Jake and Brett: Mutual Destruction

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Set in Paris and Spain shortly after the end of World War I The Sun Also Rises, for many the finest of Hemingway’s longer works, is frequently described as a novel that captures the mood of an age. Its publication in 1926 forever identified the author with a generation and, even today, it is difficult, if not impossible for many readers and critics to consider Hemingway’s works without drawing on the wealth of biographical information available on the now-famous expatriate artists of the 1920s. Centered around Jake and Brett’s doomed love affair, the novel portrays the disillusionment and shift in values that resulted from the wartime experiences shared by a generation. In an essay emphasizing the historical context of the novel, Michael S. Reynolds explains that the end of the war signaled the end of a 20-year period during which the stable values of 1900 had eroded—“home, family, church, and country no longer gave the moral support that Hemingway’s generation grew up with. The old values—honor, duty, love—no longer rang . . . true. . . .” According to Linda Wagner-Martin, this loss of promise after the war led to the wasteland atmosphere evident in the works of Eliot and Dreiser. Similarly, The Sun Also Rises is frequently read as a record of the “Lost Generation,” a term attributed to Gertrude Stein that refers to the aimless and damaged youth who survived the war. Although many critics have recognized that such an interpretation is limiting and that to read Hemingway’s novel as a “paean to the lost generation” is, as Reynolds argues, to miss the point badly, Stein’s epigraph continues to influence many readers’ imaginations.

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A frequently discussed aspect of Hemingway’s work is his suggestive writing style. When The Sun Also Rises first appeared, it was, Wagner-Martin explains, considered a “new manifesto of modernist style and was praised for its dialogue and its terse, objective presentation of characters.” The modernist method was understatement, “a seemingly objective way of presenting the hard scene or image.” There was, Wagner-Martin continues, “no sentiment, no didactism, no leading the reader.” This understated style, and the narrator’s apparent toughness of attitude, can sometimes conceal pain, emotion, and desire. A typical example of this understated style is Jake’s attempt, late in the novel, to justify Mike’s drunken and, at times, vicious behavior towards Robert Cohn. Jake tells Brett that Cohn’s presence in Pamplona has been hard on Mike, suggesting but leaving unsaid what is equally obvious: that Cohn’s presence, not to mention Mike’s and Pedro’s, has also been very hard on him. According to James Nagel, Jake’s love for Brett and the pain of their having to be apart “underscores everything he relates.”

Early in the novel, Cohn tells Jake that he longs to get away, to travel to South America, to be elsewhere. Presenting himself as someone who knows that “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another,” Jake advises Cohn to start living his life now, in Paris. However, as Jake’s narrative unfolds, it becomes evident that he has not yet learned to live according to his own advice. Tormented by thoughts of his injury and by his love for Brett, Jake spends many sleepless hours inhabiting the elsewhere of an imaginary past—the past he and Brett could have had, the past that continues to be a source of pain and frustration every time they are together. Evidence of this ongoing frustration is easy to find. In response to Jake’s attempt at intimacy in the cab, for example, Brett turns away and tells him that she does not “want to go through that hell again.” Likewise, when Brett tells Jake that she is “so miserable,” he immediately gets the feeling that he is about to go through a nightmare that...

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