It is near impossible to discuss Ernest Hemingway’s second published novel, The Sun Also Rises, without a mention of the man himself. Written during his years in Europe as a member of the expatriate artistic movement of the early twentieth century post-World War I era, the events and characters of The Sun Also Rises are heavily autobiographical, albeit fictionalized enough to capture the zeitgeist of a ‘lost generation’ rather than expose the personal flaws of real individuals.
“We are all a lost generation,” an epigraph attributed to Gertrude Stein, which opens The Sun Also Rises, had in fact popularized the notion of a lost generation: those who came of age and served in the then-unknowably first Great War. On the very surface, to read The Sun Also Rises is to remember this generation of men and women who served and suffered the turmoil of trench warfare on a multinational scale; who were then able to establish a nation still renowned for incredible financial success that midwifed unparalleled organized criminal violence; who lost it all again in the mere span of a decade and starved and toiled their way into a second Great War.
Such a culture bred a type of artist, an escapist motivated by no small amount of ‘shell shock,’ who craved a drowning in decadence amidst the anonymity of a foreign country. Working in Paris as a foreign correspondent for a Canadian daily newspaper, Ernest Hemingway became utterly captivated by the Spanish corrida, the running of bulls and subsequent bullfights, while on a 1923 vacation with his wife to Pamplona, where he would return for years to come.
Narrated in first person, Hemingway assumes the identity of Great War veteran, Jake Barnes, whose war wounds have left him impotent and hopelessly in love with the promiscuous and twice-divorced Englishwoman, Lady Brett Ashley. Split into two parts, The Sun Also Rises chronicles the Parisian exploits and café culture of Book I and contrasts that daily decadence with Book II, the chaos Barnes’ social group causes while on vacation to Pamplona for the weeklong corrida fiesta.
As Hemingway’s representation of ‘20s era liberated New Woman, Lady Ashley embodies the newfound sexual freedom of the times. A sensitive, forgiving, yet impulsive libertine, Brett Ashley is the essential catalyst for escalating feuds amongst the group of friends, which includes Brett’s fiancé Mike Campbell; Barnes’ college friend Robert Cohn, with whom Brett had a recent affair; and mutual friend Bill Gorton. After character introductions and reflection on the decadence of expatriate Parisian life, the group’s vacation to Pamplona is a deeply human catalog of jealous manipulation and fisticuffs soaked in countless liters of alcohol and set against the mortal and artful violence of the corrida.
Yet for all her impulsive behavior that sows passionate chaos and passionless bitterness amongst her friends, neither Barnes nor Hemingway vilify Brett. As a woman who takes advantage of new societal liberties, a woman ruled by her insatiable choice of personal escapism no different than her male friends, Barnes treats Brett with equal parts compassion and frustration as she is unable to independently cope with the inevitable fallout of her affairs.
And yet there grows a subtle dissonance between Barnes and Brett, which Hemingway’s understated style conveys so naturally that the resultant inner, unspoken book length conflict that maintains Barnes’ and Brett’s tragic relationship is alone worth the reading of this unique American novel, The Sun Also Rises.
Photos via: Wikipedia