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The Sun Also Rises

by Ernest Hemingway

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What does the Fisher King symbolize in Chapter 12 of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and how does it relate to Eliot's The Wasteland?

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Jake Barnes is the symbol of the Fisher King in chapter 12 of The Sun Also Rises. Like the legendary Fisher King, he has been wounded in the groin or "thigh." As with the Fisher King, this wound makes him infertile and impotent. All the Fisher King can do is fish, and his land lies infertile because he is infertile.

Jake has a wonderful day in nature, drinking and fishing with his friend Bill Gorton. It is a reprieve from his unhappy life in cities, in love with a woman he can't sexually satisfy. Like the Fisher King he symbolizes, Jake can only find a reprieve fishing away from civilization. Yet even the fish he catches are smaller than the smallest Gorton catches, underscoring his impotence or lack of power.

The Fisher King is also central to Eliot's The Wasteland. The wasteland of that poem is a wasteland because the king has been wounded and rendered impotent. Because of his wound, no crops can grow.

Both The Sun Also Rises and The Wasteland are responses to World War I. That war, in which many young men were killed in a largely pointless bloodbath, was understood as a psychic wound that many young people felt left western civilization an impotent wasteland. Both literary works express the alienation and disillusion many youth felt in the wake of the war.

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In ancient Celtic mythology, the Fisher King is a figure who is wounded in the legs or groin, and his resulting impotence directly affects the well-being of the land, which is essentially laid waste. In Chapter 12 of The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes, who has been rendered impotent by a war injury, spends a day fishing with his American friend, Bill Gorton. In the pristine environs of the countryside, Jake finds peace, in an experience that is almost sacramental. In communing with nature in its unspoiled state, he finds a welcoming refuge from the empty, purposeless lifestyle of expatriate life in Paris. The moral barrenness of post-World War I culture they exhibit is a wasteland, like that produced by the Fisher King. Jake himself is symbolic of that mythical character,having been wounded and left impotent by the war, and lost in an environment where everything, physical and moral, has been ruined.

The empty existence described by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises has much in common with the landscape created by T.S. Eliot, in his poetic work, The Wasteland. Eliot also was part of the "Lost Generation," and expresses the same disillusionment and emptiness, especially as it concerns relationships and sex, as does Hemingway. Eliot's wasteland is the same morally barren, hedonistic, and purposeless setting as that created by the Fisher King, and recreated in Hemingway's book.

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