People have fun in The Sun Also Rises, but that’s about it—what’s missing is a lasting sense of contentment or satisfaction with life in general.
The cause of this is the massive social upheaval caused by the First World War; after the war, nobody seems to care about the things that used to be important, and the whole world has to re-define itself. Hemingway’s characters all struggle to discover their individual brands of happiness, but none of them succeed in doing so. The implication is that the postwar world is so disorderly and unstable that it’s impossible to just settle down and figure everything out. This is understandable—hey, it’s hard enough to do that when everything’s peaceful, much less in the aftermath of a catastrophic global event.
The pervasive sense that contentment is no longer possible in the postwar world means that The Sun Also Rises is doomed to end unhappily from page one.
Dissatisfaction fuels Jake’s productive working life, and therefore his discontentment is indispensable to him.
The Sun Also Rises is just jam-packed with people who think they have their public images worked out, but really are just big old messes on the inside.
Hemingway’s characters make a big show of being confident and witty, but we quickly realize that they’re just putting it on: nobody is really that confident, and nobody is entirely true to themselves. Even our protagonist, who is one of the novel’s more grounded characters, faces deep anxieties about his beliefs and the ways in which his actions correspond with them. All of this has to do, of course, with the destabilizing trauma of the war; just as nations have to rebuild themselves after the war, so do individual people.
The characters of The Sun Also Rises are all marked by the impossibility of claiming an identity, rather than by a clear understanding of themselves.
The postwar society Hemingway reveals in the novel is one in the midst of a universal identity crisis.
The idea of masculinity isn't a shiny Brawny paper towel ad in The Sun Also Rises. It's super-problematic.
The insecurity of the central male characters produces an atmosphere of competition, rivalry, and mutual harassment, and we constantly witness petty arguments that are rooted in this sense of challenged masculinity. The novel revolves around several male characters and their various relationships with each other, and with one central female character; Hemingway plays up the tensions of competition and jealousy to demonstrate just how uncertain his male characters are. The shared sense of insecurity among many of the book’s central male characters suggests a redefinition of masculinity post-WWI; did we mention that the protagonist is impotent as the result of a war wound?
While most of the men in The Sun Also Rises are insecure because of their shifting roles in a modern and alienating society, Pedro Romero’s youth and proximity to nature produce his sense of identity and confidence.
Because Cohn unsuccessfully clings to pre-war notions of honor and masculinity, his masculinity is targeted as a clear example of weakness in the post-war world.
The characters in The Sun Also Rises are serious drinkers—they drink like it’s their job. Actually, alcoholism practically is a profession for one of the characters (Mike), a slacker whose major distinguishing factor is his ability to get drunk and stay drunk for days, possibly years, on end.
Alcohol provides a much-needed escape from the realities of the world that Hemingway’s characters move through; it allows them to push away their personal doubts and fears, as well as renounce responsibility for their actions. Drinking is a largely ineffectual coping mechanism for this group of aimless, uncertain, and irresponsible people.
The characters in The Sun Also Rises attempt to use alcohol as an anesthetic, to avoid the pain of dealing with their various identity crises.
Different characters have different uses for alcohol in the novel; while Mike uses drunkenness as an escape mechanism and an excuse for his outrageous behavior, Jake and Bill are both able to use alcohol productively to stimulate creativity.
Ah, l’amour, l’amour. Of course a novel set in Paris (city of love, duh), involves love. However, don’t forget that this is not exactly the romantic, sentimental Paris we usually imagine – Hemingway’s Paris is an ailing, disillusioned postwar city, and therefore Hemingway’s love is also a special kind of ailing, disillusioned, postwar love. The novel lacks a single substantial example of mutually shared and consummated romantic love. While some characters struggle with an outdated definition of love, for others, the prospect of love seems entirely subjugated to other concerns and realities. Love, when mentioned at all in The Sun Also Rises, is usually only brought up in the context of accusations or fights, or at best surrounding discussions of sex.
Although Brett and Jake love one another, Brett’s prioritization of sex and independence above love, and Jake’s physical limitations, prevent them from being together.
Robert Cohn’s unrealistic and outdated understanding of love renders him the perfect scapegoat for Mike, Brett, and Jake, each of whom are insecure in their own love lives.
Ah, ye olde city mouse vs. country mouse battle. In The Sun Also Rises, the country is shown as idyllic, but the city is hellish.
There is an overwhelming sense that the modern world that Hemingway shows us runs the risk of drifting dangerously far from the natural world. Many of the characters are divorced not only from capital-N-Nature, but from their own natural states; the perpetual drunkenness and self-imposed oblivion that dominate the book remove characters from their true thoughts and emotions. Our protagonist and a few other characters share a profound appreciation for nature, and in it they are able to take refuge from the negative effects of a super-unhealthy society.
During Bill and Jake’s fishing trip, their profound experience of the natural world creates a sense of authenticity that is lacking in the rest of the novel.
The most grounded characters in The Sun Also Rises share a sense of appreciation and an innate understanding of nature.
Nationality is a funny thing in The Sun Also Rises. While all of its characters are defined partially by their roots, there is an overwhelming sense that national boundaries are no longer satisfactory in the aftermath of the Great War.
The community we encounter in the novel is one of American and British expatriates living in France, in self-imposed exile from their respective homelands. The pressing need for escape, self-invention, and individuation from one’s country plays into the choices of the characters Hemingway shows us, as well as the fractured and unstable image of society he portrays.
Hemingway’s expatriates are responding to the unsettling sense that the old order of the world no longer applies in the wake of the First World War.
The reason that these characters are so lost is because they're expatriates, not because they're members of the generation that served in WWI.
World War I is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to mention (yes, it occurred to us that this is probably the only time anyone has ever compared World War I to an elephant). When the war does come up, characters in The Sun Also Rises attempt to make flippant comments about it, but there’s a lingering sense of uneasiness—the experience of war is still too fresh in people’s minds to even seriously discuss it.
Our protagonist suffered a physical wound that left him impotent as a result of the war; the other characters’ wounds are mental and emotional, and society as a whole is scarred by this global event.
The rupturing event of World War I makes it impossible for Jake to return to America, since he only feels comfortable in a community that shared the traumatic experience of the war first-hand.
In The Sun Also Rises, the central conflict (the impossibility of Jake and Brett’s relationship) is caused by a war-inflicted wound that renders Jake impotent; one might therefore say that the war itself is the main cause of conflict in the novel.