Upon its publication in 1926, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was instantly recognized as one of the important American novels of the post-World War I period. This was in part the result of the fact that sophisticated readers identified current expatriate celebrities among the book’s characters. As most of these personages faded into obscurity, however, this aspect of the novel soon lost its appeal. A more important reason for the book’s success is that it perfectly captured the mood and style of the American artistic and intellectual exiles who drank, loved, and searched for meaning on the Paris Left Bank in the aftermath of that first world struggle.
The principal theme of The Sun Also Rises is indicated by two epigraphs. Gertrude Stein’s “you are all a lost generation” encapsulates the ambiguous and pointless lives of Hemingway’s exiles as they aimlessly wander about the Continent, drinking, making love, and traveling from place to place and party to party. The quote from Ecclesiastes, which gives the novel its title, implies a larger frame of reference, a sense of permanence, order, and value. If the activities of the characters seem to arise out of Stein’s quotation, their search for new meanings to replace the old ones—or at least to enable them to deal with that loss—demonstrates their desire to connect with the biblical idea.
Early in the novel the hero, Jake Barnes, declines to kiss Georgette, a prostitute, on the grounds that he is “sick.” “Everybody’s sick. I’m sick too,” she responds. This sickness motif is opposed in another early conversation Jake has, this one with Count Mippipopolous, a most vivid minor character, who tells him “that is the secret. You must get to know the values.” The search for values and the willingness to pay the price, first to acquire them and then to live by them, are what separates some of Hemingway’s exiles from simple, pointless hedonism. At the center of this search for values is the Hemingway hero, Jake. As in all of Hemingway’s important fictions, The Sun Also Rises is a novel of education—of learning to live with the conditions faced.
Jake’s problem is complicated by his war injury, for, having been emasculated, Jake’s “affair” with Lady Brett Ashley takes on a comical aspect, as he himself freely admits. Hemingway, however, has a very serious intention. Jake’s wound is a metaphor for the condition of the entire expatriate group. They have all been damaged in some fundamental way by the war—physically, morally, psychologically, or economically—and their aimless existence can be traced back to it. The real symbolic importance of Jake’s wound is that while it deprives him of the capacity to perform sexually, it does not rid him of the desire. The people in The Sun Also Rises fervently want meaning and fulfillment, but they lack the ability and means to find it.
The heroes in Hemingway’s major works learn values in two ways: through their own actions and by contact with other characters who already know them. These exemplars understand the values either, like Count Mippipopolous, from long, hard experience or, like the bullfighter, Pedro Romero, intuitively and automatically. Those characters never articulate their values, however, they only embody them in action. Indeed, once talked about, they become, in the Hemingway lexicon, spoiled. Jake’s education can be best seen in his relationship to Robert Cohn, Romero, and Brett.
Critics have speculated on why Hemingway begins the novel with a long discussion of Cohn, a relatively minor character. Clearly, Cohn embodies the old, false, romantic values that Hemingway is reacting against. While it is hard to define precisely what the important values are, it is easy to say what they are not.
In the beginning, Jake feels that Cohn is “nice and awful” but tolerates and pities him as a case of “arrested development.” By the end of the book, he thoroughly hates him. Cohn’s flaws include a false sense of superiority—reinforced by his pugilistic skills—and a romantic attitude toward himself and his activities that distorts his relationship with everyone around him. To reinforce this false romanticism, Cohn alters reality to suit his preconceptions. Falling in love with Brett, he refuses to see her realistically but idealizes her. When she spends a weekend with him, because she thinks it would be good for him, he treats it as a great affair and demands the rights of a serious lover, striking out at all the other men who approach her. Cohn’s false perception of reality and his self-romanticization underscore his chief fault, the cardinal sin in Hemingway’s view: Cohn refuses to “pay his bill.”
Cohn’s romantic self-image is finally destroyed by the bullfighter Romero. Affronted that Brett is taken from him, Cohn forces the young man into a prolonged fistfight. Although totally outmanned as a boxer, Romero refuses to give in to Cohn, and after absorbing considerable punishment, he rallies and humiliates his opponent by sheer will, courage, and endurance. His romantic bubble deflated, Cohn bursts into tears and fades from the novel.
It is appropriate that Cohn’s false values be exposed by Romero, because his example is also central to the educations of Jake and Brett. As an instinctively great bullfighter, Romero embodies the values in action and especially in the bullring. In a world bereft of religious certainties, Hemingway saw the bullfighter’s performance as an aesthetic ceremony that substituted for obsolete religious ritual. Without transcendental meanings, human dignity must come from the manner in which individuals face their certain destiny; the bullfighter, who repeatedly does so by choice, was, for Hemingway, the supreme modern hero, providing he performed with skill, precision, style, and without falsity (that is, making it look harder or more dangerous than it really is). Shortly before the bullfight, Jake’s group watches the local citizenry run with the bulls down the main street of the town. They see one man gored to death from behind. The following day, that same bull is presented to Romero, and he kills it perfectly by standing directly in front of it as he drives home his sword. This obvious symbolism states in a single image the most important of all the values, the need to confront reality directly and honestly.
It is not only Romero’s example that helps to educate Jake but also Jake’s involvement in the Brett-Romero affair. His role as intermediary is the result of his would-be romance with her. They are long in love and deeply frustrated by Jake’s funny-sad war injury. Yet, despite the impossibility of a meaningful relationship, Jake can neither accept Brett as a friend nor cut himself off from her, although he knows that such a procedure would be the wisest course of action. She can only be a temptress to him, and she is quite accurate when she refers to herself as Circe.
The only time Jake feels whole and happy is when he and Bill Gorton take a fishing trip at Bayonne. There, in a world without women, they fish with skill and precision, drink wine (naturally chilled in the stream) instead of whiskey, relate to the hearty exuberance of the Basque peasantry, and feel serene in the rhythms of nature. Once they return to town and Jake meets Brett at San Sebastian, his serenity is destroyed.
Jake puts his group up at a hotel owned by Montoya, an old friend and the most honored bullfighting patron. Montoya is an admirer and accepts Jake as someone who truly understands and appreciates bullfighting, not only with his intellect but also with his whole being. Montoya even trusts Jake to the point of asking advice about the handling of this newest, potentially greatest young bullfighter, Romero. When Jake presents Brett to Romero, fully understanding the implications of his act, he violates Montoya’s trust. Through his frustrated love for Brett, Romero is exposed to her corrupting influence. When Jake realizes his own weakness and recognizes that it cost him his aficionado status, he is left a sadder, wiser Hemingway hero.
Romero is not destroyed because Brett sends him away before she can do any damage. More than simple altruism is involved in her decision. Life with Romero holds the possibility of wholeness for her—as it holds the possibility of dissipation for him. By sending him away rather than risk damaging him, she relinquishes her last chance for health and happiness.
It is unclear whether or not Jake’s insights and Brett’s final moral act give meaning to the lives of these exiles. During their Bayonne fishing trip, Jake’s friend Bill sings a song about “pity and irony,” and that seems to be the overall tone of the book and especially of the ending: pity for the personal anguish and aimless searching of these people, but ironic detachment toward characters whose lives and situations are, at best, at least as comical as they are tragic.