Illustration of a bull and a bullfighter

The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

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How are bulls and steers differentiated in Chapter 13 of The Sun Also Rises and who in Jake's group are identified as each?

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The difference between bulls and steers is that steers have been castrated, while the bulls have not. As such, the bulls are wild; they "tear in the streets" and "Sometimes they go right after [the steers] and kill them."

Although Jake and Bill are talking about literal bulls and steers in this scene, Hemingway wants us to be thinking about their conversation on a deeper level; that is, we should be considering which members of Jake's group are like bulls and which are like steers.

Certainly, Jake is a steer. Having been made impotent in the war, he is no longer violent or aggressive like a bull. Mike and Robert, on the other hand, almost certainly can be aligned with the bulls. On top of their penchant for fighting, both characters are constantly emphasizing their virility. Perhaps this is most obvious in their attempts to court Brett.

Speaking of Brett, she occupies a sort of middle ground between bull and steer. While she is not as aggressive as Mike or Robert, she does have a tendency to cause trouble.

Another way to look at the relationship between bulls and steers is to correlate it with masculinity and femininity. In Hemingway's time, masculinity was generally valued more than femininity. This is apparent when Bill sarcastically says,

"Must be swell to be a steer."

To be a women or a feminine man in Hemingway's time was to not be considered valuable. While Hemingway does somewhat challenge this notion The Sun Also Rises, it is clear that many of his characters buy into this biased interpretation of reality.

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They let the bulls out of the cages one at a time, and they have steers in the corral to receive them and keep them from fighting, and the bulls tear in at the steers and the steers run around like old maids trying to quiet them down.

Jake explains the relationship between the bulls and the steers in simple terms. The bulls are the star performers, the cynosure of all eyes. The steers are there to look after them.

A steer is a bullock which has been castrated. If left intact, it would have grown to be a bull. The steers, then, represent those who take the passive, traditionally feminine role of caring for the dominant males.

The irony in Jake's group is that the one woman, Lady Brett Ashley, is the nearest among them to being purely a bull. Jake, who is unable to perform sexually due to a war wound, is reduced to being a steer. The other two men are something in between. Robert Cohn behaves like a bull but is bullied and accorded a low status by the others. Mike Campbell is perhaps closer to being a bull but has to forgive Brett's infidelity with Robert. All three men are focused on Brett and, to some degree, look after her.

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The bulls are potent, the steers, having been castrated, are not. The bulls are center stage in the sport of bull fighting, and are seen as noble and respected. The steers, on the other hand, exist to serve the bulls. They are put in the corrals with the bulls to

"...keep them from fighting, and the bulls tear in at the steers and the steers run around like old maids trying to quiet them down."

To be a steer is not a good thing; sometimes the bulls "go right after them and kill them." The steers' sole purpose is to "quiet down the bulls and keep them from breaking their horns against the stone walls, or goring each other." As Bill sardonically notes,

"It must be swell being a steer."

In Jake's group, Jake, having been rendered impotent in the war, is the steer. He and Brett seem to have a close tie, but because he cannot consumate their relationship, he is relegated to the role of the steer, forever trying to calm the men who can. Mike and perhaps Robert Cohn are the bulls, vying for the favors of the female, Brett Ashley, although I believe Robert Cohn can also be considered a steer, because when forced to confront Mike, he is sorely lacking in resolve and effectiveness. This relationship among Jake, Brett, Mike, and Robert Cohn, the steer(s), the female, and the bull(s), is representative of the values of the time among the "Lost Generation" because it illustrates that immediate gratification and physical satisfaction are more important than love. It is Jake whom Brett loves, or seems to love, but since he cannot have sex with her, she constantly seeks the company of other men more potent than him. Jake, on his part, can do nothing more than act the part of the steer, looking after Brett while others vie for and win her favors (Chapter 13).

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