Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is a deceptive novel. A cynic could say that the young writer’s sparse style was not as well developed as in his later works, leading to a boring travelogue about alcoholic expatriates in Paris and Spain. Hemingway is my favorite writer, and in anticipation of going to see the Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars exhibit later this winter, I’ve been rereading my collection of his novels. The Sun Also Rises is first up on my list.
Upon my first reading of The Sun Also Rises I found myself nodding off at some of the more tedious passages in the book; the view that the novel is overrated or underwhelming are not unfounded. The middle part of the novel where Jake Barnes, the narrator, and his friends Bill Hopkins and Robert Cohn travel to Spain to go trout fishing has many of these scenes which are well rendered, but have little to do with the plot or characterization.
It was baking hot in the square when we came out after lunch with our bags and the rod-case to go to Burguete. People were on top of the bus, and others were climbing the ladder. Bill went up and Robert sat beside Bill to save a place for me, and I went back in the hotel to get a couple of bottles of wine to take with us. (Page 81, from Ernest Hemingway: Four Novels edition by Barnes and Noble)
I reread the novel recently with slightly more maturity and patience than when I did in high school. Rereading the story was a joy, and I also picked up on much more than I did in my first reading. The Sun Also Rises analyzes the way men and women relate romantically, which is difficult to pick up on with his stripped down, journalistic style. Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley had a love affair, but Jake will not love her; he is impotent because of his Great War service. Brett, however, is a very attractive woman draws the attention of several suitors in the novel; all the while, she is to be married to Mike Campbell. Robert Cohn (also married) pines for Brett.
In the novel, Brett forms the planet around which the men in the novel orbit, with the sole exception of Jake Barnes who in a tragic way transcends the games played out between Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell. Cohn goes out of his way to help Brett and Mike when they have to get to Pamplona, while Brett marries the bankrupt, ex-soldier Mike for excitement. The sexually ‘liberated’ Brett has the audacity to have an affair with a matador while the group is at the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. As a reader, this part of the narrative is difficult to pick up on because of Hemingway’s sparse prose. Brett represents the image of the 1920s flapper with bobbed hair and her proclivity for promiscuity. Even the masculine name of Brett implies that she (despite being Lady Ashley) is not at all like a prewar upper class woman. Jake refers to her as Brett throughout the novel. On a narrative level this is because they are familiar, but I would argue it reinforces her identity as a female cad.
The ending of the novel is especially poignant when we take the above into consideration. Jake cannot love because of his impotence, while Brett has squandered her ability to bond with a man through her many love affairs. Jake has no illusions about Brett, unlike the other male characters in the novel. He is wounded and cannot consummate his love with any woman, let alone Brett, but he cannot be used by her like Mike Campbell and Robert Cohn.
“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “we could have such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”