You get the feeling that the comedy of this book is there to mask what Hemingway himself called "a damned tragedy." Its characters engage in witty, often hilarious dialogue, but underneath their wisecracking shells lie vulnerable and discontented real people, disillusioned by the world around them. Check it out:
"When did she marry Ashley?"
"During the war. Her own true love had just kicked off with the dysentery."
"You talk sort of bitter."
"Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I was just trying to give you the facts." (5.8)
This is the kind of hard-boiled hilarity that would have you in stitches while you were at the table with these guys... and then getting depressed as soon as you came home. In this teensy snippet of dialogue "marriage" is shown as being incompatible with "true love" and "bitterness" is shown as being synonymous with "the facts." Ugh. We mean: hehe. We mean: ugh.
The tone of the book plays upon both of these aspects of our characters; as the novel approaches its end, the disillusioned side emerges more clearly. An increasing sense of cynicism and plain old exhaustion builds up during the days of the fiesta, as everyone drifts apart and some relationships disintegrate... perhaps beyond repair.
Today, Hemingway's style is one of the most copied around: it's gruff, it's stoic, and the sentences are shorter than the average length of one of Hemmy's beard hairs.
But way back when, his radical style (where were the poetic flourishes? where were the long asides? what did it all mean?) paired with the bleaktastic and jaded tone of The Sun Also Rises marked this novel as something new. Something, well, modern.
The book is seen as one of the big daddies of Modernism. It’s up there with Ulysses as shining examples of the genre and movement. Hemingway made a conscious move away from the conventions of the nineteenth century novel, attempting to create a new voice for the new world of the postwar twentieth century. The new world was stripped of excess sentimentality (like his prose) and filled with people that were lost and had pretty much given up hope of being found (like his characters).
Like so many great novel titles, this one comes directly from the Bible. More specifically, it can be found in the passage from Ecclesiastes quoted in the second epigraph (for more deets, check out "What's Up With the Epigraph?").
Basically, the title sums up the statement made in the passage quoted in the epigraph: humans are just a small and ephemeral part of a larger world. We come and go, but the earth always remains (remember, this was written in the days before global warming). The sun will keep rising and setting long after all of us are dead and gone. Real cheery, huh?
Best. Ending. Ever.
In the last words of this novel, Hemingway delivers a memorable and hard-hitting diagnosis of his generation: "Isn’t it pretty to think so?" The speaker, Jake, is referring specifically to the idea that he and Brett, his romantic interest, could have had "a damned good time together."
More generally, however, Hemingway expresses the sense of hopelessness and resignation that he sees in the world around him. Basically, it’s saying that everyone has their hopes and dreams—but they can’t be fulfilled. The best anyone can do is wistfully (or cynically) indulge in the fantasy that these dreams could have been possible in some alternate universe.
We'll always have Paris: the first few chapters of the novel take place in a loosely fictionalized version of the famous community of expatriate writers and artists that Hemingway really lived in during the 1920's.
After the war, Paris became a mecca for English and American writers, including Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, among others. Jake and his friends move through the same world that Hemingway did, and they frequent the same bars, cafés, and nightclubs. Hemingway depicts the atmosphere in Paris ambivalently: it’s exciting but exhausting, simultaneously clean and dirty, thrilling and banal, and filled with a sense of unease and illness. Jake’s refuge is his newspaper office, where he can shut out the world and focus on his work.
Next up: Spain. We move through three locations in Spain, with varying degrees of country and city. First, Bill and Jake go to Burguete, a small country town where they fish and enjoy nature. This section is significant for its difference from the rest of the novel—the purity of the landscape, combined with their escape from the other characters, makes the fishing trip an exhilarating experience for both men.
But they soon move on to Pamplona, a small city famous for its bull-fights, where they meet up with the rest of the gang for the fiesta of San Fermin. The transition from countryside to fiesta is like Mike’s fall into bankruptcy: gradual, then all at once. When the fiesta really gets going, with its continual drunkenness and sense of lawlessness, the setting takes on an almost nightmarish quality.
