Already prepared for his style by the short story collection In Our Time and the subject matter by a short story, “The Undefeated,” Hemingway’s readers asserted that The Sun Also Rises more than satisfied expectations. The novel was appreciated for its modern “ease” and quickly became the novel of the “lost generation.” More recently, the novel has helped rejuvenate Hemingway’s reputation. Critical attention to the novel can categorized as follows: early surprise and discussion of plot (focusing on the bullfighting, Europe, or “the lost generation”); the alternative morality Hemingway provides in the face of disillusionment; the facts of impotency and gender in the novel; and finally, where the novel fits into Hemingway’s reputation.
Except for Allen Tate’s, the first reviews were glowing, congratulatory, and painfully aware of the ubiquitous war fatigue. Conrad Aiken, in the New York Herald Tribune, was struck first and foremost by the bullfighting which he compared to “half a course of psycho-analysis.” “One is thrilled and horrified; but one is also fascinated, and one cannot have enough.” Aiken observes that the novel “works up to, and in a sense is built around, a bullfight.” In addition, he is unaware of anyone using dialogue better than Hemingway does. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review said, “It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts mere literary English to shame. Hemingway knows how . . . to arrange a collection of words which shall betray a great deal more than is to be found in the individual parts.” Lawrence S. Morris, in The New Republic, saw the novel as “one stride toward that objectification” which the current generation needed after rejecting its inherited myths. Tate wrote negatively, in The Nation, that the significance of Hemingway’s subject matter “is mixed or incomplete.” Furthermore, the habit of throwing stones at the great “is disconcerting in the present novel; it strains the context; and one suspects that Mr. Hemingway protests too much. The point he seems to be making is that he is morally superior . . . [to] Mr. Mencken, but it is not yet clear just why.”
James T. Farrell wrote a 1943 reaction, in the New York Times, to a novel that was supposedly “the definite account of a war-wearied lost generation.” He explained the novel’s popularity as a result of the pacifism of the post-war generation ready to challenge those values that had brought that war. Hemingway’s novel, therefore, was right on time. “He arrived on the literary scene the absolute master of the style he has made his own; his attitudes were firmly fixed at that time, and he said pretty much what he had to say with his first stories, and his first two novels.” Philip Young was more succinct, saying the novel is “still Hemingway’s Waste Land and Jake is Hemingway’s Fisher King.”
Criticism became more analytical through the 1950s and gradually dissected Hemingway the man. Mark Spilka, in Twelve Original Essays, tried to find the moral of the story by focusing on its love theme. He concluded that Pedro is the hero of the story. Therefore, the lesson is that a hero is someone “whose code gives meaning to a world where love and religion are defunct.” Carlos Baker focused on the geography because “place and the sense of fact . . . [as well as the] operation of the sense of scene” is Hemingway’s style, nothing more. Earl H. Rovit felt otherwise, in Landmarks of American Writing. He likened the novel to a “Newtonian world-machine” which rendered the metaphor of our age—which is explosion—conscious for the first time. For this reason the novel continues to “provoke our thought.” Terrence Doody, in The Journal of Narrative Technique , was moved to say Hemingway did not know what he was doing with his...
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