Fiesta! thoughts on The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises is a difficult book to discuss without giving up major plot details, therefore I’m not going to bother throwing up spoiler alerts. That said, the plot isn’t really what makes this book work, so if you plan on reading it, knowing the plot may not be too much of an issue. Content wise, what makes this book a classic is its depiction of the Lost Generation living in Paris (beautiful people doing ugly things); stylistically, the understated way Hemingway characterizes and explores the tensions in his characters’ relationships.

I first read The Sun Also Rises almost 6 years ago. I had returned to university and was starting my major in English. At that point, I didn’t have much experience with modernist literature and it was the first thing by Ernest Hemingway that I’d ever read. I was very excited to get into the book as Hemingway is a very sexy figure. Accordingly I was blown away by his Iceberg technique of writing, and it started a two year Hemingway addiction whereupon I proceeded to read the majority of his corpus.

That being said, I think the smarter I get, the worse Hemingway gets. As my tastes have developed, I feel Hemingway’s reputation has more to do with him as a man than a writer. That’s not to say he is a bad writer – he is a great writer and I would never argue otherwise – but I don’t think he, or The Sun Also Rises, compares to his contemporaries. In American literature, Hemingway never rose to the heights of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, nor was his career as ambitious and dynamic as William Faulkner’s. In Paris with the other various expats, I would place him further down the pecking order behind Joyce, Woolf, and Eliot.

My main issue rereading The Sun Also Rises was that the excessive use of dialogue, though masterful, was played out and bordered on tedium. Hemingway was always a genius when it came to dialogue, staging the characters in such a way that the psychological tensions are being explored in what is not said, which is what is meant by the Iceberg technique. The Sun Also Rises is almost unanimously praised as his greatest novel, but now I wonder if it A Farewell to Arms might be superior. Now, reading Sun, I feel like this is a new writer who has found his voice but hasn’t discovered its full potential; sticking to what he knows he does well (dialogue) but only briefly treading into other waters that are quite fruitful but still unproven and exotic, such as landscape descriptions and Jake’s soliloquies.

However, I have come to consider The Sun Also Rises, not to bury or praise it. For this blog, I’d like to explore some of the traditional interpretations and push them a little further. In a way I’m actually defending The Sun Also Rises even though it seemed like I was previously trying to undermine its reputation as one of the great American novels of the 20th century.

Sun is sometimes read as a morality tale; that Jake is a traditional hero trying to negotiate an immoral world. But I’d say that’s incomplete. Firstly, I’m not so sure Hemingway is trying to make any kind of didactic moral point at all. I would argue that Sun is more about the usage of masks and the collisions between masks. I think that Jake truly does believe in certain values, like the other characters, but is trying to wear a mask of nihilism to a disastrous effect. The same goes for Mike Campbell and Lady Brett. This is apparent in the ways they break down when they are drunk and suddenly betray their tough outward appearance with moments of vulnerability: Mike when he is dejected in the hotel without Brett; Brett when she is shaking in the lounge after the fallout with Romero; when Jake is alone in bed at night and starts crying spontaneously.

I certainly don’t think they have any traditional sense of morality, as is apparent by their disregard for prayer at various churches. If I were to interpret any kind of moral point that Hemingway is trying to make is a kind of existentialist, modern reinterpreation of Epicureanism. In that regard, Mippipopolous is the moral figure of the work. He seems to enjoy the material pleasures while maintaining a certain level of dignity that the others certainly lack: Jake sacrifices his reputation as an aficion with the Spanish bullfighting circle so he may facilitate the affair between Brett and Romero; Brett alienates the man she truly loves (Jake) because she cannot live a life of love but not sex, and puts herself in great duress by trying to replace intimacy with sex; Cohn tries to uphold traditional, romantic ideals by challenging Jake and Romero to defend Brett’s womanly virtues, yet he also wants to join in all the hedonist debauchery, and ends up alienating Jake and Brett.

I suppose the slight difference is that Mippipopolous sees the material pleasure as an end in itself whereas Jake and co. see it as a means to an end. Being the post-WWI, Lost Generation, each character carries his/her respective scars, some physical, some emotional. Jake suffered an unspecified wound during the war that has left him impotent; Cohn has grown up under the shadow of antisemitism; and Brett is a divorcee from an abusive husband who came back from the war with PTSD. Jake and Brett especially appear to be alcoholics, self-medicating. Mippipopolous indulges in much the same way, but takes it all in stride, savoring the moment instead of forcing it, as is seen when he is drinking with Brett and Jake and insists that the champagne be chilled before opening it.

(Ernest – so hot right now)

In many ways, Jake and Robert Cohn mirror each other: each has what the other wants. Jake wants to be a writer and be with Brett; Cohn is a writer and is with Brett. However, Jake has Brett’s love, which is what Cohn wants, whereas Cohn has her body, which Jake cannot have. Moreover, because Cohn has had relationships with women who subsequently act as his benefactors, he has been able to become a published novelist, whereas Jake has no such sources of income and has to eek out a subsistence as a journalist, who seems to write about gossip. To this extent, Jake is a traditionalist in that he is one of the few characters that works for a living and doesn’t seem to be racking up debt.

Debt is an interesting motif in the novel. Jake is convinced that the secret to “Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it.” “Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money.” However, he worries because he’s “been getting something for nothing” from Brett. That is to say, he’s been having an intimate relationship with her without having to negotiate all the problems that comes with consummating love. Thus far, his love for Brett has been ideal, unchallenged, and sepulcher.

Brett fits into Hemingway’s androgynous man-eating feminine. As always, a female character is submitted to the virgin-whore binary, and since Brett is a promiscuous divorcee, many interpretations are about how immoral she is, and how she victimizes Jake and the other male characters, etc. However, Brett, like the other characters, is using hedonism as a means to medicate psychological wounds.  While Brett certainly fails in dealing with the consequence of her actions (the way she handles Cohn) I wouldn’t cast her as a villain. She alienates the men she’s with more so because she resists the traditional feminine frame they try to impose upon her (she won’t let Romero convince her to grow her hair out).

There is also a tendency to interpret her as a bad influence on Jake. That she destroys the relationship between him and Cohn, and that she ruins his reputation as an aficion. However, Jake knows things can’t work with them and pursues her nonetheless. You can hardly blame Cohn for making his move, even though he should’ve known things would’ve played out such that it did. Furthermore, Jake all but sets up Brett with Romero. It seems that he recognizes he cannot give her the physical relationship she needs, so he is intimate emotionally with her, and then sets her up a bullfighter he admires so he can satisfy the physical part, subsequently experiencing it vicariously. If his aficion stature was so important to Jake he should’ve distanced himself from the whole business, but he didn’t so he clearly got something out of it; he pays his debt one way or another.

However, in the end, having given up his friendship with Cohn and his aficion reputation, Jake has paid his debt and gained some kind of insight, as he seems to have gained some insight and has moved on from Brett. Nonetheless, this is entirely ambiguous as the ending can be interpreted differently. Jake tells Brett that it’s “pretty” to imagine how things would’ve been between them. Perhaps Jake has learned to lighten up and enjoy things as they come like Mippipopolous. Who knows.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on May 23, 2012.

2 Responses to “Fiesta! thoughts on The Sun Also Rises”

  1. A very interesting and thoughtful review! To be honest, I hated this book for its writing, its racism and its misogyny: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=602

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