Ahoy, Matey - The Sun Also Rises
Some critics say The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway’s best novel. The writing, the style—something we will delve into more deeply—is powerful. The prose is a joy to read.
But, best beloved, is the story a novel?
The definition of a novel is “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” Sequential organization implies some order, and a novel’s order typically involves the transformation of major characters (protagonists) over the course of things, so that at the beginning, the protagonist is perhaps stuck in her/his life, and over the course of three hundred or so pages, gets unstuck.
Well, maestro, how about it? Do the characters in Sun transform? Don’t just ‘splain it to us, dog, Show us.
Did you call me dog? Better than Tatie, I guess.
Sun begins rather curiously with a story about Robert Cohn, an associate of Jake Barnes. He is a novelist, an ex-boxer. Wealthy and divorced with three children. The story is told by Jake Barnes, however, it includes, I think, information about Robert that Jake the character probably wouldn’t know—details of Robert’s sojourn at Princeton, of his two marriages. It’s a bit like gossipy newspaper reporting. As the action shifts to Paris and a scene of Robert and his second wife dining with Jake, Jake becomes more of a character. What we learn at this point is that Jake is Robert’s tennis partner, that he “rather liked Robert,” and thought that he was controlled by his wife. Jake says, “I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together, and I always had a suspicion that perhaps Robert Cohn had never been a middle-weight boxing champion, and that perhaps a horse had stepped on his face, or that maybe his mother had been frightened…”
Jake drinks a lot too. And he seems antisemitic, being keen on identifying Robert Cohn as Jewish, as if this explains something. To modern sensibilities, it’s jarring.
Robert Cohn is shown asking Jake to go on a trip to South America with him, a trip Jake declines. Jake then picks up a prostitute and they go to a dance hall where the notorious Lady Brett Ashley appears.
“Hello, you chaps.”
“Brett was dammed good-looking…She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that woolen jersey.”
‘Kay, a different time, but I think it’s easy to see why Hemingway might not only be accused of antisemitism but also sexism. I am an admirer of female beauty but have never compared a woman to a boat. In fact, despite having an excellent imagination, I don’t really see how a woman could be like a boat or that this could be attractive.
I’m no sailor.
Jake and Brett are finally alone in a taxi, and Brett says:
“Oh, darling, I’ve been so miserable.”
There is kissing.
“Don’t you love me?”
“Love you? I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.”
“Isn’t there anything we can do about it?”
Well. There is minimal explanation in this scene but what the reader may infer is that Jake and Brett know each other, are in love, and that, further, Jake has a traumatic war injury that prevents him from being able to have sexual intercourse. (He has no penis).
What I want to convey here is that Jake and Brett are shown in the beginning of the story as being kind of drunken lost souls in Paris. Jake has this horrible condition and seems to manage it by moping and drinking. Brett is also a drunkard and, for the times, promiscuous. Both characters seem empty and try to fill that emptiness with fleeting sensation. As discussed last time, they are members of the lost generation of people after the war who cannot find meaning.
So, given that, one might think—aha, surely by the end, they will both find meaning and serenity. Or, perhaps they will tragically fail and wind up worse off than ever. And either way, the journey will make a good story.
After a lengthy trip to Spain during which Jake goes fishing, and Brett seduces a bullfighter (?), Jake receives a telegram from Brett asking him to go to Madrid to help her. He goes.
Here are some examples of how Jake is shown at the end:
“I drank a coffee and after a while Bill came over. I watched him come walking across the square. He sat down and ordered a coffee.
“Well,” he said. “It’s all over.”
“Yes,” I said. “When do you go?”
“Hello,” said Brett. “Is it you Jake?”
“Come in. Come in.”
“Darling!” Brett said.
I went over to the bed and put my arms around her. She kissed me, and while she kissed me I could feel she was thinking of something else. She was trembling in my arms. She felt very small.
“Darling! I’ve had such a hell of a time.”
“Brett was smoking.
“You like to eat, don’t you?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “I like to do a lot of things.”
“What do you like to do?”
“Oh,” I said. “I like to do a lot of things. Don’t you want a dessert?”
“You asked me that once,” Brett said.
“Yes,” I said. “So I did. Let’s have another bottle of rioja alta.”
“Don’t get drunk, Jake,” she said. “You don’t have to.”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t,” she said. “You’ll be all right.”
“I’m not getting drunk,” I said. “I’m just drinking a little wine. I like to drink wine.”
“Don’t get drunk,” she said. “Jake, don’t get drunk.”
Finally, they get a cab, intending to see Madrid.
“…Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Grand Via.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said. ‘We could have had such a dammed good time together.”
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
That’s the last line of the novel, my friends. I’m going out on a limb here, with apologies to all, to say I don’t think the characters in Sun transform. Jake and Brett remain pretty much the same as they were at the beginning. They run away from commitment. They drink too much. Throughout much of the story, Jake pursues hyper-masculine activities like fishing and bullfighting—perhaps as a compensation for not having a penis. However, he pursues the same activities at the beginning. He’s consistent. Static.
In fact, I want to say I don’t see how Sun expresses what Hemingway said it did—that the lost generation could find itself, find commitment and love. I think Jake and Brett seem pretty lost. The characters who do not seem lost, Montoya the bullfighter who is smitten with Brett, and Robert Cohn, disappear from the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe Sun is a fine book but perhaps less a novel and more a memoir. It should be mentioned that, as noted in last week’s blog, Hemingway was harshly criticized by several associates who believed he had “stolen” parts of their lives and made them into loosely disguised characters. Duff Twysden, for instance. (a fun name to write and say. Try it). Hemingway famously dismissed these objections. But it does raise the question, is a text a novel if it is essentially a showing of real people and events that actually occurred? Or is that memoir? If a piece of cloth is colored blue but you say it’s red, what color is it?
Next time, let’s look more closely at the book’s style.