Originally published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises was Ernest Hemingway’s first big hit. Less than ten years after the end of World War I, the novel helped define his generation: disillusioned young people whose lives were profoundly affected by the war. Hemingway himself wasn’t a soldier (his vision wasn’t good enough to enlist in the army), but he saw plenty of action through his exploits as an ambulance driver in Italy, where he was wounded and was actually awarded a medal from the Italian government for his valor. Hemingway bore the physical and emotional scars of the war for the rest of his life, just like the troubled characters he created in The Sun Also Rises, and the novel expresses the uncertainty and aimlessness of this "Lost Generation" (see What's Up With the Epigraph? for a full explanation of this term).
The Sun Also Rises endures as one of the most popular and significant books to emerge from American literature of the 1920s – along with Hemingway’s friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (published only a year earlier in 1925), which examines postwar life stateside, The Sun Also Rises is generally regarded as a definitive guide to life in the hedonistic, confusing, and fascinating post-WWI era.
Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, right? The classic star-crossed lovers bit, immortalized over and over again in just about every cultural medium we’ve got? For those of you who either grew up in a black hole or have been struck with a major case of amnesia and aren’t familiar with this story, here it is in a nutshell: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Society intervenes, the lovers are separated, then, through a cruel twist of fate, they die just as they are about to be reunited. The young lovers then become the idealized model for the figure of tragic romance in our modern society. The end.
Well, now imagine this: Romeo and Juliet are reborn a few centuries later, except this time, things are different. The world is different. The classic romance can’t play out the way it should for several reasons. First of all, the lovers are a couple decades older – they’re in their mid-thirties, not mid-teens, and love isn’t quite the same passionate adventure it was the first time around. In the twentieth century, love is a scary, dangerous venture. Secondly, Romeo is impotent (gasp!), and Juliet sleeps around to console herself (gasp gasp!). Thirdly, the possibility of happiness isn’t even on the menu – it’s been smashed to bits by the catastrophic iron fist of the First World War. What do you have then? A disillusioned, cynical post-tragedy, post-romance tragic romance we like to call The Sun Also Rises .
This novel thrashes all the flowery things we’re taught to believe about love and romance, and basically tells us that the world we live in can no longer support these old fashioned ideas – and furthermore, it offers no solutions. The novel attempts, in its way, to answer one of the great questions of life: what is love? If that’s not something to care about, we don’t know what is.