wants to live with him, knowing full well she doesn’t and that Jake is too much of a man to take her on in a romantic relationship because of ‘war injury’ and then can simply blame Jake for not pursuing a relationship, which allows her to accept his hospitality without having to return it). With ‘flapper’s and the second wave of feminism storming through, and women’s suffrage, it was certainly an era where women were obtaining some of the public power that men had, but were men really as emasculated by these things as the characters in Hemingway’s novel? I highly doubt it,, but it is unclear as to whether or not this is what Hemingway is trying to say, or whether he is simply saying that men have emasculated themselves, via social avenues such as way and economics.

Hemingway seems to try to create a romantic vision of the bull fighting, or the beauty and brutality that co-exists in the act. The beautiful creatures, the beautiful and brave men, the skill, and the brutal climax that it all amounts to. But he fails to do this in my eyes. I can see what he is trying to get at, but having read The Old Man and the Sea, he captures all these themes perfectly in that novel, the brotherhood between man and beast, between hunter and prey, and the bullfighting scenes in The Sun Also Rise were merely practice for what would become the beautifully tragic portrayal of man vs. marline that occurs in The Old Man and the Sea.

The only character that I really came way from The Sun Also Rises liking is Bill. His arrival in the novel sees him deliver sharp, short, repetitive lines to tell a narrative, and when he arrives in Spain after a relaxing fishing trip, he is the only one who neither indulges in the anti-Semitism (though he doesn’t like Cohn), and knows enough not to get involved with Brett, who beautiful though she is, is nothing but trouble. And he also brings my favourite line in the novel; Road to hell paved with un-bought stuffed dogs. BRILLIANT!!!! Though he all has the starkly contradictory line: Awful noble-looking N-word. Of course he didn’t say N-word. Though he does seem to have an appreciation for people based on who they are, rather than what they were born, even if he employs terms that are most certainly culturally insensitive now.

The characters are largely unsympathetic. People use each other. Look down upon each other. Manipulate each other. Live a life of excess. Order hard boiled eggs like they were Cool Hand Luke, and drink like they never hope to live a sober moment in their lives. They do not think about the bill. But the bill will come: “The bill always came.”

Up next: Inglorious Basterds, by Quentin Tarantino

If you liked this, try:

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: No a huge fan of this book, but it takes place in the same era, and seems to carry with it some common themes, if not at least a common setting. It is in America, so the whole idea of expatriates is moot, but like those Americans living in Europe, Fitzgerald’s characters are members of the lost generation. New money meets old money. Hypocritical values (you know, that whole probation thing), and references to service in WWI. Oh, and female characters with short hair?

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway; As I mentioned, Hemingway achieves in The Old Man and the Sea, what he sought to do in The Sun Also Rises, at least, in the second half of the novel. You do get a sense of what Hemingway is aiming for in The Sun Also Rises (in terms of the beauty and brutality of man’s relationship with nature), but in The Old Man and the sea, you see him achieve it.

Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis; The other lost generation. Ellis’s protagonist reminds me very mush of Jake. He is a passive participant in and indulgent lifestyle where everybody seems to be living on credit and doesn’t give a thought about when the bill comes in, until it finally does. Avoid the film adaptation at all costs! It is HORRIBLE!!!!!

Words I thought I’d look up:

Picador: A bull fighter on horse back.

Torero: A bull fighter on foot.

Cogido: Spanish for taken.

Encierro: Spanish for confinement.

Callejon: Spanish for street.

Muletas: Is the stick the red clothe hangs from in a bull fight.

Banderillos: A decorated stick that is stabbed into a bull by the bullfighter as the bull passes.

Corrida: A word for bull fighting.

Fistula: Passage between organs.

Barrera: Exercise bar.

Avila: A Spanish city.

Escorial: Protector on journey.

Scads: Large quantities.

Acetylene: Flammable gas! I know all about gas!

Idiom: A fixed expression with no literal interpretation.

Armoire: A freestanding cupboard.

Cordon: A group of people and/or vehicles circling an area.

Hors d’oeuvres: appetizers?

Sommelier: A wine.

Semaphore: A system of signalling.

Pelouse: Spanish for lwan?

Pesage: Spanish for weighing?

Tromper: Spanish for deceive?

Bilge: Lower part of a boat.

Ostentatious: Rich and showy.

Basques: The lowest singing pitch.

Pelota: Spanish for ball (as in the item lacking from Jake’s scrotum!)

Carabineers: a soldier armed with a light-weight rifle.

Baize: Green woollen cloth.

Darbs: Umm… I think it is translated to ‘work’. but don’t quote me on that.

Tight: Slang, piss ass drunk!

Aguardiente: A Spanish word for a generic alcoholic beverage.

Desencajonada: Letting the bulls out of their cages.

Aficionado: Bullfighting enthusiast.

Apertures: Highest point.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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