With a simple reading of the novel
, Ernest Hemingway
seemingly praises unemployed
and irresponsible characters
. Everyone is a drunk
and a sex addict
. However, one shouldn’t look at The Sun Also Rises with the complacent, limited view of a late twentieth century person
, but as a member of the "Lost Generation
World War I was the most horrific and devastating war ever up to the time of the novel. Instead of the gallant and fantastic images of war depicted in traditional literature, the "Great War" signaled a complete change in the view of humanity. It wasn’t a war fought on principle, but on alliances. Armies would remain stagnant for weeks as they blindly fired at an unseeable enemy kilometers away. "Trench warfare" premiered and wiped out the optimistic images of valiant troops heroically charging the enemy on the battlefield (the American Civil War was just under fifty years before). Everything that the soldiers had learned about the world and humanity proved to be lies and fabrication. Even after the war, the world forgot the returning soldiers and tried to act as if the world continued as it always had. Turned off by humanity, this "Lost Generation" tried to find superficial pleasures to replace the previous methods of spiritual fulfillment.
Ernest Hemingway, a World War I veteran himself, beautifully and skillfully captures the difficulties of his generation. In The Sun Also Rises, he introduces a group of literary "friends"--all American and British expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s. The group traverses the city, visiting bars, dancing, and wooing the opposite sex. The lead character, Jacob Barnes, tells the story through the first person. In various interludes, we learn Jacob has affection for Lady Brett, an example of the Twenty’s "flapper" image that the media loved to exploit. However, every other man in the group also has fantasies of a relationship with Brett. Eager to fit her flapper role, Brett changes relationships quicker than she changes clothes. She is a "new woman" of her times--liberated from traditional conventions and representing a more liberal view of sexuality. In a general view, all the characters in this group reject pre-war notions and have desires for the superficial.
Hemingway’s terse and simple writing portrays their conduct very succinctly. His literary tales are so distinctive that critics have come to recognize it as the "Hemingway Style." Adjectives are rare in describing the group’s dialogues with one another. A simple nod of the head can tell the emotions of one of the characters. Hemingway contrasted starkly with the florid, overdone prose of his contemporaries. The lives of Jacob (Jake) Barnes, Lady Brett, and the others simply would not have fit conventional prose. However, some people take this to mean that the characters themselves were also simple, shallow, and unemotional humans. Nothing could be further from the truth--the Lost Generation’s members were protective, but also very complex.
The characters always find ways to talk around the problem. Of course these people have complicated emotions, but how can one put their thoughts into words? Hemingway’s writing fits perfectly in these situations. One of the characters will try to muster up the courage to say what he feels, but then become distracted and ask for another drink, or go for a walk, or leave the thought for another day. This is when some readers find the book idiotic and pointless. A conversation will go on for pages, but no obvious forward plot movement appears. But the fascination in these conversations comes from the psychology in the characters.
Jake is an "anti-protagonist." Literary analysts have attached a label to the lead male characters that always appear in Hemingway’s prose: the "code hero." The characters try to act macho, but underneath they are emotional wrecks. They drink their lives away while continually fretting about death and appearing effeminate. Jake possesses all these traits, and in addition is physically impotent from a wound he received in the war. Impotence has much significance in the literary arts, even in Hemingway’s other writings. In his short story "Hills Like White Elephants," the consequences of human fertility (deciding to have abortions) contrast with the beauty and natural fertility of the Spanish countryside. Jake’s impotence signifies emptiness and a lack of masculinity. Jake is not a lovable protagonist, but he is honest and--most of all--human.
How does the bull fight fit into all of this? Up until Pamplona, the story follows a monotonous pattern: eat, drink, date, drink, work, eat, drink . . . . The bull fight introduces a substantial change in the pace of the novel. In earlier years, Jake visited Pamplona numerous times to witness the bull fights and became a true "aficion"--or lover of the sport. Disenchanted with the world, Jake tries desperately to find "pure" satisfaction. Jake had just fought in the Great War and now had a disturbed view of the world. Therefore, he looked to the past. Western civilization has long glorified the Roman Empire. Simply look at Gladiator--a motion picture released in the spring of 2000--and we see that society still romanticizes warriors and their strength and glory. Such was the case with Jake Barnes. He longed for the world of tragedy and triumph that the war lacked. Barbaric as bull fighting is, it still pits man and beast against each other and the victor claims all honor. In the late twentieth century, bull fighting is merely a part of the Spanish culture--something to respect and honor. But for the Lost Generation, it embodied all that could fill their internal void. Only by placing oneself in the immediate post-World War I world can one understand the importance of bull fighting to the novel.
Dividing history into epochs by generation began once the Great War concluded. Since then we’ve had the World War II generation, Baby Boomers, and Generation X. All too frequently, modern day readers of literature try to relate everything ever written to our times. This is a mistake and a bad habit. One has to assume the position of a person in the Lost Generation. Hemingway created a masterpiece attempting to be as universal as possible, but modern day readers try to reject it with petty nitpicking. The Sun Also Rises succeeds in telling what war does to humanity.