In The Sun Also Rises, how is Jake Barnes' wound symbolic of the American Dream?
Jake's wound is symbolic of the impotence or lack of power of the American Dream over the young generation coming into its own in the 1920s. The American Dream is a dream of unlimited progress and potential, represented by the possibilities inherent in a new continent. It is, as Hemingway's contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald described it in The Great Gatsby, the dream that we can remake history, start over from a pure, pristine vantage point, and create an Edenic future. It is the conviction that we can make the world a better place.
Jake has just seen the future as shown him through World War I. It has been not the Garden of Eden but a jaunt through hell. If the American Dream is about dreams becoming reality and the future unfolding in an ever improving vista, Jake's wound symbolizes the deep, disillusioning blow the First World War has rendered to much of his generation. Jake's hopes and dreams, like those of his peers, have been shattered. He can't find a way forward. He doesn't see the future as fruitful and hopeful. Not only his body but his spirit is impotent.
When they are going fishing, Bill says to Jake:
"You ought to dream . . . All our biggest business men have been dreamers. Look at Ford. Look at President Coolidge. Look at Rockefeller. Look at Jo Davidson."
Jake simply ignores him. The idea of dreaming has no meaning to him and does not inspire him. He simply goes on doing what he was doing, surviving by doggedly living in the present moment:
I disjointed my rod and Bill's and packed them in the rod-case. I put the reels in the tackle-bag. Bill had packed the rucksack and we put one of the trout-bags in. I carried the other.
The Sun Also Rises explores the disillusionment and emotional detachment that existed for many after WWI and the failure of the American Dream. This Dream embodied the idea of prosperity for everyone, material success, and a happy life. Unfortunately, this Dream was not a reality.
Jake Barnes is a character who is disillusioned and both emotionally and spiritually drained. He has become impotent because of his wound in the war. On this physical level, he cannot connect to his love interest, Brett Ashley. However, on a deeper level, he appears to have become impotent, powerless, in other areas of his life as well. His life as an ex-pat in Europe revolves around a loss of connection to home, to family, to life. He says he does not think about his wound, yet that is not true, as it has changed his life. Jake is in search of a meaning to life, which he does not find in Paris.
It is when he travels to Burguete, Spain (chapter 12) that he finds some meaning that satisfies him and allows him to find peace in nature while he is fishing. The Hemingway Hero finds comfort in ritual because ritual can be controlled, unlike life. The ritual of fishing provides a sensory, peaceful experience away from the world of lost values. The country in Burguete is "green and fresh" and rejuvenates Jake.
Jake's wound is symbolic of the loss of meaning in life and the loss of happiness; the same loss that the false hope of the American Dream provided. It is only when he can reconnect to something real, like nature, that he is able to escape alienation and emptiness.
Hemingway's novel, like many modernist works, challenges the ideal of progress and regeneration that previously characterized American thought. In the aftermath of the war, the traditional pillars of meaning (religion, the state) were destabilized and modernist thinkers sought new moral standards.
Jake, rendered sterile, embodies this new reality. Struggling to accept his condition, he thinks "Try and take it sometime. Try and take it." Hemingway's use of "it" often refers to larger issues. At stake here is not just Jake's wound, but also the wounds of modern times.
The novel opens with an epigraph by Gertrude Stein: "You are all a lost generation." This refers both to those who lost their lives in the war, and also those who lost their moral and spiritual compass. Denied the possibility of romantic love, Jake can no longer rely on the old markers of progress and belief. Similarly, the American Dream, which, as a mythology is strongly dependent on these notions of progress and regeneration, is also sterile. Its empty promise must be replaced by a new philosophy.