“The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway

The book ‘The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926 and was the first novel published by the renowned Novelist Ernest Hemmingway. The book is also known as Fiesta in some countries because this was the original title that Hemmingway chose for the novel. The Sun Also Rises expounds upon the values and lives of the Lost generation.

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In page 13 of the book Hemmingway describes the lost generation as those who were born and grew up during World War I and prior to the Great Depression. The term also describes literary modernists because this was the generation that grew up in the aftermath of what was once thought to be the last Great War. Their time saw the death of many old ideas. For example, World War I saw the end of mass infantry charges that were prevalent during previous eras because fast firing rifles and machine guns made such tactics suicidal. It also saw the failure of the so-called “Balance of Power”, a series of alliances, in preventing war, all the alliances did was when war did start it involved all the allies turning what was a minor affair between Serbia and Austria into a World War.

The Novel itself revolves around the experiences of Jake Barnes and several other people that he met when he went to Pamplona, Spain to see the annual bull fights and fiesta. As a former American Serviceman in World War I he was castrated and is unable to perform sexual congress. As a result he cannot manifest his carnal desire for Brett Ashley with whom he carries out an affair. The Story ends with the fiesta at Pamplona where the characters play out their anxieties and desires along with drinking large quantities of liquor.

The significance of national identity in The Sun Also Rises can be seen in the damaged psyche and physiology of the characters involved. As most of the characters are from nations that participated in World War I they have been changed and now diverge from how they are supposed to be. These changes can best be seen in the lives of the three main characters. Jake Barnes, Brett (Lady Ashley) and Robert Cohn.

Jake Barnes is a veteran of the great war. As a result of his service in the war he was castrated and is now unable to consummate sexual intercourse. Not only has the war crippled his physiology it has also crippled his soul as well. In fact, despite being a man and sexual attracted to Brett his wound renders him unable to consummate their mutual lust for one another. As a result his attraction only serves to torture his mind. The story follows him as he has lost his direction in life and attempts to overcome his trauma by drinking, fishing and watching bullfights.

His sense of morality has also been changed by the war. Born of the American Midwest his kind is generally not given to racism and bigotry. However, his experiences have transformed him into someone who hates Robert Cohn, a Jew. Not only is he disliked by Barnes for his religion he is also disliked for not being a war veteran like Barnes. Cohn had not served in the war, like most veterans Barnes looks down upon him and considers it highly contemptible that Cohn should have Brett when he could not.

This bitterness is best expressed by his willingness to pimp Brett to Pedro Romero, a bull fighter he admired, over Cohn because in his opinion Romero is a more fitting mate for his Brett. Even if Romero is not a soldier or a veteran of the war Barnes still considers him more respectable because Romero risks his life on a daily basis at the Matador arena. Barnes also considers The Count, Brett’s fiancé, as worthy because of The Count’s many war-wounds.

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Brett, also known as Lady Ashley is the woman upon whom the lust of most of the male characters in the book. She, ostensibly, represents the modernity of western women during the post-war era. The book presents her as being elusive and promiscuous in contrast to the conservative and demure norm expected of women. She is completely different from the old-fashioned norm, based on her portrayal she would not be lost in the modern day.

One example of this is her out-right promiscuous behavior. In fact she attempts numerous affairs with the male characters in the book. Oddly enough even though she also goes against the feminine norm in dress and speech the men around her find her attractive. As the only female character the book presents her to be almost Venus-like in her ability to attract men.

Like Barnes she is also a damaged person. Her willingness to experience any and all things is actually a pursuit of happiness which constantly eludes her. Although she satisfies her carnal desires by having so many affairs with many men, she feels dirty. This is shown by her frequent tendency to take baths as if trying to remove the stain of her lustful behavior.

The story reveals that her unhappiness also stems from her harrowing experiences in a military hospital during the war. Seeing how the victims of “modern war” were maimed in such new and novel ways traumatized Brett. Her behavior renders her pariah to other women hence she can only socialize with men making her even more offensive to feminine norms. But perhaps the greatest source of her continued dissatisfaction is the fact that Barnes and Brett can never consummate their mutual lust for each other.

Brett represents post-war women who are left adrift by the war. After realizing that they too can occupy jobs and positions previously left to the province of men Women began to demand greater rights. The most immediate result of these demands was the crystallization of the Universal Suffrage movement that finally allowed women to vote.

