Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES

When Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1926 quite a few people were shocked.

Hemingway's mother thought it was the most pornographic book she'd ever read.  Grace Hemingway wrote Ernest a letter and told him how embarrassed she was and surely he knew some words other than "damn" and "bitch."

Hemingway's fellow ex-patriot friends were also shocked.  The characters of A Sun Also Rises were thinly veiled caricatures of Hemingway and his friends.  The main character, Jake Barnes, was Hemingway, his love interest Lady Brett Ashley was Duff Twysden, Robert Cohn was Harold Loeb. They were shocked.  Duff Twysden was especially shocked to see herself portrayed by Hemingway as a nymphomaniac who sleeps with every man in sight and even seduces a nineteen year old matador.

Hemingway had originally considered naming the novel The Lost Generation.  The writer Gertrude Stein had commented to Hemingway that all of the young people who fought in World War I were "A Lost Generation."

Ernest Hemingway and friends.

To quote Sean Hemingway's introduction to the recent Hemingway Library Edition of A Sun Also Rises:  "Characters from The Sun Also Rises who were in the war - Jake Barnes, Brett Ashley, and Mike Campbell - are broken physically and mentally.  Brett loses her first true love to the war, and no number of liasons fills the void.  Mike Campbell is an alcoholic and Jake is physically wounded, though the specific nature of his wound is never described in the book.  In an interview with George Plimpton, Hemingway said that Jake Barnes was not emasculated; his testicles were intact and not damaged, so he was capable of all normal feelings of a man but incapable of consummating them.  It was a very particular type of wound of which Hemingway had learned while he was at the Italian front."

And there is the central plot of The Sun Also Rises.  Jake Barnes is a red blooded American male.  He likes to fish and go to boxing matches and bullfights.  He was a fighter pilot on the Italian front in the war.  But Jake Barnes received a horrible wound in the war.  Although we are never told the exact nature of his wound, Jake Barnes can no longer perform sexually.

Jake is extremely attracted to Lady Brett Ashley.  Brett, in return, is extremely attracted to Jake. Because of his war wound, Jake can never satisfy Brett sexually and neither of them is satisfied to live together without it.

Robert Cohn, the author of a third rate novel, is everything that Jake Barnes isn't.  Although he was a boxing champion at Princeton he never liked boxing and only participated in the sport because he thought he had to.  Cohn is dominated by the women in his life.  As Jake is physically emasculated, Cohen is spiritually emasculated.   Brett, who is engaged to marry the alcoholic Mike Campbell,  goes off the beach in Spain with Cohn for a week.  After Brett sleeps with him, Cohn follows Brett around like a whipped puppy dog and won't leave her alone.

An alternative name that Hemingway considered for the novel is Fiesta.  In fact, this is the name that the novel is still published under in the United Kingdom.  Although the novel opens in Paris, the central action occurs during the Feast of Saint Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.  The running of the bulls through the streets and the subsequent bull fights are meticulously described.

All of the men in Brett Ashely's life are somehow emasculated.  The young matador, Pedro Romero, is the picture of masculinity.  Romero is fearless and virile.  The thirty four year old Brett wants the nineteen year old Romero.

Jake's old friend, the owner of the hotel the group is staying at in Pamplona, asks Jake to help him keep young Pedro Romero from being corrupted by fame before he can rise to his full potential as a matador. Jake promises to do so.  When Brett asks Jake to fix her up with Romero, Jake can refuse her nothing.  When Robert Cohn accuses Jake of being Brett's pimp, one of the reasons Jake gets so mad is because he recognizes that the charge is true.  Jake also loses his reputation with the hotel owner and knows he will never be welcome again.

Ernest Hemingway in Paris in 1924

The 1968 edition of the Cliffs Notes summarizes the ending nicely:  "She sent Romero back to his world because they were happy and she was aware that their happiness would not last; he wanted her to let her hair grow and become a real woman, so, she granted herself a beautiful memory while she could.  

Besides, Romero was nineteen, Brett thirty-four.  In a short, short time her age and her past would be ridiculous were she to take up with Romero.  The young hero would be in the first years of his prime.  And Brett? She would be an unhappy, aging beauty trailing after the young Spanish god.  Brett returns to her world; here she can be irresponsible again; she will marry Mike Campbell and she can once more wonder about Jake and herself.  

Could they have been happy?  Jake says it's 'pretty' to think so, knowing full well that sex would only have eased them into a beginning of God-knows what.  Brett suggests that sex would have been terribly good between them and would have served them well but Jake does not accept this conjecture.  It's only a game, this speculating, and it is, in a sense, comforting, but it has nothing to do with reality.  Chasing after "as if's" is, in the words of Ecclesiastes (the source of Hemingway's title for this novel) all 'vanity and a chasing after the wind.'


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