Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Sun Also Rises

Hemingway's first novel launched his literary fame, and it still has passionate fans. I read it partly because after I disparaged For Whom the Bell Tolls in conversation, a friend I respect said she agreed about that one but added, "You should read The Sun Also Rises -- it's a beautiful book."

So I did. I won't say I hated it, because it didn't make that strong of an impression on me. I think I just didn't get it. I wouldn't have finished it if it hadn't been for my desire to check another classic off my life list. Helped that it's short.

The basic plot is this: narrator Jake Barnes, World War I vet rendered impotent by his wounds, hangs around Paris in 1925 with a bunch of other expats who all drink so much that I can't believe they could even stand up, let alone enjoy the night life. This circle consists of four men and one woman, Brett Ashley, who has slept with all of them. They drink and have inane conversations for about a hundred pages. I gather the point of this is to depict the lifeless, spiritless, pointless, empty existence of the "lost generation," people ruined by World War I and unable to get on with their lives. It certainly worked for me -- I have never read anything so bewilderingly vacuous. Their conversations go something like this:
We went on.
"Here's a taxidermist," Bill said. "Want to buy anything? Nice stuffed dog?"
"Come on," I said. "You're pie-eyed."
"Pretty nice stuffed dogs," Bill said. "Certainly brighten up your flat."
"Come on."
"Just one stuffed dog. I can take 'em or leave 'em alone. But listen, Jake. Just one stuffed dog."
"Come on."
"Mean everything in the world to you after you bought it. Simple exchange of values. You give them money. They give you a stuffed dog."
We went on. . . .
We stopped and had a drink.
"Certainly like to drink," Bill said. "You ought to try is tome times, Jake."
"You're about a hundred and forty-four ahead of me."
"Ought not to daunt you. Never be daunted. Secret of my success. Never been daunted. Never been daunted in public."
"Where were you drinking?"
And so on. It's profoundly depressing, and it reminded me of why I hate to be around drunks.

Then the whole lot of them head down to Pamplona for the summer festival that includes the famous running of the bulls. Jake, like Hemingway, is a great lover of bull fighting. He also, like Hemingway, loves to fish. This part of the novel is better, because it includes excellent descriptions of bulls, fish, mountains, small Spanish towns, and the reverie of the festival. But most of the text still consists of inane conversations, half about drinking and half about the tension created by Brett's sleeping with everyone. According to what I have read, this is either supposed to convey that the lives of the lost can be redeemed through a reconnection with the earthy, spiritual, physical life of small town Spaniards, or just to contrast the two worlds. Hemingway certainly makes the contrast powerful; against the gaslit drunken folly of Paris he sets sun, wine, fishing in cold mountain streams, dancing, and spiritual hope, which are somehow crystallized in the deadly rituals of the bull fight.

I couldn't see any salvation taking place. Jake Barnes seems pretty ok at the end, but then he always seemed the most ok of the lot. Brett has fallen madly in love with a 19-year-old matador, seduced him, and then wired Jake to come rescue her from him. She says she won't live with Jake because she would only cheat on him, and she loves him to much to do that to him. So she follows the rest of the crew back to their drunken lives in Paris and London while Jake goes swimming. Finis.

I can see, if I try, some of the things that other people claim to have seen in the book: Jake's search for solid ground, moral and psychological, onto which he could crawl from the quicksand of his drunken expat life; the contrast between the worldly, sophisticated, rotten life of the rich expats and the simpler, more authentic world of the small-town Spaniards; the need for a physical life of sun and contact with animals, not just Paris by night.

Ok, sure. But why this book? If Jake Barnes is disgusted by characters like Brett and her admirers, why does he hang around with them? Why is he fascinated by her? Why does he help her get close enough to the matador to use her wiles on him, which causes him to lose face with all his Spanish bull-fighting friends? Why doesn't he, I don't know, move to Key West and hang out with fishermen? And why did I subject myself to 150 pages of drunken banter for 50 pages of decent writing about Pamplona, bulls, and the Spanish mountains?

Yes, the sun also rises. But why wallow around in the dark for so long? Hemingway makes a drunken life in Paris seem so awful that you can't believe (or at least I couldn't) that even the most wounded, lonely man would willingly subject himself to it. There is no dark attraction, nothing to get stuck on. It's just awful. So why bother? I guess life is like that sometimes. But I wish I had read something else.


pootrsox said...

Perhaps the impotence from which Jake suffers is psychological rather than physical? I used to pose that question to my high school students and often had excellent discussions.

The novel defined the Hemingway Hero who exemplifies "Grace under pressure" and spelled out his hypermasculine Code. It's definitely homosocial, though rarely if ever homoerotic. Women are either whores or bitches (and sometimes both); rarely there's an angel. However, women are not really persons-- only men are persons.

An excellent summary at

Another good discussion at

John said...

I don't really have any trouble with Jake; he's an ok character. But why is he hanging around Paris with all those empty-headed drunks? Why does he take them to Pamplona with him? What are they, anyway, and what do they represent? The social equivalent of the wars and giant fish of the other stories?