In this series of posts, I’ll explain how the books on my Favorite Works page made the list — essentially, why my favorites are my favorites — as well as dive into the craft lessons I learned from each.
When I first read The Sun Also Rises three years ago, I hated it. My then-21-year-old brain saw only the misogynistic ramblings of an alcoholic chauvinist. However, since I’d already decided to write my undergraduate thesis on TSAR, A Farewell to Arms, and Federico Garcia Lorca’s La casa de Bernarda Alba, I was stuck with the book, and after a year of extensive literary criticism, I didn’t hate it anymore. In fact, I loved it.
Its premise is a fairly simple one, and at first blush, there’s not a lot going on. Jake Barnes is an American expatriate newspaper reporter living in Paris after World War I. He’s a veteran who’s suffered a grievous injury, which in turn keeps him from being a serious contender for the affections of Lady Brett Ashley. When Brett takes up with Robert Cohn, a man Jake has befriended for pity’s sake, and then Pedro Romero, a young bullfighter she meets in Spain, Jake must realistically evaluate his relationship with her. The entire narrative is told from Jake’s point of view, in first-person.
For a work of American literature, The Sun Also Rises is a very Spanish book, which is one of the reasons I grew to admire it. Writers often hear that literary themes should be as universal as possible, and it’s true that many themes are. But different countries also have different themes that are unique to their literature. Much literature of the United States, for example, is haunted by the American Dream and/or the Puritan work ethic, whether the characters in the book accept it or not. When I lived and studied in Spain, one of the themes we discussed was the idea of venir cara a cara con la muerte, to come face to face with death, a theme exemplified throughout TSAR. The hero, Jake Barnes, does not just admire the daring of the bullfighters, whom he respects for their aficion; he, too, has come face to face with death, as he is a veteran of World War I. With my background in both American and Spanish literature, I appreciate the Iberian nature of the work.
But the real reason why I love TSAR is the incredible complexity of the characters, and here is where my admiration for the novel turns into a study of craft; here, I believe, is one of the areas in which Hemingway demonstrates true mastery. At first glance, the characters are superficial drunkards chasing after momentary pleasures. However, what the characters do not say is far more powerful than what they do. All the men in the book — not just Jake Barnes — are struggling with the effects of World War I, of having come face to face with death; their psychological turmoil is real and deep. The men are not merely physical expatriates, but they are exiles of the mind as well; they have become internally isolated from whomever they used to be, prior to the war. But they must keep up appearances, specifically the appearance of masculinity. They must continue to behave as they think men should behave, even if they doubt their own ability to do so. As such, their pursuit of physical pleasures becomes the performance of masculinity, rather than a true expression of manhood.
Yet the idea of lost manhood, both literally and figuratively, is not so easily discerned from the characters’ words and actions. The theme of the loss of masculinity is so nuanced, in fact, that the nature of Jake’s injury (his genitalia is…impaired) is never explicitly mentioned. We, as readers, must infer it from a scene in which Jake looks into a mirror, as well as the from the physical limitations of his relationship with Lady Brett Ashley. And Jake himself rarely meditates on what the injury has cost him; in his few moments of honesty, he attempts to dismiss his angst, even when he is alone on the page with only the reader for company. Even then, he keeps up appearances. It’s all subtext. As readers, we must tease Jake’s psychological exile from the narrative — but once discovered, it becomes difficult to see beyond Hemingway’s tragically wounded men. (And women, for that matter. An entire thesis could be written on Lady Brett Ashley’s attempts to redefine her femininity in the face of this lost masculinity.)
Ultimately, however, Hemingway suggests that his characters are delusional in their attempts to playact thse over-the-top archetypal gender roles — an interesting idea in light of how Hemingway lived his own life. These are the last lines of the book, in which Brett contemplates what life would have been like if Jake had been physically and psychologically whole. Notice how Jake replies:
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said. “We could have had such a damned good time together.”
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
What I ultimately took away from TSAR was Hemingway’s masterful manipulation of subtext, the way he uses what is not said as a means of revealing the heart of his work. In a book about the resonance of identity loss, a lesser author might have spent pages upon pages on internal dialogue, in which Jake explicitly expresses anguish over what has made him, in his eyes, less of a man. In fact, when I assigned this book to my AP classes last year, my male students spent pages upon pages expressing Jake’s anguish for him: “I cannot imagine anything worse,” one student wrote, “than losing your manhood.”
Neither, presumably, could Hemingway. But he expounds on this idea subtly and lets the readers do the work for him — a craft lesson I have taken to heart.