Illustration of a bull and a bullfighter

The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

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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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1946 words.)

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“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 he has been through before and must now go through again.

The mutually destructive nature of Jake and Brett’s relationship has led several critics to point to the scene in which Jake acknowledges that all he really wants is to know “how to live in it”—it referring to the world, to the new and ever-changing post-war reality and, as Kathleen Nichols suggests, to the world of emotional relationships. Consequently, critics have also identified characters in the novel who might provide Jake with a model of behavior. Robert Fleming, for example, suggests that Count Mippipopolous is an early prototype of the character type known as the “code hero” or “tutor”—a type whose minor flaws “are outweighed by his strict observation of a code.” The Count illustrates courage and grace under pressure, maintains his self-respect in relation to Brett and, Fleming argues, imparts to Jake lessons “that will help [him] toward a philosophy of life.” Another critic, Scott Donaldson, proposes that it is Bill Gorton, through humor directed at ideas and institutions, not human beings, who provides a model of behavior that can be emulated. Jane E. Wilson looks to yet another character, discussing the significance of the Englishman, Wilson-Harris, in association with the regenerative fishing trip to Burguete. She believes that Jake’s relationship with Harris is “one of the keys to the meaning of the fishing episode and its beneficial aspects.”

The character most often identified as a model of behavior is the young bullfighter, Pedro Romero. Early in the novel, Jake tells Cohn that “nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters.” The appearance of an actual bullfighter later in the novel thus commands attention. Pedro is described as a “real one”—a bullfighter who does always “smoothly, calmly, and beautifully” what others could do only sometimes. Allen Josephs, who has explored how the art of toreo (the bullfight) lies at the heart of The Sun Also Rises, cites the work of H.R. Stoneback who is himself citing Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, to show that “the bullfight is meant to convey an emblem of moral behaviour.” To be moral, conduct must be "rooted in courage, honour, passion, and it must exhibit grace under pressure. . . .” Josephs believes that all of the characters who make the pilgrimage to Pamplona “are measured—morally or spiritually— around the axis of the art of toreo.” He identifies Pedro, the creator of the art, as the character closest to perfection.

Robert Cohn, by contrast, is rarely included in discussions about models of behavior. On the contrary, Cohn’s behavior continually sets him apart from the rest of the group. The recipient of insults and abuse from several characters in the novel, Cohn is also frequently mistreated by critics. Josephs, for instance, has accused Cohn of being a “moral bankrupt who is completely out of place at the fiesta.” It is important to remember, however, that Jake may not be providing an accurate picture of the man who spent a week in Spain with Brett. Jake even acknowledges this possibility, noting that he may not have “shown Robert Cohn clearly.” He tries, briefly, to improve his incomplete portrait but continues to highlight moments and events that cast Cohn in a negative light. From the very beginning of the novel, Jake’s depiction of Cohn seems partial. He mentions that Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton, but then strips the achievement of any value by noting that he is not “very much impressed” by this title. Similarly, on the first day of the fiesta, Jake notes that, while everyone else is drinking and having a good time, Cohn is passed out alone in a back room, sleeping on wine casks. Jake also pokes fun at Cohn’s lack of acumen when the latter fails to understand a banner bearing the slogan “Hurray for the Foreigners!” As a result, when Mike verbally attacks Cohn, accusing him of following Brett around like a steer and of not knowing when he is not wanted, the accusations seem justified.

Sibbie O’Sullivan has described Cohn as a character who “lives in the waste land but does not adhere to its values.” Jake’s portrayal of Cohn appears to suggest that Cohn’s values are out of date and out of place. However, Cohn’s negative depiction is complicated by the frequent references to the fact that he is Jewish. Comments such as Mike’s, who tells Jake that “Brett has gone off with men, but they weren’t ever Jews,” have led several critics to address the issue of anti-Semitism in the novel. Michael Reynolds believes that the depiction of Cohn does betray Hemingway’s anti-Semitism but argues that to fault him “for his prejudice is to read the novel anachronistically.” He believes that the novel’s anti-Semitism “tells us little about its author but a good deal about America in 1926.” Barry Gross, on the other hand, dismisses critics who dismiss Cohn’s treatment in the novel as commonplace and wonders whether we should not expect our great writers “to rise above the regrettably commonplace of their society, especially writers who made careers out of being critics of . . . all that they considered regrettably commonplace in American society.”

Like other characters in the novel, Brett Ashley has also been identified as a model of behavior—but not for Jake. Instead, Brett’s daring and unconventional lifestyle has led several critics to identify her as a new kind of woman. Although she is not, as James Nagel has pointed out, the first representation of “a sexually liberated, free-thinking woman in American literature,” she is, Reynolds explains, “on the leading edge of the sexual revolution that produced two types of the “new woman”: the educated professional woman who was active in formerly all male areas and the stylish, uninhibited young woman who drank and smoked [and] devalued sexual innocence. . . .” But more than a model of behavior or a representation of something new, she is, like Jake, an individual trying to learn how to live her life. She is, like Jake, trying to get over what could have been.

