By Kevin Sterne, Contributing Writer for The Underground
Ernest Hemingway’s writing captured the angst of an entirely directionless, and pervasively skeptical, generation: the artists, writers, wounded soldiers, and “new women” who fled to Paris to cope with an ennui caused by a complete lack of purpose following the worst war their world had ever seen. As one of these ex-pats, Hemingway spent much of his twenties drinking and enjoying the artistic freedom that Paris and Europe had to offer, and it is from this setting that he penned his breakthrough novel, The Sun Also Rises.
As the story’s chief protagonist and mostly unreliable narrator, the war-wounded Jake Barnes spends his days writing for a newspaper and wandering between cafés. He is hopelessly in love with Lady Brett Ashley, the sexually adventurous flapper who represents this period’s “new woman.” In his mostly drunken pursuit of her attention, he fights with Michael, Brett’s fiancé, Robert Cohn, an ex-boxer afflicted with a serious case of puppy love, and the loquacious Bill Gorton. Although the group is rarely sober in the novel’s first half, it is the second half when the booze really starts to flow, leading to the climax of the characters’ myriad sexual tensions. In this second half, the group travels to Pamplona, Spain for the famous bullfighting. Here, amidst the sloppy drunkenness of the fiesta, the most destructive aspects of each character’s personality surface: Michael berates Cohn for chasing his fiancé, Cohn punches out Barnes, and Brett Ashley falls for a 19-year old matador, fully dissipating any group dynamic that may have remained among these so-called friends.
Hemingway’s well-known iceberg theory is in full force as Barnes struggles with his inner demons throughout the novel. Because his war injury has left him impotent, he rationalizes his dislike for most people, and is compelled to overcompensate for his impotence in various competitions – fishing, bullfighting, and, most notably, drinking.
Set in a period of prohibition, with characters who exhibit almost no change from the beginning to end, this novel creates the feeling of one big party, perfectly capturing Stein’s unfulfilled “lost generation.” Though occasionally criticized for its lack of plot, The Sun Also Rises is properly and timelessly rooted in the American Literary Canon.
For those looking to delve into a classic work by one of the best writers of the Modern or any generation, The Sun Also Rises is not to be missed.