The pains of meaninglessness in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises


Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is classic Hemingway – hapless, often timorous, not daring characters caught in the usual web of events that only appear gargantuan and menacing because the people do not rise above them. People regularly go to bars and drink and meet and chat with people, either feigning order, pretending to be fine or desperately masking the anxieties both inside and outside themselves.

The story revolved around Jake Barnes, the apple of his eyes Lady Brett Ashley and their friends and flings as they tarried on parts of Europe (from France to Spain), displaced in America after the First World War.

In this novel, I can see Hemingway’s perennial themes: a sense of loss, a sense of and a spiritual defeat, and the ever-gnawing instability both in terms of mere location, in emotional states and sense of purpose and most of all, in relation to the world.

Forced by circumstances to settle elsewhere than his homeland American country, it seemed that to Jake, travelling could douse the flame of instability perpetually hectoring him. Then it came as quite a surprise that when eagerly invited by Robert Cohn, his boxer friend, to go with him to South America, Jake said retorted that “you can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (19). Later, we can see that these words of wisdom from Jake himself will prove to be applicable and veracious to him.

Also, it was the circumstances that made him see Lady Brett Ashley one night in a dancing-club somewhere in Paris. A past romantic acquaintance, the two had the successful continuation of this curtailed affair hanging all throughout the novel, only sustained and consummated as its biggest storyline – it ending up to nothing and serving as the biggest flop of all foiled romances and all other failures in the story.

Earlier in the novel, Robert Cohn and his fiancée Frances kicked off and perhaps foreboded the succeeding cases of haplessness in the novel. Regarding this, Frances had a sick outburst with Jake:

“I wouldn’t marry him if he doesn’t want to. I wouldn’t marry him now for anything. But it does seem to be a little late now, after we’ve waited three years, and I’ve just gotten my divorce” (54).

And then we will meet Bill Gorton, Jake’s writer friend, and Michael, Brett’s replacement to the Count she just split with, and they all crossed paths starting in France all the way to Spain where they attended a week-long fiesta highlighted by bull-fights they will eventually enjoy. In Spain, the five went together on a superficially merry vacation trip deeply troubled by the each one’s personal anxieties and resulting to casual scuffles. In Spain, each of the males was suddenly smitten with Brett, but most prominently Robert Cohn. His petulance eventually annoyed Brett and the rest of the group and caused him to depart earlier from Spain. Michael, Brett’s most “legitimate” partner also had his share of insecurities. Of course there is Jake, the narrator whose feelings for Brett is no secret to us. All these romantic longings for Brett were simultaneously dashed for the boys when she got captivated by one of the bull-fighters, Romero. At this point, Hemingway was not yet done brutally gashing all romantic hopes and fervor. In the end, we would find out that Brett and Romero would also split apart and Brett would return perhaps to the solace mystically provided to him by Jake. However, there was no ultimate reclamation either for Jake or for Brett. Jake won’t actually have Brett and Brett won’t find something enduring and if ever she does, will arguably balk at its face and eventually lose the chance of obtaining it. After their escapade in the week-long fiesta in Pamplona and Jake was all by himself again, he received a telegram from Brett asking him to go to her in a hotel in Madrid. Approaching the end of the novel, one can easily think that this is our desired ending, our expected ending.  But Brett would say that she is “going back to Mike. He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing.” Hemingway was perhaps feeling for Jake at this point but we know these words would truly shatter him. Yes, Brett “would not look up” when she said those words and Jake “could feel her shaking,” but the suggested ambivalence does not give an affirmation for Jake. It only reflects the troubling uncertainty that Brett cannot set straight for herself, and perhaps, for Jake as well, more hurtfully, for the two of them. And Hemingway would end the novel, as teasingly as possible, as open-endedly as possible, but maintaining that atmosphere of ambivalence and uncertainty that forever tortures his characters:

“The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. “Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes, I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

This “could have” from Brett and more importantly, more strikingly, that question mark from Jake at the end, mustering in words all the possibilities they failed to nab, all the uncertainties and trepidations they failed to outgrown and overcome and at the end bitterly resulting to a romantic failure that perhaps would haunt both of them for most of their lives. This “could have” was eternally confined to the terrain of thought and for the entirety of the novel and perhaps even in the unwritten future for the two, they will be unable to actualize it, to gather all their guts and volition and emotions to trample on all their doubts and insecurities.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway limned the seemingly innocent but actually torturous paths led by characters in a span of time and space where darkness is spelled in and reinforced by indecision and purposelessness paving the way for inaction and most painfully, failure. It is perhaps no coincidence that Hemingway puts his characters on quite a protracted journey to further signify that looming transience, that instability that chased them and which they were never able to get away from. This is not just the harrowing effects of expatriation after a terrifying war. This is not just the tragedies, however seemingly petty, caused by displacement from one’s country. Perhaps more vitally and more poignantly, this is the tragedy caused by displacement from one’s self, arguably as a result of a war and other sordid social circumstances that sapped out all the potentials for conviction and trust and faith to be held by individuals with a strong heart and unperturbed will and ultimately will propel them to act and do things that will make them happy and make them feel that they had led a life with meaning.

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