The Sun Also Rises was published by Ernest Hemingway. I read this novel in my 20th Century Novel Class. I enjoyed this book, but there are some flaws. I’m going to aim for as few spoilers as possible in this review. The novel is about Jake Barnes, who travels with some friends to the Fiesta de San Fermin in Spain after World War 2. While he visits the Spanish Countryside and watches the bullfighting competition, Jake struggles with a war injury and post-war delusion as he tries to find a code to live by. It is a beautiful novel.
I looked at reviews for this article on Goodreads and I was disappointed. The novel is not just a book about a bunch of guys who chase an idealized woman. The novel is much more than that, and I am going to defend it, and Brett as a character as well.
The novel does have some problematic elements, Robert Cohn is a Jewish character who Hemingway stereotypes. He is the only Jewish character, but he is portrayed as annoying and he is mocked by all the other characters. Brett is also sexualized and treated as an object by many of the male characters, but it is realistic of the time she lived in. If we look past Jake’s perception of her, she is more complex than he gives her credit for. Cohn, unfortunately, is not treated with as much understanding, but he is pitied at least. Upon acknowledging these problems, the novel is worth reading and appreciating for the good elements. My review mostly talks about the good, but first, we will talk about alcohol.
The characters drink an absurd amount of alcohol. The characters drink every few pages and it is pretty concerning. If they are drunk the entire book, I’m not surprised considering the decisions they make. I feel like it is easy to say the book is full of people who drink all the time, but it is more than that. The characters want to numb the pain of the war and of the lives they live. They long for something greater but make awful decisions along the way. For a book with people who are always drinking, there is plenty of beautiful descriptions of nature and the atmosphere around them.
- Unusual Male Protagonist
Jake was wounded in the war and is impotent. I hadn’t read a book with a male protagonist in Jake’s situation before and I was surprised it was included. Jake lives a full life and maintains good friendships. Hemingway is an author who seems concerned with masculinity, so it was nice to see that Jake is never less of a man or person because he doesn’t have sex. Sex and romance bring drama for everyone who is in a relationship in this novel.
Jake, like many of Hemingway’s protagonists, was in the war. The novel deals with the post-war delusion and in a modernist novel fashion, he shows the ways we try to explain and ignore the events that happened to us. Hemingway was also famous for his “iceberg principle.” He was notorious for cutting out any bit of unnecessary information. There is so much information under the surface of conversations and thoughts that Hemingway doesn’t state. Many of these people feel broken and are looking for relief as well as a code to explain the world around them. We see all this in Jake, he isn’t idealized or perfected, no one is, and he screws up. He has to live with his choices just like all the characters do.
2. Spanish Bullfighting and Culture
I have never been to Spain or traveled to the Fiesta De San Fermin, but Hemingway made it feel like I had a ticket. Hemingway traveled all the time, and in his lifetime, he made more than 20 trips to Spain. He captures an outsider’s perspective of Spanish culture during this festival. He describes the beauty, excitement, and sadness in the event. Romero is a major bullfighter in the novel and he is beautiful. Hemingway saw bullfighting as a sacred experience that requires a deep connection between the bull and the bullfighter. From what I have heard about horseback riding, it is similar.
There is also a contrast with culture. The tourists are focused on having fun and drinking the day away and it feels like a constant party but not a good one. The descriptions of bullfighting and Spanish culture reveal a code of living that Hemingway deeply admires. Pay attention to his descriptions of bullfighting. They are where Hemingway shines.
3. Brett is the new woman
The only main female character in the novel is Lady Brett Ashley. At the time of the novel, she was The New Woman. She was a common trope and ideal for a woman after the war. She rejects the ideals of the chaste, Victorian woman. She is a woman who drinks, who smokes, who hangs out with the dudes. She outdoes all the men; she is one of the boys. All the guys want to date her. The male protagonist pines after her. Another guy even fights for her honor. Her boyfriend doesn’t care much for her and treats her poorly. She could simply be a male fantasy, but if you take a minute and look at her outside the male perspective–you might realize the guys are missing something. Although she is written under the male gaze, Jake once describes her as a motorboat, her character is more than she appears.
