Blurred-Lines of Sexual Identity in Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway questions many of the deeply entrenched Pre-World War I concepts of masculine and feminine sexual identity in his novel, The Sun Also Rises.  His masculine code dictates that men should be brave, fearless, athletically powerful, and face all fears and obstacles (including death) with grace under pressure. An extension of this thinking implies that men should be strong enough to dominate women and that women should act feminine and be willing to be dominated by strong and silent men. Such assumptions were prevalent in much of nineteenth and early twentieth-century society and were often reflected in literature. Although Hemingway gives lip service to his masculine and feminine codes, his characters in The Sun Also Rises seldom live up to his ideals. In his novel, he continually presents male and female characters whose sexual identities are blurred along the lines of the masculine and feminine identities that he introduces through his main male character, Jake Barnes, and his dominant female character, Lady Brett Ashley. Using the settings of Paris and Spain in the 1920’s helps readers to establish a sense of defamiliarization and to temporarily suspend their assumptions about how men and women should act in the early twentieth century.

Jake’s effort to pick up Georgette, a prostitute is undermined when she makes sexual advances to him that he cannot fulfill. This interaction established the fact that Jake is sexually attracted to women, but cannot perform with them. She asks, “You sick?”  He responds that he is. She replies that everyone around here “is sick” after the war. They go on to discuss that the war has destroyed the positive values that were accepted by many earlier generations.

When we are first introduced to Lady Brett, she arrives by taxicab with a large group of blonde and wavy hair gay men. She has a short, “bob” hairstyle and her name, Brett, suggests that she may be somewhat androgynous. In her first introduction, she is the life of the party. All of the gay men put her at the center of their dancing and celebrating. Her sexuality is so powerful, that it attracts even non-masculine men. She is also stared at by all the “straight” men in the story. Jake tries to come to terms with Brett’s friends, but cannot fully accept them or their views. After a short time of gaiety, Brett asks Jake to take her away from the scene. In their first of several taxicab rides together, we learn that Jake has been injured in the war and cannot perform sexually with any women. By reading about Hemingway’s war experiences, we know that he returned from the war injured from the waist down. At least temporarily, Hemingway likely experienced enough of this impotent condition to credibly incorporate it into the character who speaks for his beliefs—Jake Barnes. By establishing Jake as sexually impotent, Hemingway presents readers with an androgynous male who, by definition, cannot live up to the high ideals he establishes as throughout the novel as meeting the almost unreachable standards of the ideal masculine code. None of the male American expatriates, called the “Lost Generation” by Gertrude Stein, meet these high ideals.

Jake would like to make Brett commit to him and to marry or live together. Although Brett often states that she loves Jake, she cannot commit to him. She says, bluntly, that she needs constant sexual intimacy from men. In her way, she thinks she can make Jake feel better by assuring him that sex “is not all that you know.” Hemingway leaves it to Jake’s and the reader’s imaginations to try to understand what else she thinks that Jake knows that can help her. Presumably, she is telling him that he can provide her the much needed emotional support she needs to continue her endless sexual conquests of men. However, providing emotional support has previously been considered a female role that women provide to strong men. She says that if she committed to Jake, she would make him miserable because she would need to cheat on him all the time. In their “jazz age” relationship, a woman (Brett) established the rules, and the man (Jake) must go along with what she says. In Jake’s way of distorted thinking, he has no other choice. He cannot live with her or be comforted without her.

After a series of frustrating encounters with Brett, Jake finally decides to take a five day fishing trip to Burguete, Spain with his war buddy Bill. This trip will be followed by attending one week of activities at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Male bonding activities with Bill help Jake to heal and to get back to the type of masculine code activities that Jake is comfortable with and skilled at performing. We first read about Hemingway’s prowess with hunting and fishing in his two short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River.” Hemingway encores his brilliant writing career in his Pulitzer-Prize winning deep-sea fishing novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Notably, in this story, the old man is asexual. He once hung a picture of a wife on the wall, but looking at it, caused him to experience too many memories. He is most comfortable associating with a young male fishing apprentice. A common theme throughout Hemingway’s work is that men are often most comfortable relating to other men. We also see in The Sun Also Rises, that men can be ruthless and violent toward each other. Bill and Jake do not have a competitive edge when they share fishing time because they co-experienced the war together and they are not competing for the same woman—Brett.

After a full day of successful fishing, Jake and Bill have a frank and open discussion about Brett. Bill asks if Jake is impotent. Jake responds that he “is injured,” not impotent. Bill tells Jake that he loves him like a brother. Bill’s acceptance of Jake the way he is does not depend on his sexual prowess. His attitude helps Jake to heal from his emotional scars of being not accepted by Brett. The fishing scenes are a relief from the constant battles between and among the sexes over sexual inadequacies and insecurities. Bill said he would never have the courage to say that he loved Jake, even as a brother, in Paris because it might be misunderstood as a sexual statement. The issue of homosexuality also often came up in the war, when men spent long periods of time living together in the close quarters of tents and foxholes. We know that to be an openly gay in the military has not been accepted until more recent times.

Jake and Bill arrive in Pamplona for the seven festivities known as “The Running of the Bulls.” We are first introduced to the male masculine ideal of the novel, Pedro Romero, by the hotel manager, Montoya. Jake is dazzled by the nineteen-year-old bullfighter because he has the vitality and confidence of youth. He is also quickly distinguishing himself as the most skilled and daring bullfighter in the ring. Romero appears to conform fully to Hemingway’s masculine code. He is highly competent and does not fear death. Jake describes his entrance in the story: “The boy stood straight and unsmiling. His jacket hung over the back of a chair. They were just finishing winding his sash and he stood up and stepped back. Pedro Romero nodded, seeming very far away and dignified when we shook hands. Montoya said something about what great aficionados we were, and we wanted to wish him luck. Romero listened very seriously. Then he turned to me. He was the best-looking boy I have ever seen.”

Jake’s description of Romero’s colorful clothes and beautiful looks establishes that the bullfighter is both manly and an extremely attractive almost feminine-like figure. Like Brett, he also conveys mixed characteristics of masculinity and femininity. Perhaps these similarities are what eventually attracts them to each other, and then later repel away from each other as they begin to see their sexual tendencies as being too much alike.

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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 adult employed 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, and the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member and occasional 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

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

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