Robert Cohn’ status as an outsider as a result of being Jewish has caused Cohn to develop an inferiority complex. He is the foil to Barnes and is quite easily the most unfortunate individual in the story. He tries to be civil to others but is met with scorn. He is insecure and self-conscious, perpetually broke and a dabbler in the arts. Cohn has a history of being controlled by the women in his life. As he did not participate in World War I it would appear that he was not touched by the war.

However, he is not completely helpless as Barnes derides him to be. He is a boxer who is good enough in his sport to beat Barnes and mike. Rather than being a mere object of derision, Cohn is Hemmingway’s foil in the book. He is used to show what Barnes was before he was traumatized by the war. Barnes hatred appears to be his attempt to wound Cohn and makes him just like Barnes.

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The Jew symbolizes the pre-war innocence of society. Unlike the wounded personalities of the other two characters Cohn his flaws come from his upbringing as a victim of bigotry. Like his fellow Jews at that time Cohn lacks a country of his own and is oppressed the world over.

The Spaniard Pedro Romero offers a unique look due to his separate national identity. The Spaniard was too young to fight in World War I and at any rate his country did not participate in that blood-letting. Spanish conservatism is a sharp contrast to the promiscuity that Brett practices and hence he is uniquely attractive to Brett as being “clean”. As a bull fighter who risks his life in the matador’s arena, Barnes actually admires Romero and considers him a worthy substitute for Brett’s sexual appetites.

From a historical point of view the characters in The Sun also rises are symbolic of the generation that was ruined by World War I. Their generation was devastated by the war and would be unable to recover its moral and ethical bearings to the point that they would be lost in the turbulent decades that will lead up to the Great Depression and World War II.

For example, Barnes is symbolic of the generation of veterans who came back from the horrors of trench warfare with their psyche permanently scarred. While Americans came home flush with victory, having ‘saved’ the western powers from the Kaiser’s armies they still returned horrified by the war. In fact, the war would have such an impression of America that an Isolationist policy was carried out by its government. The United States unwillingness to intervene in international affairs is partly to blame for the next World War.

Unlike the U.S. the Europeans were utterly devastated, the Count’s numerous war wounds is symbolic of the destruction wrought upon Europe. Millions died during the war and the European economies were ruined. The economic dislocation coupled with the inability of the soldiers to return to normal lives eventually led to two additional ills that would spark the next war.

First, the ruined economies of the victorious powers led to a vindictiveness that would manifest in the ruinous war indemnity they would impose upon the defeated. Germany was saddled with such a heavy burden that it would be impossible for them to recover economically. The result was that Germany could not reestablish itself after the war and many were jobless. This lead to the phenomenon of Freikorps, or Free Corps, bodies of ex-soldiers who remained organized and would later wage private wars against other elements of societies which they perceived as their enemies. The Freikorps would later be a fertile recruitment ground for the Nazi Party.

The second is the sheer aversion to war. The desire not to go to war was so dearly held in the U.K. and France that the western powers were willing to offer heavy concessions to Nazi Germany just to avoid war. Many of Hitler’s early success prior to the start of actually hostilities can be attributed to the West’s unwillingness to use violence to put a stop to the Dictator’s ambitions.

Women’s rights took great leaps during the post-war period. Due to the large number of men deployed by all sides during the war, women took their place on the factory lines. The greater role women in society during the war stimulated them into further asserting their rights. Among those rights was the right to vote. Women also realized a greater level of freedom as they were no longer confined to home and the few cottage industries which were thought to be their only places in society. While Brett’s promiscuous behavior is ahead of her time it was true that post World War I women were enjoying unprecedented freedom.

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Cohn the Jew, aside from being a foil to Barnes, is also symbolic of his people struggle at the time. With no country to call their own and heavily discriminated against the Jews were downtrodden and miserable like him. Within a few short decades the tragedy of the Holocaust and their own desire for a country to call their own would lead to the formation of the State of Israel ending their status as a people without a nation.

In sum, the National identities of the characters in The Sun Also Rises can be seen in the trauma the post-war generation endured. The mental and physical scars greatly changed the people who participated in the war as can be seen in Barnes who used to be more like Cohn. When Ernest Hemmingway wrote the novel the people and events described were contemporary. Today some eight decades later we see that the excesses of that generation which occurred as a reaction to their wounds would later lead to another World War.

Bibliography

Performance Art: Jake Barnes and “Masculine” Signification in The Sun Also Rises Ira Elliott American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 1 (1995), pp. 77-94

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