Lady Brett Ashley is a woman who is aware of what people think of her. She knows what she’s doing and she’s not as confident as we think. She is her own harshest critic. We see the facade of Brett, but the flashes we see are of someone with insecurities and doubts. She wonders about going to confession and feels anxious when she goes to a church. She is real, whether anyone notices or not. Though she is breaking societal roles, her role in the world is one that has been created for men. The men enjoy her personality as is, she doesn’t challenge or make them change in any way. She has to realize if this is someone she really wants to be and if so, she should break bad habits and unhealthy cycles.
4. Stunning Landscape
The descriptions of the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises are gorgeous. Bill and Jake look out the window on the way there and well, here’s a quote:
“We all got in the car and it started up the white dusty road into Spain. For a while the country was much as it had been; then, climbing all the time, we crossed the top of a Col, the road winding back and forth on itself, and then it was really Spain. There were long brown mountains and a few pines and far-off forests of beech-trees on some of the mountainsides. The road went along the summit of the Col and then dropped down, and the driver had to honk, and slow up, and turn out to avoid running into two donkeys that were sleeping in the road. We came down out of the mountains and through an oak forest, and there were white cattle grazing in the forest. Down below there were grassy plains and clear streams, and then we crossed a stream and went through a gloomy little village, and started to climb again. We climbed up and up and crossed another high Col and turned along with it, and the road ran down to the right, and we saw a whole new range of mountains off to the south, all brown and baked-looking and furrowed in strange shapes.”
5. Sweet Portrayal of Male Friendship
Bill is another charming side character. He is a friend of Jake’s and he’s the only one who doesn’t pine after Brett. He is funny and a good friend to Jake. They go fishing together and have fun and it is nice to watch. They play off each other well, and though they are quite different, the two get along. It was nice to have a break from some of the more dramatic scenes.
6. Engagement with Catholicism
The novel takes place in a time where there is much misunderstanding between Catholics and Protestants and by in a time, I mean all times. The confusion has always been there. Always. Jake is a Catholic, but he is a bit of a lapsed Catholic. The modernist era includes a doubt in traditional religion, and Jake’s relationship with the church feels unusual. His doubts aren’t strong, but the post-war world he lives in and the people he surrounds himself with do not value growing or understanding faith in any meaningful way. But he still attends church and participates in Catholic traditions. Jake feels simultaneously connected with and disconnected with the rites and experiences of church. His relationship with religion feels real. The church isn’t a huge topic of discussion or major plot point, but it is layered throughout the story. That’s part of why I love Hemingway. He touches on issues with subtlety, and if you blink you will miss them, but they are so rich.
The title is also a reference to Ecclesiastes, and the words fit the novel well. The beauty of a rising sun also fits with the beauty of the material world.
7. The Difficulty of Redemption, Forgiveness, and Understanding Each Other
There were times where I felt let down. I felt both connected to and disconnected from Jake’s narration. He is an imperfect narrator, Hemingway sees things that Jake doesn’t see. If we look we can see cracks. That is part of the beauty of this novel. So many characters have obvious seeming faults, but when we look inside, they are not as obvious and easily solvable. Jake’s relationship with Brett is complicated. They are attracted but can’t ever be together. Jake knows Brett and he doesn’t know Brett. They have an understanding, but both feel misunderstood and alone. I found their entire dynamic fascinating, toxic at times, astounding. Falling in love or love isn’t a universal perfect good.
As I said, Hemingway provides no simple solution. The world these characters live in is not understanding of their struggles. Forgiveness can be limited, redemption can be conditional. The novel asks what it takes to make us choose to change. Mostly, we don’t want to or ignore the need to. The novel captures that temptation well. The Sun Also Rises also shows us good things, the landscape, nature, food, and comradery. The simple speech provides a complex narrative and hints at depth under the surface. Hemingway describes bullfighting beautifully; I feel like I had seats to the bullfight with Jake, Brett, Mike, Cohn, and Bill.
I also liked how traveling wasn’t the end-all-be-all to this series. Travel isn’t an escape to make our lives better, and it isn’t going to make you someone better than you are. It certainly does change you, and this is partly what the novel is about.
I would recommend this novel to any adult or young adult. The Sun Also Rises took me on a trip and back home again. All of these characters are looking for a code, and Jake’s journey and the ending are satisfying. It is beautiful but also broken at times.
Have you read The Sun Also Rises or any Hemingway novels? What did you think? Let me know down in the comments below!