The Sun Also Rises: Hemingway’s Post-Modern Tragicomedy – Part II

Reviewed from Part I

lady bullfighter

Lady Bullfighter

In my wrap-up class of The Sun Also Rises , I asked my students if they thought that the book was either a tragedy or a comedy. One argued that it wasn’t a tragedy in the tradition of Shakespeare’s works because there is no tragic hero, like King Lear, who falls from power. However, the characters in The Sun Also Rises have fallen because they have been damaged physically and/or emotionally by World War I. The American expatriates aimlessly stumble through France and Spain in constant drinking frenzies and are constantly frustrated in their attempts to meet meaningful romantic relationship or even temporary sexual satisfaction. Also, they are not connected to the past and have little faith  that their lives will improve in the future. Gertrude Stein called this group of people “The Lost Generation “because they rejected the moral, cultural, and religious values that were dominant in America before the war, but were unable to replace them with a lifestyle that was more meaningful or satisfying. After discussing the entire book, most participants in the class agreed that Hemingway’s work is a post-modern tragedy, and a few thought that it is also a comedy. I suggested that it could be both a tragedy and a comedy— otherwise known as a tragicomedy. However, I conceded that most readers would have to work hard to find the elements of comedy that underscored the novel.

Tragicomedies are fictional works which contain elements of both tragedy and comedy. “This genre “attempts to describe dual nature of reality where seriousness and absurdity can coexist at the same time” (www.literarydevices.net). Although tragicomedy often portrays the downfall of the principal character, underlying elements of humor are also introduced to lighten the atmosphere and, of course, to bring comic relief. King Lear is one of the most tragic plays in all of literary history. By the end of the story, the King loses everything including his kingdom, his friends, his daughters, and even his life. However, the action never gets too heavy to bear because of the comedic scenes interjected by the fool.

Today’s New Blog-My Final Commentary on the Sun Also Rises

Regarding heroes in literature, there is perhaps none more iconic than Sir Galahad, who rescues fair maidens from imminent life threatening danger. Implied in the rescue is the idea that the knight is also saving the woman from having her morality corrupted. In Hemingway’s post-modern version of such a rescue, Cohn tries to save thirty-four year Brett from being corrupted by Romero. He barges into his room where a presumed seduction is going on and proceeds to pound the bullfighter to the ground with his fists. The scene is both tragic and comedic because Brett was not in any danger; they were mutually attracted to each other. Secondly, as we understood from the story, Brett had many other affairs with “chaps” and had no virtuous reputation to defend. Cohn was a lightweight champion boxer at Princeton. I think it is humorous that Jake knocks Romero down many times and that he repeatedly pops back up. When it appears that he is dazed and can no longer get up, Cohn extends his hand out to Romero and asks him to shake hands, as if what just happened was a sanctioned boxing match. However, Cohn who thought of himself as a gentleman, broke all the rules of combative fighting and civility when he used his trained hands to knock down Romero. It was about as fair as Romero challenging Cohn to be the bull in the ring and have a match with the bullfighter in the ring while he held the concealed sword of death under his cape.  Some students in my class  didn’t see much humor in the fighting. However, I pointed out that some see slapstick comedy is funny to some while other see it as absurd and pointless. When Romero gets up and appears like he is going accept Cohn’s hand, he suckers punches Cohn and knocks him out. Romero remarks that he doesn’t fight for sport; he fights to either kill or be killed. He threatens to  kill Cohn unless he clears out-of-town by the next morning. There is nothing funny about that threat, Cohn took it seriously. He was never heard from again in the story.

