Ellen's Reviews > The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
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's review
Nov 09, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: novels

One of the questions the novel raises is who is the hero?

From our perspective the disappearance of the hero is nothing new. When Hemingway wrote this book, the lack of a clear protagonist was not yet a tradition. Certainly, there was literature featuring anti-heroes, but in this novel, it is not even clear if there is a central character.

Even Hemingway did not seem entirely sure. The story of how Hemingway revised the novel is a fascinating account on its own. One point that emerges in looking at his rough drafts is Hemingway's ambiguity concerning whom he intended as the main character. Originally, the book started with two chapters on Lady Brett Ashley, beginning with the line, "This is a novel about a lady."

In another deleted section, Jake Barnes makes the following statement: "Now you see. It looked as though I were trying to get to be the hero of this story. But that is all wrong. Cohn is the hero. When I bring myself in it is only to clear up something. Or maybe Duff [Brett:] is the hero. Or Nino de la Palma [Romero:]. He never really had a chance to be the hero. Or maybe there is not any hero at all. Maybe a story is better without a hero" (Svobova 31).

In a 1926 letter to Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway proposes yet another hero: [the story:] "is a damn tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero" (Letters 229). Or, as Hemingway suggests in a 1926 letter to Fitzgerald, maybe it is just a story about "how people go to hell" (Letters 209).

Certainly Cohn, Brett, Jake, and Pedro Romero do not align as neatly into categories of good and bad as Philip Young's analysis of Hemingway's "code" would have us believe. Robert Cohn's grief at having been rejected by Brett is balanced by his earlier rejection of his wife and three small chilren as well as the expedient rejection of his subsequent mistress, Francis Clyne. Yet, in some ways, despite his romantic posturing, Cohn seems more alive than characters like Mike--lost in a drunken stupor--or Count Mippipopoulos with his leaden philosophy of value exchange.

Brett, though described by Cohn in glowing terms, "There's a certain quality about her, a certain fineness. She seems to be absolutely fine and straight," proves to be something less than "fine and straight." Seemingly pointless details and Brett's actions often show her to be a bit duplicitous.

Romero, for all his grace under pressure and perfect technique, has an unformed quality. He is a pretty boy, the child Brett refers to when she states she is not going to be one of those bitches who ruins children. Romero has youth, beauty, and the support of the crowd. Perhaps more heroic is the courage of Belmonte--the aging bullfighter--who works in pain and faces the contempt of a crowd expecting him to live up to a past reputation mythic in proportion. Jake, too, shows steady courage in a no-win situation. Trapped in the living hell of desire without hope of fulfillment, Jakes manages to salvage some dignity, to carve out a code of conduct as if his life had meaning.

Most of these characters lead lives of quiet desperation and aborted desires. Hemingway may have had this loneliness in mind when he considered using two lines from Andrew Marvell's poem as the novel's original epigraph:

The grave's a fine and private place
But none, I think, do there embrace
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 9, 2009 – Shelved
December 6, 2009 – Shelved as: novels

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Yes, I'm convinced that Thoreau's dictum ("The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation") is an entry to many a classic book, this one included.

For me there's no question that Jake is the hero. And yes, this roman à clef just goes to show how alcohol giveth and alcohol taketh away (boy did Hemingway ever learn -- the hard way). By the end, they all seem like a bunch of rotters, really.

The chapter that makes it is the one where Jake escapes on his own after the fiesta and goes swimming in the ocean at San Sebastian. That time alone, that cleansing renewal -- the reader needs it as much as Jake does. At least THIS reader did.

Marvelous sophomore effort. In some ways his best, because it marshaled both the disciplined things he cared about (like bullfighting and writing) and the undisciplined things he didn't care enough to stop for his own good (like drinking and gossiping).

Ellen I think you're right - about the characters' desperation in this book as well as Hemingway's fight to maintain the disciplined aspect of his life vs. the pull of alcohol and gossip.

Oh, and I saw your comment about West with the Night being a favorite of Hemingway's. I liked that book a lot as well, but noticed what a "chap" Beryl Markham was - much like Brett in TSAR.

message 3: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Right. And Marlene Dietrich. Let's not forget her in the "chaps" roll call.

message 4: by Ken (last edited Mar 01, 2010 12:58PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Jake is the hero. Period. Cohn? Don't make me laugh. Brett? Hero bait. And the Earth abiding forever? Hemingway in self-inflation mode.

Ellen Newengland wrote: "Jake is the hero. Period. Cohn? Don't make me laugh. Brett? Hero bait. And the Earth abiding forever? Hemingway in self-inflation mode."

Well, okay then :), but how do you explain Hemingway's own waffling on the topic? It's interesting that he originally started it with Brett as the hero - she wouldn't have worked at all. I wonder why Hemingway was reluctant to view Jake as the hero?

message 6: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken I take him at his word -- he intended to write a book centered on a lady. Only he failed and it wound up being a book about a guy suspiciously like him (as are all of his protagonists).

In fact, few if any male writers can write a convincing female protagonist because they don't understand the subtleties of the female mind. And we're thinking Hemingway might do it? Our Ernie??? It's hilarious in its way.

Ellen Newengland wrote: "I take him at his word -- he intended to write a book centered on a lady. Only he failed and it wound up being a book about a guy suspiciously like him (as are all of his protagonists).

In fact..."

When you're right, you're right. Hemingway wrote men-women for the most part, and when they weren't "chaps," he viewed them as "bitches."

message 8: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken A very Garden of Eden (hey, a title!) view of the world, his was. Eve forever tempting and bringing down clueless Adam.

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