Paris and the Lost Generation
The first book of The Sun Also Rises is set in mid-1920s Paris. Americans were drawn to Paris in the Roaring Twenties by the favorable exchange rate, with as many as 200,000 English-speaking expatriates living there. The Paris Tribune reported in 1925 that Paris had an American Hospital, an American Library, and an American Chamber of Commerce. Many American writers were disenchanted with the US, where they found less artistic freedom than in Europe. Hemingway had more artistic freedom in Paris than in the US at a period when Ulysses, written by his friend James Joyce, was banned and burned in New York.
The themes of The Sun Also Rises appear in its two epigraphs. The first is an allusion to the "Lost Generation," a term coined by Gertrude Stein referring to the post-war generation;[note 2] the other epigraph is a long quotation from Ecclesiastes: "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." Hemingway told his editor Max Perkins that the book was not so much about a generation being lost, but that "the earth abideth forever." He thought the characters in The Sun Also Rises may have been "battered" but were not lost.
Hemingway scholar Wagner-Martin writes that Hemingway wanted the book to be about morality, which he emphasized by changing the working title from Fiesta to The Sun Also Rises. Wagner-Martin claims that the book can be read either as a novel about bored expatriates or as a morality tale about a protagonist who searches for integrity in an immoral world. Months before Hemingway left for Pamplona, the press was depicting the Parisian Latin Quarter, where he lived, as decadent and depraved. He began writing the story of a matador corrupted by the influence of the Latin Quarter crowd; he expanded it into a novel about Jake Barnes at risk of being corrupted by wealthy and inauthentic expatriates.
The characters form a group, sharing similar norms, and each greatly affected by the war. Hemingway captures the angst of the age and transcends the love story of Brett and Jake, although they are representative of the period: Brett is starved for reassurance and love and Jake is sexually maimed. His wound symbolizes the disability of the age, the disillusion, and the frustrations felt by an entire generation.
Hemingway thought he lost touch with American values while living in Paris, but his biographer Michael Reynolds claims the opposite, seeing evidence of the author's midwestern American values in the novel. Hemingway admired hard work. He portrayed the matadors and the prostitutes, who work for a living, in a positive manner, but Brett, who prostitutes herself, is emblematic of "the rotten crowd" living on inherited money. It is Jake, the working journalist, who pays the bills again and again when those who can pay do not. Hemingway shows, through Jake's actions, his disapproval of the people who did not pay up. Reynolds says that Hemingway shows the tragedy, not so much of the decadence of the Montparnasse crowd, but of the decline in American values of the period. As such, the author created an American hero who is impotent and powerless. Jake becomes the moral center of the story. He never considers himself part of the expatriate crowd because he is a working man; to Jake a working man is genuine and authentic, and those who do not work for a living spend their lives posing.
Women and love
The twice-divorced Lady Brett Ashley represented the liberated New Woman (in the 1920s, divorces were common and easy to be had in Paris). James Nagel writes that, in Brett, Hemingway created one of the more fascinating women in 20th-century American literature. Sexually promiscuous, she is a denizen of Parisian nightlife and cafés. In Pamplona she sparks chaos: in her presence, the men drink too much and fight. She also seduces the young bullfighter Romero and becomes a Circe in the festival. Critics describe her variously as complicated, elusive, and enigmatic; Donald Daiker writes that Hemingway "treats her with a delicate balance of sympathy and antipathy." She is vulnerable, forgiving, independent—qualities that Hemingway juxtaposes with the other women in the book, who are either prostitutes or overbearing nags.
Nagel considers the novel a tragedy. Jake and Brett have a relationship that becomes destructive because their love cannot be consummated. Conflict over Brett destroys Jake's friendship with Robert Cohn, and her behavior in Pamplona affects Jake's hard-won reputation among the Spaniards. Meyers sees Brett as a woman who wants sex without love while Jake can only give her love without sex. Although Brett sleeps with many men, it is Jake she loves. Dana Fore writes that Brett is willing to be with Jake in spite of his disability, in a "non-traditional erotic relationship." Other critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Nina Baym see her as a supreme bitch; Fiedler sees Brett as one of the "outstanding examples of Hemingway's 'bitch women.'" Jake becomes bitter about their relationship, as when he says, "Send a girl off with a man .... Now go and bring her back. And sign the wire with love."