Whether or not Jake and Brett do successfully overcome their attachment to the past they could have shared remains a topic of debate. The fact that Jake travels to Madrid to meet Brett is, for some, a sign that their relationship has not changed. James Nagel argues that the journey is evidence of Jake’s continued love for Brett and that he “is resigned to the pain that continued association with her is likely to bring.” But the continuation of their relationship, or at least, the continuation of their relationship as it has existed until now, becomes questionable in light of Jake’s response to Brett’s lament about the good time they could have had together: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” The novel’s famous last words can be read as signaling a change in Jake’s outlook. Donald Daiker reads them as the “coup de grace which effectively and permanently destroys all possibilities for the continuation of a romantic liaison between them.” To Kathleen Nichols, the response shows that, instead of lamenting what could have been, Jake can now “calmly and ironically comment on how “pretty” it is to think [his relationship with Brett] would have been so good.” By no means a happy or even compensatory ending, Jake’s response does suggest the possibility of a relationship with Brett that is not burdened by unrealistic ideas about an imaginary past.

Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. Jeffrey M. Lilburn, M.A. (The University of Western Ontario) is the author of a study guide on Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and of numerous educational essays.

Performance Art: Jake Barnes and “Masculine” Signification in The Sun Also Rises

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My project is to consider the ways in which Jake Barnes’s male identity is called into question by the genital wound he suffered during the First World War, and the ways in which his fractured sense of self functions in relation to homosexuality and the homosexual men he observes at a bal musette in the company of Brett Ashley. Jake’s attitude toward the homosexuals—the way he degrades them and casts them as his rivals—will, I believe, reveal the extent to which sexual categories and gender roles are cultural constructions. Close readings of several key passages in the novel will at the same time uncover the reasons behind Jake’s own inability to openly accept, if not fully endorse, the potentialities of gender/sexual mutability.

I take as my starting point the recent work of theorist Judith Butler, whose influential book Gender Trouble maintains that “the heterosexualization of desire requires and institutes the production of discrete and asymmetrical oppositions between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ where these are understood as expressive of ‘male’ and ‘female.’” [Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1990.] This process suggests that “the gendered body is performative,” and, in fact, “has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute reality.” Insofar as “the inner truth of gender is a fabrication,” “genders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity.” The notion of a “primary and interior gendered self” is, therefore, a cultural construction which creates the “illusion” of such a disguised self. That gender is itself a kind of “performance of drag . . . reveals the imitative structure of gender itself as—well as its contingency” (Butler’s emphasis). [Butler, 1990.]

With respect to the “crowd of young men, some in jerseys and some in their shirt-sleeves” that Jake encounters at the bal musette, external signs—that is, behavioral or performative acts—lead Jake to “read” the men as homosexual. The various signs by which their homosexuality is made known are these: their “jerseys” and “shirt-sleeves,” their “newly washed, wavy hair,” their “white hands” and “white faces,” their “grimacing, gesturing, talking.” While it may be argued that the idea of performativity (“grimacing, gesturing, talking”) is here conflated with the notion of the homosexual as a morphological “type” (“newly washed, wavy hair”; “white hands” and “white faces”) created by a congenital condition, I maintain that what may at first seem to be morphological is in fact performative: these men are “types” not owing to natural physical features, but rather because they have created themselves as a “type” in order to enact (perform) the role of homosexual.

Their casual dress and careful grooming suggest a “feminine” preoccupation with physical appearance. Their hair appears to be styled (“wavy”), like a woman’s, while then: “white hands” suggest delicacy, their “white faces,” makeup or powder. Just as the feminized Jew of the novel, Robert Conn, is mocked for his excessive barbering, the homosexuals are scorned for their obvious concern with appearance. Rather than exhibiting the reticence and rigidity associated with masculinity, they are overly and overtly expressive, uninhibited in the use of their bodies and voices. Jake’s “diagnosis” is confirmed, his own masculinity momentarily consolidated, by the policeman near the door of the bar, who, in a gesture that bonds the two “real” men and marginalizes the homosexuals as “other,” looks at Jake and smiles.

But what is it, really, that Jake “reads”? It is not the sexual orientation of the men but rather a set of signs, a visual (and aural) field—the body— upon which is inscribed, and through which is enacted, their otherwise concealed sexuality. The young men have their homosexuality “written” on their faces and on their bodies. They “perform” their sexuality through facial expressions and physical gestures. Just as Jake’s wound remains unnamed, so, too, homosexuality is never mentioned; both are instead disclosed through, in the words of Arnold and Cathy Davidson, “sexual and textual absences.” The reader, like Jake, “must read the ostensible sexual preference of the young men from the various signs provided and thereby decode covert private sexuality from overt pubhc sociability.” [“Decoding the Hemingway Hero in The Sun Also Rises” in New Essays on The Sun Also Rises, edited by Arnold E. and Cathy N. Davidson, 1987.] Homosexuality is therefore not simply a matter of erotic object choice and same-gender sex. It is also a way of being, for the performativity of the young men indicates—is, in fact, predictive of—their bedroom behavior. . .