After the fighting seen between the two mismatched lovers of Brett, she leaves town and goes away on a romantic fling with the bullfighter. Jake, who has been emotionally attached to and supporting Brett all along, without ever being able to consummate a successful physical relationship, is left alone again. However, in this case, he views the situation as healing because he can try to forget about her and take  a fishing and camping trip in Spain. Just when he has had several days of enjoying solitude, he gets two identical all telegrams in all capital letters pleading with Jake to rescue her: “COULD YOU COME HOTEL MONTANA MADRID AM RATHER IN TROUBLE BRETT.” The affair didn’t work out the way that either Brett or Romero expected. According to her point of view, she let him go because she realized that he, like the other men, were trying to control her. She also understood that he would never be happy being tied down to her. Somehow she thinks of her actions as being noble, and that she is no longer “a bitch.” Jake, agrees to postpone  his fishing trip and sends her a telegram back, saying he will get on a train in the morning and rescue Brett. The line that sums up Jake’s tragicomic relationship with Brett, and offers the strongest tragicomic view in the novel,  he says:

That seemed to handle it. That was it. Send a girl off with one man. Introduce her

To another to go off with him. Now go and bring her back. And sign the wire with

Love. That was all right. I went to lunch.

Even those students in my class who proposed that The Sun Also Rises is a post-modern tragedy agreed that there was a strong comedic element in Jakes summary of their relationship. It colors  the nihilistic “No Exit” tone of the entire novel. He is insanely in love and can’t escape the hell of their relationship. “The Norte” station in Madrid that he has arrived at to rescue Brett is described as being “at the end of the line. All trains finish there.” Jake will rescue Brett one more time, but he cannot save himself from her, or her from herself. In the final scene of the novel, Jake and Brett take another cab ride to nowhere. Brett, “moved close to me,” giving him the illusion that she may be available to him. Jake says, “I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably.”  After the cab turned out “onto the Gran Via,” Brett said, “We could have had such a good time together.” As the cab slowed and changed direction, Brett was suddenly pressed tightly to Jake.” He looks at her and replies, “Yes…isn’t it pretty to think so?” Brett’s and Jake’s last lines are often considered among the most memorable ones in literature. There’s no doubt that Hemingway saw that the couple was engaged in a relationship that was at the end of the line. Like the Norte train station, the couple was also at the end of their line, but they had no other place to go. They couldn’t live with or without each other. Men have sacrificed themselves in extraordinary ways since the beginning of time. But, it is hard to think of another male character who gave more in a relationship with a woman and got so little in return. No doubt that this type of indeterminate ending, a landmark of post-modern literature, was Hemingway’s commentary on the fatalistic and often tragic outcomes of the flawed individuals he was observing after the war. However, I also view that Jake’s last line, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” as introducing a subtle element of self-deprecating humor into the last scene. Jake has accepted that he can’t win either way. Perhaps he is laughing it off and has come to a passive acceptance of his tragic situation. He realizes that if Brett gets involved with another relationship, it will probably fail, and he will have to rescue her again. Even if she decides to live with or marry him, she will constantly be seeking other relationships and conquests with men. He knows that he can never satisfy her no matter what he does. All that he can do is to imagine “how pretty” their relationship might have been if he was not sexually impotent. However, he may also have realized that if he did not have this sexual limitation, Brett might put him in the same class as other men— and ultimately dump him. Hemingway was both rejected by a lover after World War I and rejected his first wife a few years later. He might have seen both the tragedy and the humor in Jake’s acceptance of his “no-win” situation. The book  realistically reflects the period that the Lost Generation inhabited, and it predicts the future, our present, where many young people are not connected to the religious, cultural or moral values of the past. Also, they often have little faith that they will enjoy meaningful futures. Hemingway’s prophetic view is what makes The Sun Also Rises a perennial classic. almost 100 years after its publication. I know my class is also going to have a good laugh on Friday at Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s movie version of the Lost Generation, called Midnight in Paris.

Image from Midnight in Paris

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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 to Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, or at ellisonms2@vcu.edu. You can also receive automatic postings from www.Litchatte.com by submitting your email in the tab to the right of this blog.

Murray Ellison at the Poe Museum
Murray  at the Poe Museum
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