Illustration of a bull and a bullfighter

The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

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Modernism is a literary term that is difficult to define because it encompasses so a broad range of literature. It was a response to the increasing mechanization of life brought on by industrialism and the machine, and by the disorienting effects of World War I. However, it began before that war as more and more intellectuals began to question Victorian and Edwardian assumptions about social and political organization.

Literary modernism is characterized by experimentation in language and form. It was influenced by writers and thinkers such as Nietzsche, who termed language a "prison house," Marx, who questioned capitalism, and Freud, who uncovered unconscious patterns of thought and sexual impulse. In response, writers began to move away from "objective" narrative, in which words were expected to function as a "clear window pane" on reality. Instead, they opted for subjective, interior narratives, often written either in the first person or through a third-person stream-of-consciousness technique that sought to capture the inchoate nature of thought.

The Sun Also Rises is a textbook modernist novel. Its viewpoint is first person and highly subjective, told from the point of view of Jake Barnes, whose body and psyche have been damaged by World War I. He is physically impotent but also psychologically and spiritually impotent, part of a "Lost Generation" of people shattered by their war experiences. Jake is cynical, and like a good modernist, distrusts what seem like apparent truths or truisms. He says the following:

"I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together."

Jake spends much of his time drinking and escaping from modern mechanized society. He picnics and drinks out in nature with a friend, and ends up in Pamplona, a medieval city whose running of the bulls represents a time untainted by modernity. Romero, the virile bull fighter, fixed in a traditional social order, stands in opposition to hopeless and drifting Jake Barnes. Bull fighting, an unmechanized form of combat, stands in implicit contrast to the dehumanizing mechanization of World War I.

The novel captures the deep disillusionment of people in the 1920s who felt betrayed by their social institutions.

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The Sun Also Rises is a quintessentially modernist work in many respects:

1 - its charcters are more concerned with their own moral code and they pursue their own goals rathern than trying to fulfil social expectations and to fit into the larger society (as a character in a Victorian novel would do). This has led them to become expatriates, to leave their country of origin to be freer. They are also deeply disillusioned and do not practice religious beliefs. Jake actually defines himself as a "rotten Catholic";

2 - as several modernist works, it is haunted by the memory of the First World War as a traumatic event. The scar of the war is visible on Jake's body whose mutilation has left him sexually impotent;

3 - it challenges traditional gender roles and shows strong female characters like Lady Brett Ashley. She is assertive and adheres to a liberated sexual code. This may seem obvious to today's readers. Yet, not many female characters before Brett had expressed their sexual desires so freely;

4 - stylistically, the first-person narrative seen through Jake's eyes, the intense use of dialogues to further the narrative and the short, brief sentences that give the narrative an almost journalistic quality are all modernist devices.

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