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...
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