Critics interpret the Jake–Brett relationship in various ways. Daiker suggests that Brett's behavior in Madrid—after Romero leaves and when Jake arrives at her summons—reflects her immorality. Scott Donaldson thinks Hemingway presents the Jake–Brett relationship in such a manner that Jake knew "that in having Brett for a friend 'he had been getting something for nothing' and that sooner or later he would have to pay the bill." Daiker notes that Brett relies on Jake to pay for her train fare from Madrid to San Sebastián, where she rejoins her fiancé Mike. In a piece Hemingway cut, he has Jake thinking, "you learned a lot about a woman by not sleeping with her." By the end of the novel, although Jake loves Brett, he appears to undergo a transformation in Madrid when he begins to distance himself from her. Reynolds believes that Jake represents the "everyman," and that in the course of the narrative he loses his honor, faith, and hope. He sees the novel as a morality play with Jake as the person who loses the most.
The corrida, the fiesta, and nature
In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway contrasts Paris with Pamplona, and the frenzy of the fiesta with the tranquillity of the Spanish countryside. Spain was Hemingway's favorite European country; he considered it a healthy place, and the only country "that hasn't been shot to pieces." He was profoundly affected by the spectacle of bullfighting, writing,
It isn't just brutal like they always told us. It's a great tragedy—and the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and takes more guts and skill and guts again than anything possibly could. It's just like having a ringside seat at the war with nothing going to happen to you.
He demonstrated what he considered the purity in the culture of bullfighting—called afición—and presented it as an authentic way of life, contrasted against the inauthenticity of the Parisian bohemians. To be accepted as an aficionado was rare for a non-Spaniard; Jake goes through a difficult process to gain acceptance by the "fellowship of afición."
The Hemingway scholar Allen Josephs thinks the novel is centered on the corrida (the bullfighting), and how each character reacts to it. Brett seduces the young matador; Cohn fails to understand and expects to be bored; Jake understands fully because only he moves between the world of the inauthentic expatriates and the authentic Spaniards; the hotel keeper Montoya is the keeper of the faith; and Romero is the artist in the ring—he is both innocent and perfect, and the one who bravely faces death. The corrida is presented as an idealized drama in which the matador faces death, creating a moment of existentialism or nada (nothingness), broken when he vanquishes death by killing the bull.
Hemingway presents matadors as heroic characters dancing in a bullring. He considered the bullring as war with precise rules, in contrast to the messiness of the real war that he, and by extension Jake, experienced. Critic Keneth Kinnamon notes that young Romero is the novel's only honorable character. Hemingway named Romero after Pedro Romero, an 18th-century bullfighter who killed thousands of bulls in the most difficult manner: having the bull impale itself on his sword as he stood perfectly still. Reynolds says Romero, who symbolizes the classically pure matador, is the "one idealized figure in the novel." Josephs says that when Hemingway changed Romero's name from Guerrita and imbued him with the characteristics of the historical Romero, he also changed the scene in which Romero kills a bull to one of recibiendo (receiving the bull) in homage to the historical namesake.
Before the group arrives in Pamplona, Jake and Bill take a fishing trip to the Irati River. As Harold Bloom points out, the scene serves as an interlude between the Paris and Pamplona sections, "an oasis that exists outside linear time." More importantly, on another level it reflects "the mainstream of American fiction beginning with the Pilgrims seeking refuge from English oppression"—the prominent theme in American literature of escaping into the wilderness, as seen in Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Thoreau. Fiedler calls the theme "The Sacred Land"; he thinks the American West is evoked in The Sun Also Rises by the Pyrenees and given a symbolic nod with the name of the "Hotel Montana." In Hemingway's writing, nature is a place of refuge and rebirth, according to Stoltzfus, where the hunter or fisherman gains a moment of transcendence at the moment the prey is killed. Nature is the place where men act without women: men fish, men hunt, men find redemption. In nature Jake and Bill do not need to discuss the war because their war experience, paradoxically, is ever-present. The nature scenes serve as counterpoint to the fiesta scenes.
