You Are Some Kind Of Woman
On the surface, Sun would seem to be about male bonding promoted by such activities as bullfighting, fishing, and heavy drinking. Brett Ashely, a woman, is able to join in these activities because she does not behave like a conventional woman of her time (I think that’s fair to say). She cross dresses, is promiscuous, and is a heavy drinker. And she’s a card-carrying member of the lost generation.
Oh, but she doesn’t fish.
Actually, in a realist sense, I’m not sure she is all that atypical. People of both (all) genders have been heavy drinkers and promiscuous, and the “flapper” fashion styles for women of the 1920s featured short “bobbed” hair like Brett is described as having, as well as clothing appropriated from men. However, Sun makes a point of showing Brett to be a different “kind of woman.”
There are two other somewhat developed female characters in Sun. Robert Cohn’s wife, Frances, is depicted in a negative light by Jake, who finds her grasping and controlling. Georgette, the prostitute Jake picks up and who accompanies him to the dance hall where he sees Brett, is perhaps more sympathetically portrayed, but still one-dimensional. Early on, she disappears from the book’s view—as does Frances. Lady Brett Ashley remains as the central female character.
We know that Hemingway often wrote negatively about women (witness Frances), and had deep resentments against his own mother, who dressed him like a girl when he was a child. The character of Brett might seem to be an expression of this hostility. She certainly can be seen as a destructive force in the novel, making the fellas miserable. However, a closer reading reveals her to be a much more complex and troubled character—created by Hemingway.
We get some snippets about her from other characters’ reported dialogue. Mike and Roy Gorton tell Jake and the reader, that she was a nurse in WWI (lost generation candidate), that her true love died of diphtheria, and that she married Lord Ashley, a nutcase who suffered from PTSD and often threatened to murder her with a “loaded revolver.” She left him, but he apparently continues to provide her with an allowance, and so she remains dependent on an unstable person—as she does with Jake.
It should be stressed that outside of these snippets, what we learn about Brett is filtered through Jake Barnes’ perspective, and Jake has strong feelings about Brett—at least, as strong as his feelings ever get. He claims to love her, is certainly attracted to her. He calls her “damned good looking,” although he says the same about Pedro Romero. The evidence for him caring about her is that he acts protectively, particularly at the end when he responds immediately to her plea for help in Madrid. Let’s just say he is not an objective reporter about Brett. He is, however, dependent on her and she dependent on him. They may be the only couple in the novel who are truly in love (what is love?) but cannot be together because of Jake’s nasty war wound. Even though Jake does not have a sexual relationship with Brett, he is probably the man most used by her as well as the one who suffers the most since his feelings towards her are true. He blames his miserableness on Brett, showing her in a bad light: “To hell with Brett. To hell with you, Lady Ashley.” Jake claims that Brett is the source of his unhappiness, whereas it is actually his wound which is his major problem. Hemingway’s style, the iceberg theory, prevents the reader from seeing “the submerged facets of her character.” (I think it’s more intentional, that Jake does this on purpose because of his ambivalent feelings about her).
Brett comes more into focus over the course of the book. As we’ve noted, she first appears in the third chapter in a one-dimensional way but at the end of that chapter, finally alone with Jake, she says, “Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable.” In the next chapter, the scene continues:
“Brett’s hat was off. Her head was back. I saw her face in the light from the open shops, then it was dark, then I saw her face clearly as we came out on the Avenue des Gobelins.”
I quote this passage because I think it’s a quite brilliant way to show how Jake (the narrator) finds Brett hard to understand from moment to moment. Things continue:
“And there’s not a damned things we could do,” I (Jake) said.
(This is apparently a reference to Jake’s inability to have sexual intercourse due to his war wound.)
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t want to go through that hell again.”
“We’d better keep away from each other.”
“But, darling, I have to see you. It isn’t all that you know.”
“No, but it always gets to be.”
“That’s my fault. Don’t we pay for all the things we do, though?”
A curious exchange, no? I believe it refers to Jake and Brett’s history when they tried to be lovers and failed. Also, Brett says she has to see Jake, she needs him for reasons he doesn’t know about. He is bitter (I think) stating that her problems are his fault (because he’s unable to have sex). She counters by saying rather dramatically (well, it is drama, after all), that we pay (a price) for all that we do.
This scene reveals a lot about Brett and catapults her well past the other female characters in terms of depth. Yet, the iceberg method demands that the text not elaborate. It is open and subject to the reader’s interpretation.
Let’s see, what can we make of this? Do Jake and Brett have a history together?
Have they tried and failed to be lovers?
Is Brett unhappy and seeing Jake as a safe person to be with?
At least, these are all my interpretations.
Again, Hemingway shows his genius in the way he reveals so much in a brief scene consisting of (mostly) dialogue.
These kind of exchanges continue right to the final page. Again and again, Brett is shown to be not a self-involved kook, but a very troubled person who acts out her problems and relies on Jake to help.
She, like Jake, is a member of the lost generation, best beloved. Once the concealed aspects are revealed (by the reader), Brett emerges as a fully developed character engaged, like Jake, in learning how to live in a world where the rules have changed. And this is the world of the lost generation, those survivors who cope with loss by avoiding commitment and numbing themselves with alcohol.
But, as I’ve said, despite Hemingway’s avowed wish to show these folks as being able to change and have more meaningful lives, Jake and Brett remain miserable and self-destructive wretches.
‘Kay. Maybe the book should have been entitled The Sun Doesn’t Rise. It is about the destructive effects of war on human lives.
This is deservingly regarded as a great novel, and it rewards close reading. But I think the clock on the clubhouse wall says it’s time to move on next week to a new one.