The Sun Also Rises and “Soldier’s Home” Illustrate Hemingway’s Deep Understanding of PTSD

In 1926, Ernest Hemingway published his first and one of his most revealing novels about his own life, The Sun Also Rises. The book informed 1920’s readers, as well as today’s readers about the physical and psychological struggles that American soldiers faced after returning from World War I. This book first fully demonstrated Hemingway’s brilliance as a writer to the world. In it, he introduces new literary techniques emphasizing understatement and sharp, terse prose writing that reveals just enough about his subject-matter to give readers a fleeting glimpse of the tips of icebergs as if they were being viewed from the Titanic.Trying to duplicate the minimalist techniques of abstract painters in his prose, Hemingway forces readers to go beneath the surface before they can understand his deeper psychological messages. For example, in the first two chapters the narrator, Jake Barnes (who channels Hemingway), describes his colleague, Robert Cohn, in stark journalistic detail without specifically revealing much about himself. If we are paying attention, though, we can understand a great deal about Jake from what he says about Cohn. He disapproves of the unmanly way that Cohn relates to women. He sees him as irresponsible and idealistic. He is resentful that Cohn is able to experience the exciting life of Paris without having ever served in the armed forces. Jake uses this stinging criticism to point out that Cohn, who was born of privilege, never appreciates life. Although Jake appreciates life in Paris, he laments that, what he considers as his manhood has been taken away from him in the “Great War.” Gertrude Stein, a mentor of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris, called the entire group of American expatriates, “The Lost Generation.” She conjectured that they were lost and that their contributions to culture would be lost as the generations and seasons turned.  Perhaps, she was right about them being lacking values. However, many of them went on to become some of the most important writers and artists and of the twentieth century. Ultimately, Hemingway won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for his prose.

Those who are paying attention to Hemingway’s prose  may get a sense the characters in mostly any of Hemingway’s war stories are on the verge of going down in the drink at any moment. Hemingway understood war only too well because he enlisted at age 18 as an ambulance driver for the Italian Army during World War I. Most importantly, he came back wounded with “unspecified injuries.” He uses this theme in The Sun Also Rises, which depicts the main character, Jake Barnes, as a soldier who is returning from the war and cannot perform sexually with his romantic interest, Lady Brett Ashley. Hemingway re-uses the wounded soldier theme returning from the Italian front in his 1929 Novel, A Farewell to Arms. As if he wants his readers to know that he and his characters have regained their vital male functions, he consumes a torrid sexual relationship with nurse Katherine Barkley and impregnates her to death. This later book shows that even when Hemingway is writing about the possibility of new life, death is lurking in the upper bunk (see his short story, “Indian Camp”).

Before the readers of my Lifelong Learning Institute(LLIChesterfield.org) class immersed themselves too deeply into any of Hemingway’s classic novels, I recommend that they first become familiar with his excellent collection of short stories. Within The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition, we find autobiographical sketches of his youth and coming of age (the Nick Adams stories), narratives of interactions with Native-Americans, and stories about hunting and fishing. As a whole, these stories provide sketches of Hemingway’s later more developed writing styles in much the same way as classic artists’ early sketches show the planning that went into their later masterpieces. In one of the book’s most striking examples of the brilliance of his craft, Hemingway writes about a soldier returning home from WW I with  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a term which was not introduced into the common vernacular until later in the twentieth century. Fittingly, he names his short-story, “Soldier’s Home.” In trying to think about this title without having read it, the participants of my class could not  conceive what it might be about. Where is a soldier’s home when he is no longer a soldier? Is it in a convalescent barracks off of the battlefield or in the home he settles in after he is a soldier? Hemingway’s soldier, Harold Krebs, goes back to living with his parents and his sister after returning from the war in an emotionally stressed condition that is not fully explained in the story. By viewing the frustrations that Krebs experiences, we can surmise that he has been damaged psychologically. He came back from the war expecting to fit back into the familiar patterns he had known before the war. However, nothing was the same at home as it had been. Cultural values, religious allegiances, fashions, and expectations of masculinity and femininity were all shifting in ways that Krebs was no longer equipped to handle. Hemingway, writing in the style of the journalist, opens with, “Nothing was changed in the town except that the young girls had grown up. But they lived in a complicated world of already defined alliances and shifting feuds that Krebs did not feel the energy or the courage to break into.”  Later, he describes that he “did not want any consequences ever again.” Certainly, without specifically describing it, we can see that Krebs has been damaged emotionally or maybe also physically and that, perhaps, he is suffering from some type of PTSD. It was a lie, he admitted when stated that he wanted one of these girls, and a lie when he stated that he didn’t want on of them. We can see by the way he describes the girls passing by his porch that he likes their bobbed haircuts, sweaters, and skirts. However, he cannot bring himself to talk with them. He says that life was so much easier in Europe when he didn’t have to talk to the French and German girls at all. He is only comfortably able to talk with his younger teenage sister. She is one of the few people in his their town to still treat him like a war hero. She proposes that he might be her beau and marry her someday. She forces him to pledge his love to her and to prove his devotion by attending her baseball game. Although he assures her that he loves her, he is unable to talk with her about the inappropriateness of her suggestion. Perhaps, because it does not fit into any patterns that he understands. He is less able to express his love for his mother. He calls her “mommy” and pledges to be “a good boy.” This home hardly seems like the best environment that would be conducive to the healing of soldier who has seen the horror of life and death.

Krebs went home after the war because he wanted to restore himself into patterns. However, we can plainly see that he cannot get any better by living under the care of his mother and father. Although she means well, his mother patronizes him excessively. She feeds him almost from hand to mouth and lectures him about the need to move forward with his life. His bacon hardens in its own fat during the course of one her of slippery lectures on the values of the Protestant Work Ethic. She and his father offer to lend Krebs the old family car so he can go into town, presumably to meet young women. The father (who like many fathers during that period) was notably absent from offering meaningful support to his son. Hemingway, by pointing out the failures of Krebs’ father, was also likely astutely noticing that a whole generation of post-war young men was becoming sissified because they lacked strong male parental support and guidance at home. The mother asks to prey with Krebsi to guide him out of his malaise. But Krebs can no longer pray, because, after the war, he no longer considers himself part of God’s Kingdom. The horrors of the war that Krebs experienced are not revealed to the reader; he cannot find any solace in his parents home, and finally realizes that he must leave them and make a new home and life for himself. Perhaps, Hemingway conceals the nature of the trauma that Krebs and Jake Barnes went through to make his readers ask whether the war was worth the price that returning soldiers and their families paid. Hemingway’s war-related stories illustrate that PTSD damaged soldiers can almost never find a healing home after they return to civilian life. Both “Soldier’s Home” and The Sun Also Rises address this issue head-on. These stories also remind us that Hemingway’s works are still relevant to read our lifetime when thousands of soldiers attempt to return each from Iraq and Afghanistan with paralyzing post-traumatic stress disorders. Recent discussions on this topic have suggested that we must try to commit more resources to help them heal and re-adjust to the normal patterns of society. However, even the most well-meaning people will often be unable to offer the best home for them. Like Krebs, they may never be healed unless they are able to try to figure out how to create new soldiers homes for themselves.

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education in 1987. He is married and has three wonderful adult  daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com, an editor for the Correctional Educator Journal, and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic and meditation teacher. Murray also serves a board member and volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write him at ellisonms2@vcu.edu or leave comments on the LitChatte.Com Blog.

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