Hemingway’s Point of View in the Sun Also Rises

 

I have started leading a discussion on Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, at the Lifelong Learning Institute (LLIChesterfield.org). In the first class, I asked the participants if they knew what the book is about and who the main characters are.  In case you haven’t read this classic work, it covers the antics of a group of American expatriates living in Paris in the 1920’s. Gertrude Stein referred to those people as the “Lost Generation.” Though she was right that they led a hedonistic, several of them, particularly F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway went on to become among the most celebrated American writers of the Twentieth Century.

Although The Sun Also Rises is not specifically about those celebrated artists, it provides a vivid snapshot of the “Roaring Twenties” as well as any other fictional work of literature—that is not called The Great Gatsby. Among the innovations that both Hemingway and Fitzgerald introduced to literature is narration from the main characters point of view. Once that stance is taken, the reader may not always be certain whether the narrator is reliable. Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway milked those uncertainties to the fullest possible literary effects.

Several of the main characters in Hemingway’s novel try to enjoy a care-free life in gay Paris while also attempting to heal from psychological and/or physical wounds that they experienced during the “Great War.” The world had changed dramatically after the War and the characters in the book try to react to several challenging cultural and moral dilemmas. There were new expectations in fashion, new standards of morality, a decreased reliance on conventional religious beliefs and institutions, and changing expectations about how men and women were expected to behave in society. The novel deals with the main characters’ disillusionments, frustrations with romance, their escapades drinking in Paris, the glory and gore of fighting bulls, and fighting for love in Spain.

When I asked the class participants to name the main characters in the book, they quickly called out the flashing Lady Brett Ashley and the anti-hero, Jake Barnes. One of the main supporting characters is Robert Cohn. I then asked them to get in groups of three and review the first two chapters of The Sun Also Rises. When we came back together, I asked them to tell me everything they learned about the main male character, Jake Barnes; they stared at me and said that the early chapters didn’t contain much information about Jake at all. The bulk of the first two chapters, they declared, involved Jake describing and “bad mouthing” Cohn. This technique, I said, illustrates Hemingway’s mastery of understatement, i.e., you can’t comprehend the entire meaning of it by looking only what’s stated. Many of Hemingway’s deeper meanings are hidden beneath the surface- just like most of an iceberg. Some writers refer to his writing as the Iceberg style. When readers look underneath at what Jake says about Cohn, we can understand more about Jake’s values and beliefs than we can about Cohn’s. We don’t know if what Jake says about Cohn is reliable because we seldom hear Cohn speak. We looked at a few examples of Jake’s narrative point of view in the first two chapters.

Jake is not as impressed that Cohn was a college boxing champion because he did not approve of how Cohn approached the sport. Cohn, Jake says, boxed to overcome an inferiority complex. He was a Jew at Princeton and had to have a way of defending himself when someone picked on him. Jake believes that a man should enjoy a sport and take it vigorously and courageously, and not because he is a coward. Jake also belittles Cohn because no one remembers that he had been a boxing champion. Through this remark, we understand that Jake, who likely represents Hemingway’s point of view, believes that achieving a lasting and memorable mark is an important goal of life. Jake takes issue with Cohn’s privileged upbringing, and that he couldn’t hold onto the large sum of money he inherited from his family. His judgment informs us that Jake believes that a man should work hard and sacrifice for his position and not just have it handed to him. He is critical that Cohn is immature and inexperienced in living. Cohn, unlike the other characters, did not serve in the army and did not return to civilian life damaged. By pointing this distinction out, we come to realize that Jake is resentful that he has made such a sacrifice and that Cohn lived off of the fat of the land and of his family during the war years.

All of the characters in The Sun Also Rises have been damaged, either emotionally or physically, by the events of the war. Jake’s position is that everyone except Cohn is struggling to overcome their handicaps. This issue is particularly important to Jake because Cohn is sexually active while Jake has become impotent after the War. Again, by pointing out these distinctions, we are reminded that Hemingway was wounded during the war and that one of the effects appears to have been that he, at least temporarily, may have lost the ability to engage in sexual intercourse. Hemingway extended the wounded war veteran theme even further in his excellent 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake is critical that Cohn is highly manipulated by women. He informs us that Cohn was “married by the first girl who was nice him.” He didn’t marry, “he was married by his wife.” In an even more belittling observation, Jake informs us that Cohn was unhappy with his marriage and three kids. But “just as he had made his mind his mind to leave his wife, she left him.” To Jake, and as we know, to Hemingway, a man could be best measured by how much confidence and swagger he has around women. Jake informs us that, after his divorce, Cohn was manipulated again by a woman, when his new mistress convinced him to move to Paris so she could enjoy a life of leisure. Jake’s critical remarks about Cohn’s shortcomings with women reveals that, on a deeper level, Jake may also be insecure about his own vulnerabilities with women.

Cohn is unhappy in Paris, even with all of the partying and gaiety that takes place around him. He invites Jake to go with him on a trip to South America. Jake says that Cohn would like to explore South America because he read a work of fictional work by W.H. Hudson, called The Purple Land. This book, popular in the 1920’s, describes an Englishman’s foibles who moved to South America when he gets involved with misguided adventures and forbidden romance. In the end, the adventurer winds up in jail.  Jake tries to convince Cohn that going to South America would not solve any of his problems of unhappiness and that he would just take his misery with him. This statement reveals that Jake is realist, while disapproving of the Cohn’s idealism. Jake counters that he would like to invite Cohn to go bullfighting with him in Spain, where “real men” face ultimate tests of strength and courage. We learn from this conversation that Jake, like Hemingway, believes in trying to live with grace under extreme pressure. Cohn would rather play it safe and not take chances. in contrast, to Jake, life without bold risk taking is not worth living. Both men come to realize, later in the book, is that their different philosophies of life are tested to the limit when they both start to compete for the attentions and affections of the Lady Brett Ashley. Hemingway’s understated prose is further illuminated in Jake’s later narratives and dialogues about Lady Brett. What did we learn specifically about Jake in the first two chapters of the Sun Also Rises? Not much, but certainly enough to move the story forward.

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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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2 Thoughts to “Hemingway’s Point of View in the Sun Also Rises”

  1. Renate

    Hi Murray,

    Your narration and insights put such a new, deeper perspective on this novel, especially since I am essentially new at this.
    I enjoy your class very much, however, I don’t feel adequate to participate…just listening:)
    If I miss a class it is because I am traveling…
    Thank You !!

    1. Thanks Renate. I am so glad you enjoy LitChatte and that you could keep up with the discussions even with your travelling. I enjoyed hearing your discussion in the class this morning. Please send me any feedback you have about that class or anything.

      Murray Ellison

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