The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

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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).

Reviewed on December 29, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Hemingway isn’t really my kind of boy, but I did enjoy A Movable Feast because I liked hearing him talk about writing. He is so passionate about it in that book. I feel to do him justice I really should read one of his novels, one of these days. I’ll get there in the end!

  • I agree that the depictions of Paris in the 20s really make A Moveable Feast memorable. Another thing I loved about that book was the genuine tenderness and respect he seemed to feel toward his first wife Hadley. It especially struck me because he can be so catty and macho toward other people, but he seemed very generous in his depiction of her and of their relationship.

    I’m not sure why Sun Also Rises is always the Hemingway taught in college & high school courses. Maybe just because it’s short, or maybe because it’s such a portrait of an era. I don’t love it, but I did love Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is probably my favorite of his that I’ve read.

    • Emily, For Whom the Bell Tolls is the book waiting on my night stand! I do hope I enjoy it. I did find Sun Also Rises very accessible, but I still didn’t really like it at all…

      Interesting you say that about his relationship to his first wife. Apparently some early editions of A MOVEABLE FEAST have some passages about his affair with the woman who becomes his second wife. But I missed it, so I must have read an edited edition?

  • Yeah I’m not sure The Sun Also Rises will be the one for me. Like I said on twitter, I really loved The Old Man and the Sea and also For Whom the Bell Tolls, but Farewell to Arms was completely lost on me. I do want to read A Moveable Feast, though. It feels like something I’d like more than some of his others.

    • Amanda, It’s interesting how similar the settings are in THE SUN ALSO RISES and A MOVEABLE FEAST and one of them I enjoyed and the other I was really bleh about. I think it is the comments on writing and the “real”-ness that makes A MOVEABLE FEAST worthwhile. And, as litlove says, the comments on writing.

  • I must admit – Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite books. I loved absolutely everything about it and I felt as though Hemingway is a writer who feels that if the sky is gray, it’s gray. He doesn’t word it in such a way that it becomes superfluous, melodramatic, or trying too hard. It just is what it is. I think that’s what grabbed me the most with this book, especially, as well as with the latter half of To Have and Have Not. Hemingway is someone I really am fascinated by, particularly as he lived a rather adventurous and wild life, and then committed suicide when he was in his sixties.

    I did enjoy The Old Man and the Sea, though – but I need to read For Whom the Bell Tolls.

    • Coffee and a Book Chick, I didn’t “love everything about it” but I certainly did enjoy it. I find Hemingway’s writing to be fascinating — but I must admit I don’t really like him, at least what I get of him from the book…

  • I have The Sun Also Rises from a used book sale long ago, so it may be the Hemingway with which I start…unless that is a supremely bad idea! A Moveable Feast sounds much more like my style…maybe I’ll just borrow a copy of that from the library instead.

    • Erin, I don’t know if THE SUN ALSO RISES is a bad idea. It’s just Hemingway, and he’s different. A class all his own I think. So it’s an odd book, just keep in mind. I didn’t like it, but you might.

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