Illustration of a bull and a bullfighter

The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1037

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...

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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, inThe Journal of Narrative Technique, was moved to say Hemingway did not know what he was doing with his narrator Jake Barnes. He added that the “naive contact with the world” the Hemingway style enables is clearly not sufficient since Faulkner and Fitzgerald are now preferred.

Sam S. Baskett picked up on the debate over Jake Barnes for his review in The Centennial Review, asking what sort of moral center Hemingway, spokesman for a generation, had come up with. Baskett answered this question by noting the value that characters have for themselves is a function of their regard for Brett—their godhead. Thus, Jake is the hero because he understands how to “live as a moral being” through writing his story and ignoring Brett. Andrew Hook’s review, in Ernest Hemingway: New Critical Essays, is also interested in the moral center which is imposed, contrary to the novels that follow where the hero makes the choice, on Jake. Hook found that in this novel Hemingway “risks challenging the very codes and values” of the rest of his fiction and his life.

Criticism of the 1980s summed up Hemingway or discussed issues of gender. Nina Schwartz, in Criticism, analyzed the novel as an attempt to return “man to the center of a humanistic universe” by allowing Jake to control the sigmfiers. The crucial act here is Jake’s displacement of his own desire to his favorite hero, Romero. Woman, or Brett as love object, assumes the most powerful position as castrator of “the very mythos of castration.” The woman becomes the author of the men and the Bull of their ritual. Suknta Paul Kumar more simply declared woman as the hero of the novel, not Jake or Romero. Kumar said the novel “paves the way for complete androgynous relationships through an acceptance and absorption of the new values as well as the new female ideal.” Sibbie O’Sullivan’s article, in Arizona Quarterly, defended Hemingway against charges of misogyny: he respected the new woman being created in the 1920s. O’Sullivan took inspiration from Jake’s idea that you had to love a woman to befriend her and showed that Brett “is a positive force . . . who makes an attempt to live honestly.”

Lastly, John W. Aldridge summarized up Hemingway’s modern reputation in The Sewanee Review. The dark side of the author is forgiven and his first novel is held up as a continuing inspiration for us not to “give up [our] hold on the basic sanities.”


The Sun Also Rises


Essays and Criticism