Lady Brett Ashley: Hemingway’s Solar Flare in the Sun Also Rises.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway begins with two epigraphs. In the first, Gertrude Stein states that the characters in the book, a group of American expatriates living in Paris after World War I, were all part of “a lost generation.” The second one, from the Bible’s Ecclesiastics, reinforces Stein’s insights. The verses proclaim that though one generation passes away, another one comes; however, the Earth abides forever. The sun also arises, and goes down, and he hastens back to the place he arose. Putting the two epigraphs together, Hemingway foreshadows his over-arching themes–that the activities of disillusioned characters in his book are insignificant in comparison to the eternal cycles of the earth and the sun. The book focuses on Hemingway’s perspective on the emasculation of American men after World War I.  In the first two chapters, Jake, criticizes Robert Cohn because he is controlled by women. However, in the remaining chapters of Book I of The Sun Also Rises, we see that Jake is also a manipulated by Lady Brett Ashley.  Brett’s character is essential in supporting both of Hemingway’s epigraph themes, in that, almost all the notable male characters revolve around and are under her gravitational pull. Like the sun, she provides the energy to them and keeps them hoping for a better future. However, she cannot be relied upon to sustain energy in any of the men who are attracted to her because she is even more damaged than they are. She is undoubtedly lost, and she keeps all the main male characters in the Sun Also Rises orbiting around her constantly.

Lady Brett Ashley’s entrance into the narrative is one of the most colorful and revealing about her character as any other I have seen in any literary work. After an evening of gaiety with a prostitute in the Paris, Jake saw two taxicabs pulling up. First getting out of the taxicab was a group of male gay revelers. Jake describes them as having blond wavy hair. We know they are  gay because one calls the other “dear.” Regardless of their sexual preferences, Hemingway’s terse narrative makes it plain that they are ready to party with reckless abandon. In one of Hemingway’s most understated, but meaningful lines he writes, “With them was Brett. She looked very lovely and she was very much with them.” She danced with them and appeared to be having the time of her life. Hemingway used this image to emphasize that Brett’s feminine magnetism was so extraordinary that even gay men were attracted to her! All of the major male characters were attracted to Brett like planets rotating in their held coordinates around the Sun.  Robert Cohn, who just lost a wife and his fiancé of three years, was the first of the “straight” men to notice her. Jake speaks, “She stood holding the glass and I saw Robert Cohn looking at her. He looked a great deal as his compatriot must have looked when he saw the Promised Land. Cohn, of course, was much younger. But he had that look of eager, deserving expectation.”  As I described in a previous Blog, Jake used his point of view narrative to discredit Cohn. However, his line also indicates that he is jealous of Cohn about Brett. In one of Hemingway’s most luring and poetic narratives, Jake describes how Brett looks:  “She wore a slip-over jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey. “It’s a fine crowd you’re with, Brett,” I said. “Aren’t they lovely? Jake is talking about her gay companions. The music started and Robert Cohn said, “Will you dance this with me, Lady Brett?” She smiled at him. “I’ve promised to dance this with Jacob,” she laughed. “You’ve a hell of a biblical name, Jake.” “How about the next?” asked Cohn? “We’re going,” Brett said. “We’ve a date up at Montmartre.” Dancing, I looked over Brett’s shoulder and saw Cohn, standing at the bar, still watching her. The narrative and dialogue between Jake and Brett continued: We stood against the tall zinc bar and did not talk and looked at each other. The waiter came and said the taxi was outside. Brett pressed my hand hard. I gave the waiter a franc and we went out. “Where should I tell him?” I asked. “Oh, tell him to drive around.” I told the driver to go to the Parc Montsouris, and got in, and slammed the door. Brett was leaning back in the corner, her eyes closed. I sat beside her. The cab started with a jerk. “Oh, darling, I’ve been so miserable,” Brett said.