Jake objects not so much to homosexual behavior (which is unseen) but to “femininity” expressed through the “wrong” body. Gender-crossing is what troubles Jake; the rupture between a culturally-determined signifier (the male body) and signified (the female gender) disrupts the male/female binary. But what if the young men had not crossed the gender line, if their behavior were “in accord” with their sex, if they, in short, acted the way Jake expects men to act? He would then have no “signs” of their homosexuality.

The perception that the young men are enacting the “wrong” gender leads to the conclusion that they are mauthentic, that the projection of a “feminine” persona is a parody, a send-up of the female's “proper” role. Just as their presumed sexual deviation is a “deviation from the truth,” a behavioral “error,” so the way they act in public is a deliberate “deviation” from the “truth” of their gender. Although one could argue that the men are “camping” in order to destabilize the notion of fixed (naturalized) gender characteristics—that theirs is a conscious deployment of gender for strategic political ends—Jake cannot allow for the possibility that they might truly be the way they act. He cannot believe that these men are really like that (“feminine”) because they are male. . . .

Jake’s inability to perform sexually corresponds to the homosexual’s inability to perform his “correct” gender. Jake’s sexual inadequacy and the homosexual’s gender transgression are therefore conjoined: neither can properly signify “masculinity.”

It is also notable that “it is not Brett who elicits Jake’s obvious and immediate attraction” [Davidson and Davidson, 1987] when she enters the bar, but rather her homosexual companions. “I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure.” The urge to physically assault the homosexual man—what we now call “gay bashing,” which many theorists argue constitutes an attack on the “feminine” rooted in misogyny— quite clearly derives from Jake’s anger; but what, precisely, is he so angry about? The source of his rage is in part his frustration at being unable to categorize the homosexual within the male/female binary. That these men represent and enact gender nonconformity violates the cultural boundaries established to demarcate appropriate social and sexual behavior. Any attempted remapping of these culturally agreed upon borders exposes the arbitrariness of their frontiers, which in turn calls for a rethinking of the ontological groundwork of sex/gender itself. At the same time, his anger is self-hatred displaced onto the homosexual, for Jake has lost (physically and psychologically) his signifying phallus. What’s more, the tolerance he knows he should have for the homosexuals may also be the same tolerance he hopes Brett will have for him and his sexual failing.

In a cultural system that authorizes a single mode of self-presentation for each gender, transgressing the binary law of male/female constitutes a crime. Just as homosexuality is often constructed as “a crime against nature,” so, too, this crime, or sin, against naturalized gender performance must be punished: Jake wishes “to shatter that superior, simpering composure” which he sees as a homosexual or “feminine” trait. Robert Cohn’s manner is also described as “superior.” To whom or what the homosexual is “superior” is not expressed, but Jake apparently believes that they are, or think that they are, “superior” to him. He is also disturbed by their “simpering composure,” though one may wonder whether it is their composure itself which troubles Jake, or its simpering nature. In either case, the ostensibly heterosexual man here feels threatened by the homosexual’s acceptance and assertion of his presumably “incorrect” gender behavior. If he is superior to Jake, then it is axiomatic that Jake is inferior to him, for Jake himself hopes that he signifies what he is not, namely, the potent and powerful heterosexual male.

What Jake is unable or unwilling to acknowledge (disclose) is that his relationship to women resembles that of the homosexual. Though for different reasons, both Jake and the homosexual man do not relate to women in accordance with the demands of a heterosexual/heterosexist culture. What Jake desires but cannot do is to perform sexually with women, the same performance rejected by the homosexual. While the homosexual rejects heterosexual performance, he does so in favor of an alternative. Jake, on the other hand, is bound by a “masculine” signification and desire which is “untrue”—he cannot do what his appearance suggests he can. The homosexual signifies differently, Jake not at all, and so the homosexual is seen as “superior.”

Jake’s body stands, as it were, between himself and his desires; the homosexual’s “perverse” desire, however, circumvents the “natural” physical act. It is therefore not the homosexual’s denial or disinterest in women which offends Jake but the renunciation of naturalized male desire. When he looks at the homosexual man, what Jake sees is the body of a male that does not perform as a “man”; when he regards himself what he sees is the body of a male that lacks the sign of “manliness.” This tends to support Jonathan Dollimore’s observation [in his Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault, 1991] that “the most extreme threat to the true form of something comes not so much from its absolute opposite or its direct negation, but in the form of its perversion . . . [which is] very often perceived as at once utterly alien to what it threatens, and yet, mysteriously inherent within it.”

In the following chapter (4), Jake’s affiliation with the homosexual and with gender reversal is even more pronounced. While undressing for bed, he sees himself in the mirror: “Undressing, looked at myself in the mirror of the big armoire beside the bed. That was a typically French way to furnish a room. Practical, too, I suppose. Of all the ways to be wounded. I suppose it was funny. I put my pajamas on and got into bed.” While the digression concerning the armoire might at first appear to be an attempt to avoid seeing himself or talking about what he sees, it is actually a symbolic corollary of Jake’s wound. Just as the armoire represents “a typically French way to furnish a room,” so the penis is “typical” of the male body. Whereas the armoire is “practical,” however, Jake’s member is not (at least in relation to his sex life), rather, it is all “furnishing.” In relation to the female, the homosexual’s sex is similarly “furnishing.” That Jake regards his wound as “funny” recalls his earlier observation that homosexual men “are supposed to be amusing,” though clearly neither are a source of much humor. Both are instead ironic objects of derision. . . . That which is present signifies absence—not of desire but of ability. The mirror reflects appearance; it does not reveal essence. At the same time, the “external signs” which it presents can, if “read" correctly, provide the clues necessary to apprehend “inner truth.” In Jake’s case, that “truth” is his fractured sense of masculine identity. In holding the mirror up to himself, what Jake discovers is his close affiliation with the homosexual men.

