This time and again is cited as among Hemingway’s best. I don’t know much of his later work, but this, being his first novel, is certainly a success. However I was left feeling disappointed and lost in the end. Every time the story began to climax, the focus changed abruptly and left me wondering what I had missed.
I understand that we are dealing with the lost generation, that it was a time where disillusioned twenty and thirty somethings found constant action, drinking being the most prominent, as the cure-all to the life’s ills. I realize the novel examines a time of deep depression and loss, and that hopelessness and hope for a better future were tangled together as a single emotion. But, as I searched for these themes in the novel, I could not seem to find them.
Might the bull fights be a metaphor for war, pointless and disgusting, with no purpose and no end? This is the driving symbol after all, and we are dealing with post-war Europe. But no, not for Hemingway.
Instead they seem to parallel the events that surround our cast of characters. They symbolize the destructiveness of sex, the vanity of friendship, the insecurity and violence-lust that predominates. They do nothing to comment on anything of great importance. And often the war and its fighting are viewed nostalgically rather than tragically.
The story itself is told from the point of view of Jake Barnes, an impotent veteran and journalist living in Paris. It details a trip from Paris down to Madrid to take part in the running of the bulls and enjoy the subsequent bull fights. Accompanying him, though not always by his side, are Robert Cohn (a Jew that no one likes), the Lady Brett Ashley (who everyone seems to be in love with, and who proves herself more a whore than a lady), Bill Gorton (seemingly Jake’s closest friend), Mike Campbell (a Scottish war veteran, braggart, obnoxious prick, and Brett’s fiancé). Along the way they meet others who add (or not) to the overall atmosphere, most importantly the bull fighter Pedro Romero.
There was a scene somewhere in the middle of the novel that in particular I did not like at all. It told of Jake and Bill’s fishing pit stop in the Spanish countryside. The whole account added nothing whatsoever to the overall plot and felt highly out of place. It was as if Hemingway stepped out of his role as an author, became my outdoorsy grandfather, woke me up bright and early, and dragged me out to the lake for some quality time. It would’ve made a decent short story (though I would’ve avoided it), but did nothing forthe novel.
The overall focus too was jumbled in such a way that it was hard to tell who the story was actually about. Was it Brett’s, whose many sexual escapades are too high to count (and the damage they do even greater)? Was it Jake’s, who is obviously narrating the story? Perhaps it is the story of Spanish culture. Perhaps, as the two epigraphs (one being Gertrude Stein’s, “You are all a lost generation,” the other from Ecclesiastes describing how generations are lost so that others can be born, and from which the book gets its namesake), suggest it is of Hemingway’s entire generation.
This last seemed most likely, at least until I reflected further. After some consideration I realized all these things are certainly in part what the story is about. Yet the events surrounding one character in particular seemed to overshadow the rest, that being Robert Cohn. In the end The Sun Also Rises seems to be a nearly anti-Semite examination of Cohn. Jake begins the tale with a description of Cohn, reserved and quiet but a fierce boxer in college, it goes on to detail over and over his anger at being rejected by Brett (who he too is in love with, even moreso than Jake is), he is the central focus of all the jokes and hatred and subsequent apologies of the group of men, and it ends (this event most resembling any sort of climax) with his rage unleashed on nearly everyone.
If there is any deeper notion at all, it is displayed in the final scene. Brett and Jake sit in a taxi (as they did in the beginning as well, a scene in which Brett seems to say she’d love Jake back just as much if only he could perform in the bedroom), when Brett remarks how nice a time they could’ve had. Jake ends the novel saying, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so,” thereby concluding that there is no hope, but that the sun indeed always (and also) rises, that the generations of man continually cycle (though not by Jake’s progeny). We may think it will get better or could have been better, but, in Hemingway’s eyes, there is simply no hope. As this little game between Jake and Brett and all her lovers cycles on, as the bull fights annually pass, as the facade of friendship is renewed each night over a glass of wine or gin or beer or whatever is brought to the table, so too will the cycles of war and destruction.
I’m not sure this is a message I want defining my literature.