What a strange relationship that Jake and Lady Brett Ashley had! As biting as Jake was in mocking Cohn about being manipulated by women, Jake was not only controlled by Brett but also placed in a state of perpetual hell whether she was near him or when she was away. Brett could not consume a sexual relationship with Jake because he had an undisclosed injury that made him incapable of having sexually with any woman.  Readers learn in Chapter IV that Jake and Brett had met during the war when he was a soldier in rehabilitation and she was a nurse. We get the first glimpse of the nature of their relationship by riding along with them in several taxicab rides during the book:

 

“The taxi went up the hill, passed the lighted square, then on into the dark, still climbing,File:Lovely view of 1920s(?) car by the ruin of Reculver church (3720466966).jpg

then leveled out onto a dark street behind St. Etienne du Mont, went smoothly down the asphalt, passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe, then turned onto the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street. We were sitting apart and we jolted close together going down the old street. Brett’s hat was off. Her head was back. I saw her face in the lights from the open shops, then it was dark, then I saw her face clearly as we came out on the Avenue des Gobelins. The street was torn up and men were working on the car-tracks by the light of acetylene flares. Brett’s face was white and the long line of her neck showed in the bright light of the flares. The street was dark again and I kissed her. Our lips were tight together and then she turned away and pressed against the corner of the seat, as far away as she could get. Her head was down. “Don’t touch me,” she said. “Please don’t touch me.” “What’s the matter?” “I can’t stand it.” “Oh, Brett.” “You mustn’t. You must know. I can’t stand it, that’s all. Oh, darling, please understand!” “Don’t you love me?” “Love you? I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.” “Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” From this dialogue, we understand that the two had attempted unsuccessfully to “make love” previously. Brett felt  that they could never live together. However, she is not able to accept that they could have a life apart! Brett exclaims, “We’d better keep away from each other” and, “But, darling, I have to see you. It isn’t all that you know.” “No, but it always gets to be.” The way I read these lines, they mean that she would like to stay close to Jake because she thinks he knows so much more than about sex. But, whatever else he knows, it was apparently not enough to marry or live with him. There was some disagreement on the meaning of these lines in my literature class. Let’s just say that those lines are ambiguously stated. It’s funny,” [Jake] said. He continues, “It’s very funny. And it’s a lot of fun, too, to be in love. Do you think so?” Her eyes looked flat again and Jake replied,  “I don’t mean fun that way. In a way, it’s an enjoyable feeling.” “No,” she said. “I think it’s hell on Earth.” Jake said, “It’s good to see each other.” Brett replied, “No. I don’t think it is.” Jake said, “Don’t you want to?” Brett replied, “I have to.” We were sitting now like two strangers. She was sitting up now. My arm was around her and she was leaning back against me, and we were quite calm. She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes. They would look on and on after everyone else’s eyes in the world would have stopped looking. She looked as though there were nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things. “And there’s not a damn thing we could do.” She said, “That’s my fault. Don’t we pay for all the things we do, though?” She had been looking into my eyes all the time. Her eyes had different depths, sometimes they seemed perfectly flat. Now you could see all the way into them. She continues her startling epiphany. “When I think of the hell I’ve put chaps through. I’m paying for it all now.” These are Brett’s most powerful and self-revealing lines. She realized that she has led many chaps to high levels of frustrations in her unsuccessful quest to become satisfied. Yet, in a way, her dialogue leads us to think that her love for Cohn was only a matter of convenience. She could safely love him without ever having to make a lasting commitment. I conclude that she was totally using him for her own selfish reasons. But, she was very miserable because she could change the relationship she had established with Jake or with a countless number of men who were attracted to her. By the end of the first book, we learn that a rich Count also offered her $10,000 to go with him on romps through Europe. Yet, she declined because she said she knew too many men in all the luxurious places he wished to visit. Jake became aware that Brett planned to marry Mike Campbell, who was a friend of both of them. Mike, we learned, from Jake, is a married man.  Brett had been married two times before by men, that, Jake concludes, “She did not love.” Her last husband died in the war, and Jake notes that she never recovered from her loss. We can believe at least part of that, I think?  Through Jake and the Count, we learned that Mike often writes to Brett but that she never writes back to anyone. She told Jake that she had no idea when she might marry him. First, she must to secure her financial position to keep her royal title of “Lady Brett.” But wait, could she really be engaged to a married man, even in Paris in the 1920’s? Brett’s love affairs I described here were by no means of the last of the relationships she threw herself in. Later in the book, she went on a romp with Cohn through Europe without telling Jake about it. Readers are spared of the details of their escape. However, we may safely conclude that it did not end well. In the most dramatic romantic episode in The Sun Also Rises, a young bullfighter from Pamplona, Spain was attracted and fought for Brett’s love. The affair between the two of them, which was the later part of The Sun Also Rises, also involved Cohn and Jake. Brett’s romantic antics are really where Hemingway’s solar rays flare-up most vivaciously!  This is a book you must read if you want to understand mostly everything that changed about the relationships between men and women in the 1920’s- and perhaps forever after!

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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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