Inasmuch as Jake considers himself to be heterosexual, the novel posits the site of sexuality in gendered desire rather than sexual behavior. What distinguishes Jake from the homosexual men is gender performance and erotic object choice. By this logic, it follows that sexuality is determined by gender identification rather than sexual activity. Jake’s sex can no longer penetrate a woman (and so all sexual relations are apparently ruled out), but he remains heterosexual by virtue of his desire. If the men from the bar discontinued same-gender sex, they would presumably remain homosexual. Sexual identity issues not from the sex act but from covert desire or overt social behavior. . . .

It remains unclear, however, whether Jake’s masculinity is in question because of the lost body part (morphology) or because of his inability to express what is regarded as masculine—that is, heterosexual performativity. This loss is later seen in relation to homosexuality itself, when Jake’s wound is directly linked to homosexual identity.

This linkage occurs about midway through the novel, during the fishing trip Jake takes with his friend Bill Gorton before the fiesta. The fishing episode is one of what Wendy Martin calls Hemingway’s “pastoral interludes, in which his male characters seek relief from social tensions,” part of a tradition in American fiction “that begins with Cooper and Brackenridge and extends through Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain.” [“Brett Ashley as New Woman in The Sun Also Rises”] This “pastoral interlude” is also a “set piece” profoundly colored by the homoerotic element. . . . In The Sun Also Rises the physical battle between male rivals is most overtly expressed in the bullfight, where two such signifiers are the man and the bull. And just as Jake is a spectator at the bullfight rather than a participant, so, too, he can only look on as other men (Robert Cohn, Mike Campbell, Pedro Romero) compete for the affections of Brett Ashley. The arena where “real” men compete— whether the bulking or the bedroom—is for Jake a foreclosed area of emotional and psychic involvement.

Whether “greenwood,” bulking, or battlefield, these episodes are intense moments of male bonding, which for Mario Mieli (and I concur) is always an expression of a “paralysed and unspoken homosexuality, which can be grasped, in the negative, in the denial of women.” [Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique, 1980.] While alone and apart from the world, Bill teases Jake by asking him if he knows what his real “trouble” is: “You’re an expatriate [Bill explains]. One of the worst type. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.” Jake’s association with the old world places him within the shadow of European decadence, which is seen as a performance, a role unbecoming to him. That he has “lost touch with the soil” suggests that Jake is estranged from enduring values, for “the earth abideth forever.” Jake has become “precious,” “ruined” by “fake European standards,” so that his very identity has been compromised, if not corrupted, by foreign influences. Similarly, Jake’s body has been corrupted by a foreign object, perhaps a mortar shell. This has in turn transformed his corporeal existence into something foreign or other—not quite a “whole” man but certainly not a woman. Jake has come to inhabit the demi-monde, the world of the outcast, the lost, the homosexual—the decadent other par excellence. What’s more, like Lawrence’s, Hemingway’s “anxieties about homosexuality were conjoined with class antagonism” [Dollimore, 1991]—his antipathy for the rich, the “mincing gentry.”

Jake, like the homosexual, is a habitue of cafes, where one “does” very little except talk, and the homosexual, the female, and the Jew are constructed as overly discursive. (Another of Hemingway’s fears was that writing—talking—was unmanly, for it is not “doing.”) The gay man, however, is like a woman in that he “hangs around” and doesn’t work much. His only “work” is night-work related to sex, just as the “proper” work for a woman is to serve her man. Even Brett, the independent Modern Woman, exists only in relation to men—Jake, Mike, Robert, Pedro, Count Mippipopolous, the homosexuals.

Bill goes on to say that Jake doesn’t work, after all, and that while some claim he is supported by women, others insist that he’s impotent. A man who is supported by women is of course not a “real” man, but what Bill means by “impotent” is ambiguous. He may believe that Jake is sexually impotent or that as a decadent American who has adopted “fake” European standards he is psychically impotent. In either case, the link between non-normative sexuality and decadence is clear. Jake responds to Bill by saying, “I just had an accident.” But Bill tells Jake, “Never mention that. . . . That’s the sort of thing that can’t be spoken of. That’s what you ought to work up into a mystery. Like Henry’s bicycle.” Once again, just as homosexuality is the love that dare not speak its name, so Jake’s “accident” should not be discussed. “Henry’s bicycle” is a reference to Henry James and the “obscure hurt” he suffered while a teenager—either a physical wound which rendered him incapable of sexual performance or a psychic “hurt,” the realization of his homosexuality. [R. W. B. Lewis, The Jameses: A Family Narrative, 1991.] The failure to perform in the culturally prescribed way (heterosexually) is therefore figured as “de-masculinizing.”

