Review: Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”

by Miles Raymer

The Sun Also Rises

I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when I was a teenager, and it went completely over my head. I missed one of the key plot points and also failed to connect with the novel in a way that felt moving or meaningful. This time around, I think I understood enough to recognize the tremendously tragic nature of this book, as well as the greater tragedy of the Lost Generation in which it is situated.

Set in the 1920s, The Sun Also Rises is about a group of directionless expatriates who peregrinate across Europe in a hopeless search for contentment. They spend money recklessly, drink astonishing amounts of alcohol, indulge in era-representative racism/sexism, and rarely get anything useful done. Jake Barnes, the narrator, served and was injured in World War I before moving to Europe. He is a typical Hemingway protagonist: terse, manly, and slightly more likable than his friends (but not by much).

Hemingway’s prose, as always, is an efficient combination of clear, uncluttered description and the occasional metaphorical flourish. The book reads well, with Hemingway often lulling the reader into a disarming trance before hitting them with some bald observation about the futile character of existence. He’s the bull-fighter and we’re the bull, so anxious to get on with things that we don’t notice until Hemingway’s rhetorical sword has already landed its killing blow. Here are some examples:

I can’t stand to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it. (18)

You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that. (19)

Everybody’s sick. I’m sick, too. (23)

Nobody ever knows anything. (35)

It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing. (42)

I had the feeling as in a nightmare of it all being something repeated, something I had been through and that now I must go through again. (71)

It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. (150)

“Everybody behaves badly,” I said. “Give them the proper chance.” (185)

This tone of brutal fatalism is relentless throughout the novel, with only a few reprieves. The central source of Jake’s misery seems to be a combination of all-purpose apathy and requited-but-unconsummated love. His romantic interest––and that of several of his friends––is Lady Brett Ashley, a conflicted British bombshell “with curves like the hull of a racing yacht” (30). Jake and Brett met at a hospital in England after Jake was wounded in the war, but their mutual affection was thwarted by Jake’s injury, which left him impotent. Jake and Brett are incapable of envisioning a romantic relationship that doesn’t include “traditional” sex; while this is of course unsurprising given historical norms, the predicament is especially sad from a 21st-century perspective.

The Sun Also Rises gets off to a slow start, but picks up significantly in the second half. Jake, Brett, and their friends travel to Pamplona to participate in the annual fiesta and see the bull-fights, and it’s among these festivities that their dysfunctional dynamics reach their climax. People fall apart, fists swing, and general spitefulness prevails. The interpersonal ugliness gets mixed in with Hemingway’s elegant descriptions of bull-fighting––a cruel contrast complicated by the fascinating but unethical nature of killing innocent animals for sport. Brett, while exhibiting occasional flashes of feminine independence and intelligence, is a victim of her overwhelmingly capricious constitution. For his part, Jake is too disengaged to pursue anything beyond what’s right in front of him. It’s very grim.

Anyone trying to wrest something positive from this novel will be hard-pressed. However, I think it can be fairly interpreted as a cautionary record of squandered potential––a “here’s how we screwed up so maybe don’t do what we did” sort of story. Take the following passage:

Enjoying life 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. (152)

Jake starts off with a horribly simplistic philosophy of transaction, one he feels sure to ultimately reject even if he momentarily subscribes to it. But then, just for the tiniest moment, he reconsiders. He alights upon the idea of learning, which feels nothing short of revelatory in the context of this nihilistic narrative. Further, he suggests that finding a way to live in the world can lead to a greater understanding of its workings and our place in it. This seems a message worth sending, and certainly one worth receiving.

Rating: 7/10