Finally, after a brief stop to recover by the seaside at San Sebastian, Jake is drawn back into the nightmare urban space of Madrid, where he goes to comfort Brett after she ends her relationship with Romero. He experiences a kind of emotional numbness in this other city, caused by his own guilt over Brett and Romero’s affair. It’s important that Hemingway returns us to a purely urban setting for this last scene—its bleakness is emphasized by the distance from nature.
You are all a lost generation.
– Gertrude Stein in conversation
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose… The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to its circuits… All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come thither they return again.
Like Doublemint gum, The Sun Also Rises gives us twice the bang for our buck. Unlike Doublemint gum, Hemingway ain't exactly giving us double pleasure or fun here.
Do the words "Lost Generation" sound familiar? Gertrude Stein coined this name, which applies to the young people who grew up in the shadow of World War I (1914-1918). In terms of pop culture, the images that usually spring to mind of this group are those of the Roaring Twenties: fast cars, flappers, and wild parties. Historically speaking, the First World War—also known as the Great War—was a kind of breaking point for the people of Europe and America. Nobody had ever imagined that a global event so apocalyptic would possibly happen, and when it did, it changed everything; suddenly, the beliefs and practices of the prewar world no longer seemed adequate.
Fusty Edwardian value? Hah!
On top of that, the beginning of the twentieth century was a time of profound technological change (Airplanes! Cars! Gee, whiz!)… suddenly, the world seemed like a much more accessible place. The Lost Generation is commonly characterized by the figures of Hemingway himself and his famous pal F. Scott Fitzgerald, who both partied hard, traveled incessantly, but were never quite happy.
Okay, on to epigraph number two. This quote from Ecclesiastes (a book of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) basically reminds us that nature is a constant, while we humans are not. Generations come and go, but our measly lifespans are all insignificant compared to the eternal cycle of sunrise and sunset, the movement of rivers into the sea and back again, and the movement of the wind around the earth.
Hemingway himself noted that he included this bit to balance out the somewhat melodramatic nature of Gertrude Stein’s statement. Way to achieve balance, Hem: pairing a bleak epigraph with a slightly less bleak epigraph.
These three words are often used to describe Hemingway’s distinctive prose style. He turns away from the lush, rich style of his precursors, or even of some of his contemporaries (contrast The Sun Also Rises to his friend Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby, published a year earlier). Instead, he went HAM on the short sentences:
"Have any fun last night?" I asked.
"No, I don’t think so."
"How’s the writing going?"
"Rotten. I can’t get this second book going."
"That happens to everyone."
"Oh. I’m sure of that. It just gets me worried, though." (5.7)
See what we mean? If you take out all the super-adult stuff (drinking, war, sex, loneliness, etc) this book scans kind of like an I-Can-Read Book: See Jane run. Run, Jane, run.
Hemingway learned a lot from his brief time as a journalist, and he introduced elements of newspaper style into the genre of the novel. The Sun Also Rises was the first serious work to really introduce Hemingway’s trademark voice to the world at large, and he immediately earned both praise and condemnation for it. In this novel, we see Hemingway employ short, simple sentences and snappy, realistic dialogue to create a novel that moves quickly and practically—we can actually feel the action of the text as it happens.
Bulls and bull-fighting are the two most critical symbols in The Sun Also Rises. The bulls symbolize passion, physicality, energy, and freedom. As a combination of these factors, in their interactions with the bull-fighters, they also come to symbolize the act of sex. Each bull-fight involves seduction, manipulation, maneuvering, and penetration by the bull-fighter of the bull. It is significant that, of all the characters, Jake, Brett, Romero, and Montoya are the most stirred by bull-fighting.
