The “lost generation” was a term coined by Gertrude Stein about the young American and British expatriates in Paris during the 1920s. Ernest Hemingway was one of the young friends of Ms Stein. In 1925 and 1926, he wrote his defining “lost generation” book, The Sun Also Rises, while he lived in Paris and visited Spain. (His memoir of that time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, was written in 1960 and only published after his death. See my review here.)
Although I can’t say Ernest Hemingway himself interests me, the look at the hopelessness of life post-World War I was very intriguing, and I love the simple, clean writing style Hemingway devised. So, remove the true people from A Moveable Feast, remove the descriptions of Paris, and add a few drunk people and a few bullfights in Spain, and you have The Sun Also Rises. I didn’t like it, but it was still a fascinating novel; I’m glad I (re)read it. (I found it completely unremarkable and recalled nothing after I read it in a college course on the American novel.)
It is a story of recovering from the first war. Although it is called the first novel of the “lost generation,” Hemingway gives Jake Barnes a bit of hope in the end. Maybe he’s saying we’re not all lost after all. Jake’s friend Bill describes what the “lost generation” means, and essentially all of the American and British expatriates in the novel fit the description.
You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes. (page 120)
Jake’s friend Lady Brett Ashley is the depiction of sexual looseness, and every man she talks with falls in love with her: her beauty, her self-confidence, and her British title (she is in the process of getting a divorce from her abusive husband). She is the definitive 1920s “flapper,” with her bobbed hair and regular love affairs. Wikipedia claims that upon publication of The Sun Also Rises, women across America idolized her and rushed to bob their hair too. Her fiancé is Mike Campbell, a man who is drunk for essentially the entire book: he is also a very nasty drunk and deeply in debt in every country in Western Europe. These two seem to be the typical expatriates, living a lose life in Paris.
On the other hand the narrator, Jake Barnes, is a bit more complicated. He has received a war wound; although it never is explicitly explained, it seems obvious that he has been castrated or otherwise left impotent. Since most of the lifestyle of the lost generation revolves around sexuality, for the majority of the novel, Jake seems to feel he’s missing something. The war has literally left him “lost” in a morally free society.
What I liked about the novel was the complexity of Jake Barnes. I disliked him – just as I disliked everyone, including Brett, who was a “strong woman.” Yet, Jake was trying to find meaning in the midst of the “fiesta.” In the end, I thought he was the most likeable person around, for he was trying to love despite his accident, and he did seriously love Brett. As a result, he was the most sincere. He had to find satisfaction and friendship beyond sex and beyond alcohol. (He was quite happy while fishing because he was sober that entire week!). I think Hemingway gives us a whiff of hope in the end. Brett and Jake, even without sex, can still find happiness, even if briefly.
The original title of the novel was Fiesta and that was how it was first published in England. I don’t like or fully understand the American title. Fiesta seems to better match the setting and characters, since the majority of the novel the main characters are inebriated due to the week of bull-fight “fiestas.” Wikipedia suggests that the title was changed at Hemingway’s suggestion, and it is from Ecclesiastes 1:5:
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
It is a more symbolic title. It suggests that life goes on. Despite the pain everyone suffered in the war, everyday life began again, and they must find some way to cope with it. For the castrated Jake Barnes, the sun will keep rising and setting, even without sex. He will find his place in this new world.
In some ways, both of these Hemingway works have gotten me excited to read more 1920s novels and modernist works in general. There is something clear and simple about the style. I didn’t like The Sun Also Rises, but it certainly was memorable. I’m glad I read it before I dive in to other 1920s works (including a lot of Fitzgerald, I believe).