Tragicomedy: From King Lear to Hemingway – Part I

In my wrap-up class of The Sun Also Rises , I asked students if they thought the book was 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 are 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. Although 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” ( 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.

In the early part of the Sun Also Rises, Jake, the principal male protagonist, has been rendered as sexually impotent by an unspecified war injury. At an outdoor bar, he lures Georgette, a prostitute to join him in drinks and unlikely conversation. He asked her to join him because he had “a vague sentimental idea that it would be nice to eat with some someone.” It had been a long time since he had eaten with a “poule” or a chic. They shared some wine and she smiled showing “all of her bad teeth. “As Jake is an educated American writer and a war veteran, we can easily conclude that this street-walker is beneath his station. But this does not stop him from engaging in deep philosophic conversations about the effects of the war. They conclude that it made them both “sick” and that it was a calamity for civilization. What is ironic about this conversation is that it is the most direct dialogue that any character has about the traumatic effects the war had on them. In most other cases, the characters do not discuss their injuries. It is humorous that when Jake encounters his male drinking colleagues, he introduces Georgette as his fiancé. Georgette said that Jake is a fool, that he was making a joke “to laugh at.” If it’s a joke that Jake is a fool, then only Georgette realizes the absurdity of it? After all, what good is a female courtesan to a man who cannot perform sexually?

Lady Brett Ashley, the main female protagonist is introduced getting out of a taxicab accompanied by a group of wavy hair blonde gay men. Jake has divided feelings about the scene. Although he is excited to see Brett, he is unsure about how he feels about the gay men getting out of two taxicabs. He reflects: “Somehow they always made me feel angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing at one, anyone,  anything to shatter that superior simpering composure.” Today, we would certainly regard such feelings as anything but funny. But, some  of the major issues that Jake and the other American expatriates were dealing with involved masculine insecurity. Fortunately, Jake avoids a tragic scene and focuses his attention on Brett.  She introduces electric and powerful female magnetism into the scene. Ultimately, almost all the major male characters are attracted to her like planets revolving around the sun. She laughs, she flirts, and she drinks a brandy dancing in the middle of the circle. Even the gay men cannot help but be drawn to her alluring ways. On the surface, she is the life of every party. All of the men in the room cannot help staring at her beauty; she appears to be full of life and the embodiment of happiness. But her outer actions mask her true feelings. After being in the bar for a short time, she asks Jake to take her away from the club scene. In the taxicab, she tells him, “Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable.” During the same dialogue, the narrator, Jake, says “the cab started with a jerk.”

Throughout the novel, Jake, and the other male characters are portrayed as comic-like jerks, as they attempt to achieve the impossible task of getting closer to Brett. She plays the Don Juan role that had typically been relegated to men in literature before early twentieth-century writers like Hemingway. She displays the skill of a bullfighter by letting them think they can move in for the kill but sidestepping their advances at the last moment. As if to compensate for their own masculine shortcomings, the men make fun of the novel’s scapegoat, Cohn, because he is persistent in thinking that he has a chance to win over Brett; he follows her everywhere. The irony of this is that they cannot see that they are all also focusing their hopes of winning Brett’s affections. Hemingway milks the symbol of Brett as a woman bullfighter to its maximum possibilities, when near the end of the novel, she tries to make a play at Pedro Romero, who is also a master bullfighter. Although he is unsurpassed in fighting bulls, he is inexperienced in dealing with a man-slayer like Brett. Is it more comedic or more tragic that Brett asks Jake, to introduce her to Romero

In the next Blog on The Sun Also Rises, I will  discuss whether it is more tragic or comedic when Brett asks Jake to introduce her to Romero. Also, I will discuss how the plot tensions are and are not resolved between Brett and Romero, and between Brett and Jake.

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