Masks in The Sun Also Rises

“God has given you one face, and you made yourself another.” William Shakespeare

A Persona is an artificial mask or a personality that some people put on when they are trying to convince others that they are portraying certain roles.  Writers of drama and literature have been portraying characters who have used masks since recorded history. Below see a photo of a Sixteenth-Century mask that actors wore to portray the Greek King, Agamemnon.

Sixteenth-Century Drama Mask of Greek King Agamemnon

In Ernest Hemingway’s classic fictional work, the Sun Also Rises, his characters almost always wear masks when they are interacting with each other in their self-created society. Gertrude Stein called the writers and artists Americans living in Paris after World War I,  the “Lost Generation” because many of them lacked a strong sense of purpose or a moral compass. They state that they cannot act right because they have been wounded physically and/or mentally during the War. The”Lost Generation” characters were also portrayed in Woody Allan’s excellent movie, Midnight in Paris. Interestingly, Allen includes Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein in his movie. None of those famous characters appeared in Hemingway’s book. However, some seem to be composite fictional characters resembling the real famous personalities that Hemingway lived and interacted with when he lived in France.

Hemingway masks the emotions and true feelings of all the major characters of his book. However, he reveals more about his philosophy of life (the Hemingway Code), and of his personal insecurities in the Sun Also Rises, than in any of his other books. For example, the successful author he is most jealous of in his book (Robert Cohn) is described as being much like the man that Hemingway was most jealous of in his life, i.e., F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also, Brett had the same type of feminine magnetism as Zelda Fitzgerald, but she was also somewhat different. Neither Brett nor Zelda were willing to commit to any man until they were sure he would be rich and successful. In life, Zelda was willing to commit to F. Scott. Although Lady Brett claims that she loves Jake Barnes, she cannot commit to him or marry him. Her excuse is that Jake has been rendered sexually impotent by a war injury. At least, that is what she tells him. Perhaps, she uses her professed as a mask to hide her secret feelings;  she is so insecure that she cannot commit to any man. In my earlier Blog, I wrote that I thought that Brett was the Dark Symbol of the Sun in Hemingway’s novel since all the male characters revolved around her like planets revolve around the Sun. When we are first introduced to Lady Brett, she is portrayed as having a happy time in a Paris bar dancing with a large group of gay men. Even the gays are attracted to the magnetism of her beauty. Robert Cohn is also immediately attracted and enchanted by her radiance. Hemingway writes that Cohn looked at her with a sense “of eager, deserving expectation.” Cohn invites her to dance but she claims she cannot oblige him because she has already made arrangements to leave the bar with Jake. We learn that Jake doesn’t knowledge of her plans but goes along with them. During their taxicab ride after the escape, Brett lets down her mask and sobs, “Darling I have been so miserable.” However, Jake has kept on his mask of tolerance; he allows Brett to use him for  emotional support, despite the fact that he doesn’t get much in return from her. When she drops Jake off from the taxicab and refuses to come up to Jake’s room, he says, “This was Brett, that I felt like crying about…in a little while, I felt like hell again. It’s awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night, all of his masks came down as he realizes how miserable he, too, is. He had to take off his stoic mask and look face the truth:  He didn’t have any chance of having a meaningful relationship with the woman that he loved more than anyone in the world. Part of the Hemingway masculine code that conveyed in the Sun Also Rises, and his other books, implies that it is  inappropriate for a man to show his true feelings when he is hurting. To Jake, and to Hemingway, a real man must learn to act with grace under pressure. Regrettably, there is no ideal Hemingway Code for women in the Sun Also Rises!

Brett uses her masks to use men to her perceived advantage. She double-crosses Jake when she takes vacations to San Sebastián with Cohn, behind Jake’s back. Although she is radiantly attractive to all men, at the age of 34, she realizes that her time to attract a single man who will make her feel financially secure may soon be coming to an end. She also concludes that her inclination to have a dedicated romance with any single man is unlikely. After her escape adventures with Cohn, Jake learns that Brett plans to marry Mike, an American who had a great deal of money when Brett first met him. Mike calls her his fiancé though he is still married. Mike and Brett, who have apparently been living together, agree to meet Jake and Cohn in Paris. As they rendezvous in a bar, Mike is eager to show Jake and Cohn that he is proud of his newly conquered a trophy-Brett. However, both Jake and Cohn are skeptical that she will ever marry Mike because they found out that he was swindled out of much of his money by his American partner. Both Cohn and Jake realize that her love for Mike is probably dying down since his future finances are uncertain. Perhaps, they thought that both men still had a chance to win her back. During dinner, Mike cannot keep his hands off of Brett. She puts on the mask of innocence when she resists her fiance’s advances, stating, “Darling, what are these outbursts of affection?” Jake notices that Brett partial face mask she is showing confused feelings about Mike. He writes, “She looked at him coolly, but the corners of her eyes were smiling.” Jake is, therefore, convinced that she is just not into Mike!

In another revealing and sad scene between Brett and Jake, he says,” 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 through them.” In a sudden epiphany, gained after a series of disappointing encounters with men, Brett realizes that many of her frustrations are marching back to haunt her because of “all of the hell that I have put chaps through.” Putting her mask down momentarily, she asks Jake, “Don’t we pay for all of the things we do?” Her question becomes the most important unresolved issue of the book: Do they characters in the Sun Also Rises ever pay for what they do or are they all be trapped in an inescapable hell?

Masks Worn by Lady Brett
Mask Worn by Lady Brett

In a future blog I will write about how and why Hemingway believed that people had a hard time avoiding the use of false personas unless they escaped civilization and returned to nature.

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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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