Romero’s status as bull-fighter suggests that, unlike the novel’s other male characters, he is capable of passionate love and sex. Although Cohn clings to an illusion of love for Brett, he is repelled initially by the bull-fights as boring, then later as gruesome. Brett is undisturbed by the gore of the bull-fights and, like Jake, is entranced by the interaction between bull-fighter and bull. After watching the bull-fights, Brett is determined to be with Romero. Jake, it seems, strives to experience sensuality vicariously through the bull-fights, as he is unable to have sex himself. As an aficionado, Jake recognizes and loves the passion of bull-fighting, suggesting that he, too, is a passionate man. Jake’s knowledge of bull-fighting empowers him to authoritatively describe the bull-fights to Brett. Although we do not learn much about Montoya’s personal life, it is apparent that he views bull-fighting as the highest, purest art form, one that exceeds all else in love, beauty, and passion. As discussed briefly in the above character analysis, the bull-fights can also be read as paralleling the characters and events of the novel. During the running of the bulls, to take just one example, a man is gored and killed the same day that Cohn leaves Pamplona.
Water appears on multiple occasions as a symbol of purification and relief. On Jake and Bill’s fishing trip, water seems to have the therapeutic effect of soothing Jake. While the men drink loads of wine while fishing, they first chill it in the river. This seems not only to cool the wine’s temperature but its effect; rather than creating a sense of drunken chaos, the wine rejuvenates them and stimulates Bill’s creativity (which he expresses verbally at a breakneck pace). When Jake leaves Pamplona for San Sebastian, he wants nothing more than to swim in the ocean. The water relieves and strengthens him, and he feels buoyant and supported. Finally, Brett is always going off to bathe, signifying her own innate desire to purify herself and perhaps disassociate herself from her actions.
Hemingway’s descriptions of the natural world are boldly sketched out in bright, clear colors. White roads, green fields, and the red tiled roofs of villages fill out the idealized landscape of Bill and Jake’s trip to Burguete, in contrast to the largely colorless, dimly lit interiors of Paris. This symbolizes the reawakening of the senses that Jake experiences as he leaves city life behind him, and heads toward the rejuvenating milieu of the country.
Jake is a classic First Person narrator. We see everything as he does, and the only thoughts and commentary we get are from him. Our understanding of the other characters, events, and relationships is limited to Jake’s own. We don’t see anything that happens when Jake’s not around, but we certainly hear about everything from his talkative, gossip-addicted friends. This perspective allows us to stay really close to Jake, our protagonist, and feel as though we’re intimately—to the point of being a little to close for comfort—connected to his fate.
The Sun Also Rises is a somewhat nontraditional narrative. Only a few pages into the first chapter, the book’s conclusion is revealed: Jake and Brett cannot end up together. The book is propelled much less by plot than character development. For these reasons, we have found it difficult to classify the novel into one of the seven basic plots of literature; however, it seems to come closest to the "Voyage and Return" plot.
Okay… so Jake doesn’t really ‘fall" into an entirely new world in an Alice in Wonderland sense, but he does take a trip which introduces a fairly dramatic change of scenery. He doesn’t feel that the trip will change him or make him happy in the way that Cohn does, but nonetheless he welcomes it. He hopes that getting away from Paris will be good for everyone. Little does he know what’s coming…
Jake and Bill find escape and relief fishing on the Irati River. We see their common bond with nature, and witness their genuine friendship. Unfortunately, change is coming—they are aware that the experience will come to an end when they go to Pamplona to meet the rest of the gang.
What had been a relaxing vacation is complicated by the myriad of complicated relationships between Brett and the central male characters. Mike, Bill, and Jake are sick of Cohn’s superior attitude with regards to Brett. Tensions build as the fiesta explodes into drunken being.
Mike finally lashes out, distraught by Brett’s affairs with Cohn and Romero. Cohn, desperate, angry, and pathetic, beats up Jake, Mike, and Romero. Everyone is exhausted and ready to get away from each other. Cohn departs in shame, and Brett absconds with Romero. Mike, Bill, and Jake are left alone in Pamplona.
Here’s where the voyage and return analysis gets a little fuzzy. While Jake does leave Pamplona for San Sebastian, it’s hardly an escape. Though he has a couple of days on his own to try and process the catastrophes of the trip, within days he’s drawn back into Brett’s destructive orbit, and he goes to meet her in Madrid. Nevertheless, his voyage has changed him—he is even more disillusioned than he was when the voyage began.