Jake and Bill then banter about whether Henry’s wound was suffered while riding a bicycle or a horse, with attendant puns on “joy-stick” and “pedal.” When Jake “stands up” for the tricycle, Bill replies, “I think he’s a good writer, too.” He adds that Jake is “a hell of a good guy”:

Listen you’re a hell of a good guy, and I’m fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn’t tell you that in New York. It’d mean I was a faggot. That was what the Civil War was about. Abraham Lincoln was a faggot. He was in love with General Grant. So was Jefferson Davis. Lincoln just freed the slaves on a bet. The Dred Scott case was framed by the Anti-Saloon League. Sex explains it all. The Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are Lesbians under the skin.

That Jake opts for the tricycle over the horse as the instrument of Henry’s “unmanning” implies that the modern world of the machine has had a negative, disruptive effect on traditional male/female roles. When Bill acknowledges that Henry, in spite of his wound, was “a good writer” (could still perform as an artist), he is also reassuring Jake that he can still perform as a good friend and “proper” man—fishing, eating, drinking. Jake will not be banished from the homosocial realm where all “good guys” go to escape from the debilitating influence of women.

While Jake may now occupy an uncertain place between the genders, Bill continues to be “fonder” of him than anybody. Defending himself from any potential “charge” of homosexuality, Bill quickly adds that had they been in New York, he wouldn’t be able to voice his affection for Jake without being a “faggot”; European decadence makes it possible to speak the unspeakable. Without belaboring Bill’s mock history of the Civil War, we should remark that “sex explains it all.” The “truth” of the self is revealed, after all, in sex; and homosexuality (in this instance, lesbianism) is inscribed in the body, concealed “under the skin.” If we recall that male homosexuality may be “read” in external signs, it appears here that lesbian sexuality is not similarly marked by gender nonconformity, that concealed lesbian identity cannot be discerned through observing performance but only by unmasking what is hidden in the body, under the skin. This seems to suggest that lesbianism is congenital, while male homosexuality is performative.

The novel concludes with the justly famous scene of Jake and Brett together in a cab: “‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’ Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” Earlier in the novel, Georgette pressed against Jake while in a cab, and now Brett is thrown against the body of a man who desires more than he can do; he wants not just “pressing” but penetration. Once again the symbolic policeman is present, but this time he isn’t smiling; he and Jake are no longer members of the same “club.” This time his raised baton is a rebuke. The policeman, a “manly” authority figure, is not only “mounted” (and perhaps “well-mounted”) on a horse (suggesting a “stud” or “stallion” while recalling Henry’s “accident”), but also a uniformed presence whose “raised” baton is suggestive not only of an erect phallus but also of the baton of a conductor or military officer, two whose role is to orchestrate the performance of others, though Jake can no longer perform.

The sun, almost always figured as “male” (and in most Indo-European languages grammatically of the “male gender”), “ariseth” and “goeth down,” as does a male. The earth, a female/maternal signifier, “abideth forever,” and “the soil,” it will be recalled, is what Jake has “lost touch” with. As Arnold and Cathy Davidson note, “Jake’s last words readily devolve into an endless series of counter-statements that continue the same discourse: ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’ / ‘Isn’t it pretty to think isn’t it pretty to think so?’“ This “negation,” as the Davidsons call it, closes the novel and returns us to its title, for “only the earth—not heroes, not their successes or their failures—abideth forever.” [Davidson and Davidson, 1993.] The use of so “feminine” a word as “pretty” further underscores Jake’s mixed gender identification as well as the “feminine” qualities of life which abide forever.

Source: Ira Elliott, “Performance Art: Jake Barnes and ‘Masculine’ Signification in The Sun Also Rises,” in American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 1, March, 1995, pp. 77-91.

Circularity in The Sun Also Rises

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Emphasis in the considerable body of criticism in print on The Sun Also Rises rests with the cynicism and world-weariness to be found in the novel. Although Lionel Trilling in 1939 afforded his readers a salutary, corrective view, most commentators have found the meaning inherent in the pattern of the work despairing. Perhaps most outspoken is E. M. Halliday, who sees Jake Barnes as adopting “a kind of desperate caution” as his modus vivendi. Halliday concludes that the movement of the novel is a movement of progressive “emotional insularity” and that the novel’s theme is one of “moral atrophy.” [“Hemingway’s Narrative Perspective,” in Sewanee Review, 1952.] In his “The Death of Love in The Sun Also Rises,” Mark Spilka finds a similarly negative meaning in the novel. Thus Spilka arrives at the position that in naming “the abiding earth” as the hero of the novel, Hemingway was “perhaps wrong . . . or at least misleading.” [Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels, 1958.]

