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Hemingway’s exploration of Man in The Sun Also Rises
‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
Much of Hemingway’s body of work grows from issues of male morality. In his concise, “Hills Like White Elephants,” a couple discusses getting an abortion while waiting for a train in a Spanish rail station bar. Years before Roe v. Wade, before the issues of abortion rights, mothers’ rights, and unborn children’s rights splashed across the American mass consciousness, Ernest Hemingway assessed the effects of abortion on a relationship, and, more specifically, he examined a man’s role in determining the necessity of the procedure and its impact on his psyche and his ability to love. The Sun Also Rises continues the investigation of the morality of being a man in longer, more foundational form. Rather than dealing with such a discrete issue as “Hills Like White Elephants,” the novel discusses questions of masculinity on a large scale by testing an array of male characters, each perfect in some traditionally masculine traits, with a woman perfectly designed to cut to their flaws. The three most important of these controlled experiments balance each other particularly well. Lady Brett’s treatment of Jake Barnes, Pedro Romero, and, much more briefly, Count Mippopopolous allows Ernest Hemingway to exhibit the infinite fallibility of Man as his most fundamental and important quality rather than exulting the tough-guy, ubermench cult he is often credited with popularizing.
Ernest Hemingway says he slapped Max Eastman’s face with a book… and Max Eastman says he threw Hemingway over a desk and stood him on his head in a corner… They both tell of the face-slapping, but Mr. Hemingway denies Mr. Eastman threw him anywhere or stood him on his head in any place, and says that he will donate $1,000 to any charity…for the pleasure of Mr. Eastman’s company in a locked room with all legal rights waved.
Hemingway’s penchant for adventure, belief in honor, and outward male pride often manifested themselves in well-publicized scandals such as his 1937 rumble with Max Eastman. Some of his stories, like surviving on bananas and rum in the African jungle after suffering two plane crashes, have integrated themselves into American folklore. The author seemed to live the romantic, wild lifestyle his novels reported. And Hemingway did lead an exciting life—hunting in Africa, fishing off Cuba, battling in Spain, and drinking in France. However, Hemingway killed himself in July of 1961, so he obviously found shortcomings in the commingling of fiction and reality that he created.
Consequently, a reading of The Sun Also Rises that examines the failures of its male characters as a study of qualities men ought to have inevitably proves anemic—all of them suffer from flaws the author purposely highlights. Hemingway cannot deny the importance and existence of heroic acts even within a novel containing no complete hero. Rather, the defects of the men with whom Lady Brett cultivates relationships throughout the book represent the obstacles that all men must overcome as the necessary action of heroism. His story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” follows the full cycle of this process, from the emasculation of its protagonist when his wife witnesses his flight from a lion on safari, to his murder as a result of conquering his fear. Noticeably, though, the heroic completion of Francis Macomber who grows, “‘awfully brave, awfully suddenly’” immediately precedes the death he suffers not in the fangs of his previous adversary but at the hands of his wife, society’s representative on that plot of savannah.
Jake Barnes, the narrator in The Sun Also Rises, does not clearly recount the moments that stole the physical component of his masculinity. The novel simply informs the reader of the presence of such a war injury, which becomes Lady Brett, his professed love’s excuse for her incomplete attention to him. But Jake’s basic failing as a man paradoxically provides him with an increased tolerance for Brett and his ability to, somewhat objectively, relate a story about her sexual activity. Barnes also wields a cool tone before any emotional situation in completing the tough task of tracking Ashley. The man refuses any connection to an outside character deeper than drinking and banter. For instance, in Burguete he responds, “‘Drink up, Harris,” to a new fishing buddy’s admission, “‘I say, Barnes. You don’t know what this all means to me.” Arthur Waldhorn notes in his Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway, “what Jake offers himself is a self-study course in emotional pragmatism.”
In spite of his wounded sexuality and even tone, Barnes eventually reveals himself as a passionate man. He loves to read; it even settles him when he drinks too much. He contentedly travels into the mountains to fish with his friend Bill Gorton. And his two greatest loves, Lady Brett and bull-fighting, drive the novel. Jake Barnes’ zeal for the bull-ring best exhibits his primary strength. Before he journeys to Pamplona, he reads any information he can find on the sport, even if it is repetitive. Early in the novel he notes, “I had the two bull-fight papers … They would both have the same news, so whichever I read first would spoil the other.” Jake later offers the term aficion, “passion,” to the readers to better explain his love: “Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about bull-fights… there was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination…” Such talk seems incongruent with the character of an emotional pragmatist, but Barnes never actually claims to feel the way his stoic tone sounds. Rather, he identifies his behavior and, consequently, his mission as an attempt, “to know…how to live in,” the world that allows his shortcomings.
But Jake’s second great aficion leads to his moral downfall. Barnes pursues his love for Lady Brett throughout the novel. His first description of the woman, “Brett was damn good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s…. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey,” embodies the transcendent femininity—placed beyond sexuality by his words (“hair…like a boy’s”) and his limitations—which disarms every man she meets. But even with all of her admirers Lady Brett Ashley revels in Jake Barnes’ claims of love for her. Barnes is sincere. In spite of his sexual limitations, he attempts to gratify at least partially her physical obsession by kissing her in a taxi in their first moments alone together. However, both Jake and the reader find ambiguity in Brett’s affection. She responds, “‘You mustn’t. You must know. I can’t stand it,” to his attempt at compromise. Following her rejection, Barnes poses the uncharacteristic question, “‘Don’t you love me?’” that embodies the substance of his search in the novel. The emasculated narrator wants to discover how he must, as a broken man, receive love.
His exterior notwithstanding, Jake Barnes demonstrates that he loves books, bulls, fishing, and he especially loves Brett. So as the story builds to a climax in the chaos of the bull festival, he makes a deluded sacrifice to the only chance for reciprocation he sees. Herein his passionate strength betrays itself as also his greatest weakness. Barnes’ desire for Ashley to return his love blinds him to the gratification that bull-fighting affords him. His interactions with the Pamplona hotel owner, Montoya, indicate that his true aficion loves him back. Jake recalls, “He always smiled as though bull-fighting were a very special secret between the two of us.” One critical reading understands this moment as part of a homoerotic subtext of the novel. But the homosexuality overtones better serve the scene as a clarification of bull-fighting’s ability to reflect love upon its followers than the other way around. Unfortunately, Jake’s passions prove too varied and attractive, and he soon destroys this, his healthiest relationship at the behest of Brett, his most destructive partner.
Lady Brett Ashley requests that Barnes offer her Pedro Romero, a young, pure bull-fighter who carries the faith of all of the aficionados as the savior of their way of life from the perverting forces of capitalism and cosmopolitanism, from the globalism of the modern era. Jake surrenders the boy to Brett, to perversion, and loses his connection with the community. After Romero’s romance with Brett becomes public, Montoya and Barnes share no more glowing moments; the Spaniard will not even exchange a nod of greeting. Jake finds himself alone and unloved. Hemingway points out his narrator’s desertedness when Romero
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