As the novel opens, we meet our expatriate friends in their adopted home of Paris. They all have different feelings about the city; Jake clearly relishes his life there, despite his general sense of dissatisfaction. He seems to know, like, everyone in the city of Paris (or possibly in France), and it an expert at everything from picking the right restaurant to schmoozing with Parisian hookers. We get the feeling that Jake could fit in wherever he goes. Robert Cohn, on the other hand, isn’t comfortable anywhere.
This is a totally classic set-up. The relationship between Jake and Brett presents itself as the primary source of tension and anxiety in the novel. Although both Jake and Brett have romantic feelings for one another, Jake’s impotence is an insurmountable barrier for Brett. Throughout the rest of the novel, we are consistently reminded of the impossibility of their relationship.
Jake’s discovery of Cohn’s affair with Brett frustrates his already difficult relationship with her. Because Mike, Cohn, and Jake each have strong feelings for Brett, their mutual presence in Pamplona intensifies everyone’s anxieties. Brett doesn’t help matters by failing to acknowledge the havoc she is wreaking—she doesn’t take responsibility for her actions (kind of a theme with this bunch of people).
Cohn’s attack of Jake, Mike, and Romero reflects the culmination of his anger about Brett and her liaisons. It embodies in a very physical manner the frustration and disillusionment experienced by all of the novel’s main characters. His departure from Pamplona signals the beginning of the end for everyone. When the fiesta’s officially over, it’s a relief to all of them—and, frankly, to us.
When the gang departs from Pamplona, nearly everyone is dissatisfied. Cohn has disappeared, Mike is bankrupt and in emotional disarray, Jake is in need of some major alone time, and Brett has left with Pedro Romero, leaving us to question the nature of the novel’s central relationships. Things are even less certain at this point than ever before, and in their last couple of days together, Bill, Jake, and Mike have the sense that a whole lot of people are missing.
After only a brief respite, Jake learns that Brett has sent Romero away; she telegraphs him urgently in San Sebastian to come and help her. The incident renews the question of a potential relationship between Brett and Jake. We hope against hope that something can work out, but by this point in the novel, we should really know better. Jake himself is cynical and resigned to his guilt and unhappiness with regards to Brett.
Brett is left at a crossroads—she has made the right decision in letting Romero go, but now has nowhere to go herself. She eventually decides to go back to Mike, who is "so damned nice and… so awful," and is the kind of guy she can handle. In a final resolution to the central conflict of the novel, it is decided that Brett and Jake could never be together. While this was Brett’s decision earlier in the novel, Jake is the one who finally decides that they never really had a chance.
This follows the structure of the novel very closely—Hemingway himself divided it into three "Books."
The cast of characters is introduced. Jake and the crew hang out in Paris. Cohn struggles with Frances; Jake and Brett discuss their relationship. Everyone is ready for a vacation, so they plan a trip to Spain.
Act II concludes with the end of the fiesta. Exhausted, miserable, and uncertain, the gang parts ways. Cohn leaves earlier, after attacking just about everyone else, Brett runs off with Romero, and the three men, Jake, Bill, and Mike, are left to console each other. As Jake plans for some alone time to recover in the relaxing natural setting of San Sebastian, we are left unsure of how everyone’s relationships will pan out.
In the novel’s last chapter, Jake is called away from his peaceful recuperation by the seaside by Brett, who needs him once again. The book concludes with a final emphasis on the impossibility of their relationship—all avenues to happiness appear to have been closed. The novel ends on a wistful but negative note, with Jake rejecting the possibility that he and Brett could ever have been together.
W.H. Hudson, The Purple Land (2.3)
Horatio Alger (2.3)
H.L. Mencken (6.2, 12.39)
A.E.W. Mason (12.31)
Circe, character in Greek mythology (13.52)
Ivan Turgenieff, a.k.a. Turgenev, Sportsman’s Sketches (14.1, 14.7)
Most importantly, the specter of World War I is always lurking beneath the surface of this novel— references are made to it throughout.
Marshal Michel Ney (4.10)
Voluntary Aid Detachment, WWI (5.8)
William Jennings Bryan (12.36)