But if Hemingway was misleading in so identifying the novel’s hero, he was misleading in a fashion consistent with his “misleading” choice of epigraph from Ecclesiastes and consistent with the “misleading” pattern he incorporated in the text of his novel. Far from indicating insularity and moral atrophy, the novel evidences circularity and moral retrenching. Much Hemingway criticism—always excepting Trilling’s—demonstrates the reaction of conventional wisdom to healthy subversion of that brand of wisdom. Hence the often truly sad gulf which Trilling laments between the pronouncements of Hemingway “the man” and the artistically indirect achievement of Hemingway “the artist.” [“Hemingway and His Critics,” Partisan Review, 1939.] Jake Barnes, to deal with the central character of but one of Hemingway’s novels, is far more than the “desperately cautious” mover through life which Halliday calls him. Like the Biblical Preacher, Jake is a worldly wise accepter of the nature of the human condition. That condition is, to be sure, a predicament, for as Hemingway more than once baldly stated, life is tragic. But recognition of the tragic nature of life is by no means necessarily a cause for despair. If any readers of The Sun Also Rises become misdirected, they are certainly not misled by Hemingway.

The opening verses of the Book of Ecclesiastes are ambiguous, and the individual reader’s responses to these and subsequent verses are varied. One must assume that Hemingway found the dominant tone of Ecclesiastes right for his artistic purposes, but one hastens to recognize the distinct possibility that that overall tone is not one of world-weariness (although the temptation to think so is great at many junctures) but of worldly wisdom. In reading the epigraph from Ecclesiastes which Hemingway provides, one is struck by the omission of all occurrences of “Vanity of vanities.” Most Hemingway critics appear to regard these omissions as ironically absent, as evidence, that is, of Hemingway’s application of his celebrated “iceberg” principle—in this instance of a knowledge shared between the author and reader of the bulk of the iceberg which floats beneath the surface. But is it not just as likely that the omissions are made not in the service of irony, but quite simply in the service of exclusion? The so-called “Hemingway Code” is designed, I suggest, not to provide a means of survival in a life which is a vain endeavor to discover meaning, but rather to provide a means of survival which itself is meaning. This I take to be the import of that passage in the novel, so readily identified as important, but so potentially “misleading,” in which Jake thinks,

You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I like, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had.

Perhaps that wasn’t true, though. Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.

Certainly Jake is not rejecting life, any more than Count Mippipopolous (“‘one of us,’” Brett insists) is “dead.” Nor is love dead in The Sun Also Rises; it is, rather, unattainable—or better, never to be consummated. All of which is to say that The Sun Also Rises is a far less bitter and a far more mature book than is A Farewell to Arms.

In any event, nothing in the passage actually chosen and printed as the second of the two epigraphs for The Sun Also Rises is in contradiction to Hemingway’s assertion that the abiding earth is the hero of his novel. There can be no denying, however, that circularity such as that contained in the epigraph may be employed by an author to suggest meaninglessness. Perhaps it may even be said that our usual response to circularity is that it suggests meaninglessness. . . . But when in a literary work circularity is demonstrated to be the pattern of life, the response of the reader is to be governed by the artist’s presentation; whether the author is complaining about what he regards as an inescapable fact of life or whether he is stating what he regards as an unalterable fact must emerge from the work itself.

And so to the text of The Sun Also Rises. To begin with, let us not forget that, as John Rouch says, “Jake Barnes is telling the story in retrospect. Because Jake has lived through these events, he is well aware of what is going to happen.” And let us further agree with Rouch that “Jake knows that the essential story is contained between the two cab drives of Jake and Brett.” [“Jake Barnes as Narrator,” Modern Fiction Studies, 1965-66] Let us add to these observations of Rouch, the second of which so clearly intimates a coming full circle, Jake’s thoughts after he has framed his telegram to Brett, who awaits his aid in the Hotel Montana in Madrid. “That seemed to handle it. That was it. Send a girl off with one man. Introduce her to another to go off with him. Now go and bring her back. And sign the wire with love. That was it all right. I went in to lunch.” Echoing Rouch, I would point out that here Jake is not only “well aware” but perfectly aware of the position he is in. The ironic tone of Jake’s words is equal to the irony of his situation, and his going in to lunch is a simple demonstration of his ability to function rather than to dwell morbidly on the cruelty of Fate’s dealings with him.

Rouch speaks further of a change in Jake, but what can that change be? Not only does Jake tell the story in retrospect, knowing all along “what is going to happen,” but at no point in the novel does Jake announce that he has undergone a change. One must concede, however, that after he has been hit by Cohn, Jake does experience a change in perspective, a change which provides emotional preparation, since it falls between the passage “The fiesta was really started. . . . The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta” and the sentence early in Book III, “The fiesta was over.” This change in perspective, this new light of unfamiliarity and objectivity, is explained by reference to a “phantom suitcase.” Mark Spilka has seriously battered that suitcase in a totally unconvincing attempt to equate Jake and his suitcase with Robert Cohn and his Princeton polo-shirt; in an attempt to make Jake, like Cohn, “a case of arrested development.” But Jake is emphatically not a case of arrested development; as he says in another connection, he “‘just had an accident.’” Cohn wishes he could “‘play football again with what I know about handling myself, now.’” Can it be seriously proposed that Jake too wishes to play another football game, so that he may once more enjoy such a sobering experience as being “kicked in the head early in the game”?

