original cover 1926
The quintessential novel of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises is one of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpieces and a classic example of his spare but powerful writing style. A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation, the novel introduces two of Hemingway’s most unforgettable characters: Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions. First published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises helped to establish Hemingway as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
The protagonist of The Sun Also Rises is Jake Barnes, an American journalist (surprise, surprise) who lives in Paris. Jake is in love with an Englishwoman named Lady Brett Ashley, who has been divorced twice and has an attitude that is hard to come to grips with. Brett embodies everything the 1920’s wanted to let shine in women – sexual freedom with many love affairs, a short haircut and a party lifestyle. Jack and Brett are the epitome of ‘the Lost Generation’, those found without a sense of life or purpose in the aftermath of the first world war.
The book comes in three parts – book one opens in Paris. Jake meets with his friend Robert, before picking up a prostitute. Jake’s seemingly miserable attitude is there from the very beginning, and only seems to increase when he bumps into Brett and one of her men in a nightclub. Brett confesses she loves Jake, but they know they can never be together. Jake suffered an injury in the war and is impotent. While it is never openly discussed, the injury makes itself known very early in the story, as is Brett’s desire for sex.
Fast forward to book two, and Jake’s friend Bill arrives New York, and Brett’s fiancée Mike from Scotland. Jake and Bill go fishing in Pamplona in northern Spain, but Robert decides to stay in Pamplona to wait for Brett and Mike, because he and Brett had a tryst weeks earlier and hates the fact she is with Mike. Jake and Bill have an enjoyable trip and come back to Pamplona to drink a lot, something that is a ‘theme supreme’ throughout the book. As the alcohol flows, the group slowly turns on Robert, who is bombarded with anti-semitic jokes. The group do everything Pamplona can offer – eat, drink, the running of the bulls, bullfighting and generally get on each other’s nerves. Brett has another affair, with a 19-year-old bullfighter named Romero, and eventually her lovers – Romero, Jake, Robert and Mike end up all professing love and generally punching each other as much as they feel like – which is a lot. Robert crushes young Romero in a fight, but he still manages to succeed in the fiesta bullfight.
Book Three starts with the aftermath of the disastrous trip to Pamplona. The group parts ways and Jake goes to San Sebastian, but as he prepares to leave for Paris, he gets a telegram. Brett has gone to Madrid with young Romero, and (as with all stupid love affairs) things have gone sour. Jake goes to her rescue in Madrid, but Brett decides to go home to Mike. The closing scene is Jake and Brett together, wondering how things could have been between them.
It would be easy to sympathise with the lost generation of the 20’s, after all they had endured. Sadly, with many of these characters, they are unlikable, but not unreadable. Hemingway gave Paris and Pamplona a distinct feel, Paris of general listlessness and Pamplona of fire and drama. The scenes in Paris can be tough – the cynic in me wanted to shake the sorry lot of characters – rather than lost, they came off as a bit lazy. Brett is a character I thought I could identify with – independent, dismissive of cultural norms, her own woman. Instead, when she got dumped in Madrid, I was pleased. She played with people, and while reasonably honest about her behaviour, she pitted men against one another, without thoughts of anyone but herself. Strong women can have a conscience, but Brett is sadly lacking in morality, no matter the time period she lived in. Some noble actions are timeless.
The book relies on plenty of ‘what-if’ scenarios, something all can identify with and the story moves at a good pace. Some have called it anti-semitic due to the number of times that Robert’s faith is mentioned (A lot. Too much? Perhaps). Masculinity and sexuality play their roles, consistent with the time period Hemingway wrote the book, when women were gaining some semblance of independence and free to explore sex almost as much as men (though in 2013, things still haven’t caught up completely). Some characters, such as masculine bullfighter Romero, struggle with the emergence of women’s sexuality and his perceived changes to their ‘femininity’. Love and sex are bantered back and forth with a male character who gives love but not sex, and a woman who is the reverse, something readers should appreciate.
The Sun Also Rises is an excellent novel. It deals with a yearning that strikes every person during their lifetime. While some characters are more difficult to connect with, their emotions, Jake’s in particular, are very real. Whether they are lost people in search of the meaning in life, or a bunch of lazy drunks, is up to the reader. Personally, to me they are a bit of both. Even great love doesn’t always work out, and in my opinion, Jake had a lucky escape from Brett’s clutches.
Next week – Noble prize winner The Old Man and the Sea