also titled:To Bitch or not to Bitch:
In 1926, Ernest Hemingway unleashed The Sun Also Rises, a controversial novel about a “burned out, hollow and smashed” group of expatriates who travel from Paris to the bull fights in Pamplona. Some of them sought to “truly live” while others simply wanted to escape from their lives and pasts. For the most part, they lack religion in any practical sense: it “never worked very well” (249). However, they do have a simple system for moral judgment: to live in relative peace with one’s neighbor, to not cause a fuss, to be full of “irony and pity” (118), to mind one’s own business. As Bret loved putting it: to not be a “bitch”. Hemingway illustrates the workability of this concept by setting up Bill and Jake as non-bitches, while Brett and Robert are.
It is first important to explore the moral grounds of this standard. What exactly constitutes a “bitch”? The American Heritage Dictionary defines “Bitch” as “A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing” and, in verb form, “To complain; grumble”. Undue selfishness or complaining could qualify one as a bitch, as would bossiness. It would be better to simply “go with the flow” and not buck the system. Insults and dislikes are allowed, but only if carefully veiled. This ethical standard is interesting, because it deals more of what one must not be rather than how one should act. However, one should have, as Bill puts it, “irony and pity” (118). This is made up of a healthy dose of cynicism and jadedness. In Hemingway’s worldview, this not only was an acceptable means of judgment, but it had consequences. By the end of the novel, Bill is probably in the “happiest” position, while Brett and Robert are relatively poor off and dissatisfied.
Bill, and to a lesser extent Jake, personifies a “non-bitch”. Bill actually acts a “prophet” of this pseudo-religion, as he espouses the wisdom: “We should not question” (126). Although he suggests this tongue-in-cheek as a mockery of established religion, it applies equally well to not being a bitch: don’t question the actions of those around you, don’t impose your morality on others. He later rambles nonsensically, but this just drives home the key point that the philosophy is simple: any additional philosophy or interpretation of it is unnecessary and frivolous. Jake, the narrator, is also a non-bitch much of the time. He tolerates Brett’s sexual excursions without question or reprimand, simply accepting her for who she is and lending her an ear when she is upset. He even tolerates Cohen, the “steer” who is always sulking around. By not feeling a natural “right” to anything and by simply “going with the flow”, he is liked by most of the group and at the end of the novel is not completely miserable. Perhaps not being miserable is the suitable reward for not being a bitch, and is surely all the disillusioned expatriates can hope for.
Brett and Cohen, on the other hand, are bitches. Cohen “had a wonderful quality of bringing out the worst in anyone” (104) through his clinging to the group and his feeling that the world owed him something. He embodies the “bitch” attitude by refusing to believe that he doesn’t mean anything to Brett. By not minding his own business, he violates the simple rules of the “new morality”. He judges the actions of the other characters in the novel, calling Jake a “pimp” as well as other remarks. By doing this, he causes tension and disrupts the flow of the vacation. As a result, he ends the story miserable and alone, justified by the fact that, by being a bitch, he brought it on himself. Brett, too, is a “bitch”. However, she is much more subtle than Cohen. Rather than judging others or boss others around, she complicates everything by becoming a source of attention, attraction, and ultimately tension. She lords over the male’s emotions and draws them into conflict. However, she realizes the disharmony she causes and regrets it, so although she is nearly alone at the end of the novel, except for Jake, she is given a chance at redemption and returning to her old life with Michael.
Hemingway’s moral views conflicted heavily with the entrenched standards of the time. For him, there was no arbitrary “good” or “evil”, no final judge. But rather, life was a series of judgments, and there was not being a bitch “instead of God” (249). For Hemingway, this made sense. Not only was it something that could be applied, but it also had real consequences to the people who obeyed or disobeyed it.