Jake’s thoughts after he has sent the telegram to Brett at the Hotel Montana do not support Rouch’s contention that Jake undergoes a change. Indeed, Jake’s advice to Cohn to give up the romantic notion that he can further his experience of “life” by taking a trip to South America is placed very early in the novel precisely to establish that Jake the character, like Jake the narrator, has long since learned in a broad and fundamental way “how to be”: “‘Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.’”

Jake Barnes is especially privileged, both as narrator and as character: even before the events reported in the novel took place, he understood what was acceptable and supportable in life in the post-World War I era.

As Trilling so admirably explained in his corrective essay of 1939,

Everyone in that time had feelings, as they called them, just as everyone has “feelings” now. And it seems to me that what Hemingway wanted first to do was to get rid of the “feelings,” the comfortable liberal humanitarian feelings, and to replace them with the truth.

Not cynicism, I think, not despair, as so often is said, but this admirable desire shaped his famous style and his notorious set of admirations and contempts. The trick of understatement or tangential statement sprang from this desire. Men had made so many utterances in such fine language that it had become time to shut up. Hemingway’s people, as everyone knows, are afraid of words and ashamed of them and the line from his stories which has become famous is the one that begins “Won’t you please,” goes on through its innumerable “pleases,” and ends, “stop talking.” Not only slain men but slam words made up the mortality of the war [“Hemingway and His Critics ”]

The Sun Also Rises serves a corrective function, then, or better, several corrective functions, among them that articulated by Trilling and that implicit in Bill Gorton’s parody of editorials of the ’Twenties on the nature of American expatriates in Paris. But, as Malcolm Cowley has stated, “In 1926 one felt that he was making exactly the right rejoinder to dozens of newspaper editonals then fresh in the public mind; in the 1960’s these have been forgotten.” [Introduction to The Sun Also Rises, 1954.]

In addition to the corrective functions underlined by Trilling and Cowley, The Sun Also Rises contains a positive and timeless message with respect to the value of some kind of religious observance. If traditional religion no longer seems to apply to human problems, within the world of the novel the values of fishing and of bull-fighting remain. Such a statement smacks of the hysterically obvious in a discussion of Hemingway’s work, of course, and unquestionably no further discussion of the experience of Jake, Bill, and the Englishman Harris on the Irati is required. Nor need one pursue the general value of the bull-ring as the place of experiencing the moment of truth. But what seem to me the most important uses of circularity in the novel revolve about the symbolic distinction drawn between France and Spain, first in the opening three paragraphs of Chapter X, and finally in the last chapter of the novel:

The waiter seemed a little offended about the flowers of the Pyrenees, so I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He would be glad to see me back I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and would want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France.

Next morning I tipped every one a little too much at the hotel to make more friends, and left on the morning tram for San Sebastian. At the station I did not tip the porter more than I should because I did not think I would ever see him again. I only wanted a few good French friends in Bayonne to make me welcome in case I should come back there again. I knew that if they remembered me their friendship would be loyal.

At Irun we had to change trains and show passports. I hated to leave France. Life was so simple in France. I felt I was a fool to be going back into Spain. In Spain you could not tell about anything.

In Spain, one of course “could not tell about anything” because in Spain one encounters a Montoya. But, important as Montoya is to Hemingway’s establishing that Jake has aficion and that Pedro Romero’s greatness must be nourished and protected for the rare phenomenon it is, the fiesta at Pamplona and the total religious realm of bullfighting is described in such a way as to stress its elemental force in providing the integrity, the unity, the never-ending cyclical pattern at the heart of Spanish life.

The Spanish waiter who is so contemptuous of the “sport” of running before the bulls is not unlike the American editorial writers who fail to understand expatriates. The waiter may be said to be Hemingway’s spokesman for the uninitiated reader, the reader who views bull-fighting as a bloody, inhumane, pagan slaughter of a brute victim in service of a brutal, “inhuman” human desire. And Jake’s nearly complete lack of interest in the Tour de France is another telling instruction by indirection that in Hemingway fishing and bull-fighting are to be regarded as far more than the mere “outdoor sports” which Spilka wishes to dismiss them as.

Therefore, like the monastery at Roncevalles, which Bill and Harris agree is “remarkable” but not “the same as” the fishing on the Irati, traditional religious values are “nice” but no longer viable as the values inherent in bull-fighting are viable—for spectator as well as participant. With respect to the observance of religious practices within a church, Jake and Brett are in the position of Matthew Arnold in his poem “The Grande Chartreuse,” a position of respectful alienation.

With respect to bull-fighting, Brett has had no initiation prior to the Pamplona festival of the novel. It is she, then, and not the aficionado Jake who must represent the in-group in being put to the test. Desperately in need of some meaning for her life, Brett reaches a kind of nadir of promiscuity in going off to San Sebastian with Robert Conn. Labelled a “Circe” by Cohn, Brett is, within one page of text of the novel, first debarred from a church during the San Fermin religious procession and then kept from participating in a dance, so that she may serve as “an image to dance around.” Wishing to enter the church and wishing to dance, Brett is denied the privilege of entering into either ritualistic activity. In concert with her wearing her hair in a mannish bob, these details symbolize Brett’s lack of spiritual fulfillment.