All of the characters drink heavily during the fiesta and generally throughout the novel. In his essay "Alcoholism in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises," Matts Djos says the main characters exhibit alcoholic tendencies such as depression, anxiety and sexual inadequacy. He writes that Jake's self-pity is symptomatic of an alcoholic, as is Brett's out-of-control behavior. William Balassi thinks that Jake gets drunk to avoid his feelings for Brett, notably in the Madrid scenes at the end where he has three martinis before lunch and drinks three bottles of wine with lunch. Reynolds, however, believes the drinking is relevant as set against the historical context of Prohibition in the United States. The atmosphere of the fiesta lends itself to drunkenness, but the degree of revelry among the Americans also reflects a reaction against Prohibition. Bill, visiting from the US, drinks in Paris and in Spain. Jake is rarely drunk in Paris where he works but on vacation in Pamplona, he drinks constantly. Reynolds says that Prohibition split attitudes about morality, and in the novel Hemingway made clear his dislike of Prohibition.
Masculinity and gender
Critics have seen Jake as an ambiguous representative of Hemingway manliness. For example, in the bar scene in Paris, Jake is angry at some homosexual men. The critic Ira Elliot suggests that Hemingway viewed homosexuality as an inauthentic way of life, and that he aligns Jake with homosexual men because, like them, Jake does not have sex with women. Jake's anger shows his self-hatred at his inauthenticity and lack of masculinity. His sense of masculine identity is lost—he is less than a man. Elliot wonders if Jake's wound perhaps signifies latent homosexuality, rather than only a loss of masculinity; the emphasis in the novel, however, is on Jake's interest in women. Hemingway's writing has been called homophobic because of the language his characters use. For example, in the fishing scenes, Bill confesses his fondness for Jake but then goes on to say, "I couldn't tell you that in New York. It'd mean I was a faggot."
In contrast to Jake's troubled masculinity, Romero represents an ideal masculine identity grounded in self-assurance, bravery, competence, and uprightness. The Davidsons note that Brett is attracted to Romero for these reasons, and they speculate that Jake might be trying to undermine Romero's masculinity by bringing Brett to him and thus diminishing his ideal stature.
Critics have examined issues of gender misidentification that are prevalent in much of Hemingway's work. He was interested in cross-gender themes, as shown by his depictions of effeminate men and boyish women. In his fiction, a woman's hair is often symbolically important and used to denote gender. Brett, with her short hair, is androgynous and compared to a boy—yet the ambiguity lies in the fact that she is described as a "damned fine-looking woman." While Jake is attracted to this ambiguity, Romero is repulsed by it. In keeping with his strict moral code he wants a feminine partner and rejects Brett, among other things, because she will not grow her hair.
|Mike lay on the bed looking like a death mask of himself. He opened his eyes and looked at me. 'Hello Jake' he said very slowly. 'I'm getting a little sleep. I've wanted a little sleep for a long time ....' 'You'll sleep, Mike. Don't worry, boy.' 'Brett's got a bullfighter,' Mike said. 'But her Jew has gone away .... Damned good thing, what?'|
|— The Sun Also Rises |
Hemingway has been called anti-Semitic, most notably because of the characterization of Robert Cohn in the book. The other characters often refer to Cohn as a Jew, and once as a 'kike'. Shunned by the other members of the group, Cohn is characterized as "different," unable or unwilling to understand and participate in the fiesta. Cohn is never really part of the group—separated by his difference or his Jewish faith. Critic Susan Beegel goes so far as to claim, "Hemingway never lets the reader forget that Cohn is a Jew, not an unattractive character who happens to be a Jew but a character who is unattractive because he is a Jew." Hemingway critic Josephine Knopf speculates that Hemingway might have wanted to depict Cohn as a "shlemiel" (or fool), but she points out that Cohn lacks the characteristics of a traditional shlemiel.
Cohn is based on Harold Loeb, a fellow writer who rivaled Hemingway for the affections of Lady Duff (the real-life inspiration for Brett). Biographer Michael Reynolds writes that in 1925, Loeb should have declined Hemingway's invitation to join them in Pamplona. Before the trip he was Lady Duff's lover and Hemingway's friend; during the fiasco of the fiesta, he lost Lady Duff and Hemingway's friendship. Hemingway used Loeb as the basis of a character remembered chiefly as a "rich Jew."