Because she is unfulfilled, when the handsome young Romero captures her fancy Brett is in grave danger of becoming the bitch she feels herself to be, but more significantly she may destroy for a time the entire meaningful cycle of life and death which is bull-fighting in Spain. In the novel, particular definition of this cycle begins not with announcement of the death of an as yet unnamed runner before the bulls and not with the waiter’s contemptuous judgment following the runner’s death, but rather with that remarkable paragraph immediately following the conversation between Jake and the waiter. A notable example of the bare Hemingway style, the paragraph is not, as it may at first blush appear to be, ironic in tone. Rather, the style complements the ritualistic activities it reports, investing the death of Vicente Girones with a dignity which this simple farmer could not possibly have achieved through some other manner of dying.

And the succeeding paragraph provides the tension which builds the basic conflict of the novel, for in this paragraph we are immediately informed that the bull “who [not “which”] killed Vicente Girones . . . was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon.” We are also told that Pedro presented the ear of Bocanegra to Brett, and that Brett “left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her bed in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.” By her callous indifference to the cycle of life and death into which Romero has permitted her to intrude, Brett has broken the circle, has momentarily robbed Vicente Girones of the significance of his death. The Hotel Montoya is, for the moment at least, corrupted.

Hemingway’s having Jake identify the bull and report what became of the bull’s ear before he has him describe the bull-fight in which the ear is taken is a master stroke. When the moment of the kill is described, the classic moment of perfection—that of the tableau on the Grecian Urn or of the scene at the death of Old Ben in Faulkner’s The Bear— is conveyed as a moment of supernal, eternal beauty. The viewing of that divine spectacle is an utterly spiritual, a fully religious experience.

What remains, then, is for Brett to prove herself sensitive to this religious meaning. By thoughtlessly discarding the bull’s ear in a drawer full of cigarette butts, Brett has profaned a religious structure; she has been guilty of sacrilege. To be worthy of Jake, to provide the measure of the moral worth of the group, she must atone for the sin of sacrilege. Her promiscuity is not her sin; it is her search. And her affair with Romero is not her sin: so long as the encounter is brief, Brett has been, as Jake suggests, “‘probably damn good for him.’” By giving Romero back to bull-fighting, his seriousness and discipline intact, Brett in effect removes the bull’s ear from the bed-table drawer and restores it to its rightful place in the religious ritual of which it is a part.

Brett’s famous words describing her satisfaction in being strong enough to give Pedro his freedom are therefore neither extravagant, nor, in the total context of the novel, small compensation for what the Lost Generation has lost. Brett indeed is not “‘one of these bitches who ruins children,’” and the capacity for moral discrimination required to make such a decision indeed is “‘sort of what we have instead of God.’” At this point of development in Hemingway’s novel one is reminded of the brilliant insight provided by William Styron's Peyton Loftis: “‘Those people back in the Lost Generation. . . . They thought they were lost. They were crazy. They weren’t lost. What they were doing was losing us.’” [ Lie Down in Darkness, 1957.]

Still, in the flush of her considerable moral victory, Brett is swept on to her final—and this is extravagant—lamentation: “‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’” Giving “them” “irony,” if not “pity,” Jake responds, “‘Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?’” In this truly concluding line, Hemingway cuts the sweetness of self-pity and avoids the curse of an up-beat ending (a curse very clearly drawn down upon Tyrone Power and Ava Gardner in the final scene of the movie version of the novel) by having Jake remain steady in his realistic, anti-romantic conception of life as it is.

Life can be made worse by human beings who “behave badly.” Robert Conn characteristically behaves badly: he wonders if one might bet on the bull-fights, he falls asleep in the midst of gaiety; his tennis game falls apart when he is a moonsick calf in a world of bulls and matadors; he does not fight when he is insulted, then later hits Jake, his “best friend.” And Brett begins to behave badly, for the integrity of bull-fighting as a religious ritual is dependent upon a valuing of the bull's ear as a symbol of significant victory in a direct confrontation of life with death.

Phillip Young writes of the novel’s ending, “Soon it is all gone, he is returned to Brett as before, and we discover that we have come full circle, like all the rivers, the winds, and the sun, to the place where we began. This is motion which goes no place.” [Ernest Hemingway, 1952.] But Geoffrey Moore is surely correct in speaking of the “queer, twisted but nonetheless real sense of standards in Brett.” [Review of English Literature, 1963.] Life and the bull-fight go on, and Jake will be welcome at the Hotel Montoya, as before, for Brett’s release of Pedro Romero guarantees that Vicente Girones will not have died in vain.

Explicitly termed “values” in The Sun Also Rises are understated, but they are not undermined. Traditional values are scrutinized and found inadequate, but the values of the group are tested and found adequate to the demands made on those values by life. The ending of the novel is of course not beamingly optimistic, but neither is it bleakly pessimistic. Life has not, as Young says, “become mostly meaningless.” The moral success of Brett and the comprehensive worldly wisdom of Jake have upheld and enhanced life’s meaning in a (war-torn—“The soldier had only one arm”) world which is otherwise mostly meaningless.

Source: Robert W Cochian, “Circularity in The Sun Also Rises,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XTV, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 297-305.


Critical Overview