Set in Paris in the wake of World War I, Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is a book that captures the mood and mentality of what the famous literary figure, Gertrude Stein, dubbed, “The Lost Generation.” Born at the end of the nineteenth century, when society as a whole, was transitioning from an older agrarian culture, to a newer paradigm centered around industrialization and urban life, the characters of The Sun Also Rises struggle to reconcile a simpler, traditional mode of thinking, with the new,impersonal realities of modern existence.
The Sun Also Rises centers around a group of American expatriates who find themselves in the midst of a Paris bursting with romance, excess, and rampant hedonism. The protagonist of the novel, Jake Barnes, is an overseas correspondent for an American newspaper, reporting on life and events in postwar France.
The unfortunate victim of a war injury that permanently damaged his sexual capacity, Jake finds himself impotent in the wildest of times, in a city that is exploding in sensuality and promiscuity. This frustrating set of circumstances is compounded by the fact that he is in love with a beautiful British woman, Brett Ashley, who reciprocates his feelings, but shares his angst at the hopelessness of their situation. Tension arises when Jake’s tennis partner, Robert Cohn, a naïve American recently arrived from the States, falls hopelessly in love with Brett.
The embodiment of the “Flapper” of the “Roaring Twenties,” Brett is out of Cohn’s league. Sexually liberated, and flagrantly ambivalent towards the traditional female roles of the Victorian era, Brett, like all Flappers, believed sexual freedom was not gender specific. Carelessly, Brett takes up with Cohn, much to the dismay of Jake, and decides to have an affair with him. While Jake, along with the rest of their crowd, including Brett herself, acknowledge that the affair is nothing more than an amusement, Cohn takes it seriously, and is devastated when Brett leaves him for a young bullfighter named Pedro Romero, during the festival in Pamplona Spain.
A seminal work in the genre of Modernist literature, The Sun Also Rises employs symbolism to express Hemingway’s perspective on society during this period. Each of the major characters of the story embody a specific cultural theme prevalent at the time. In the aggravating innocence of Cohn, the pre-war expectations and beliefs of Americans is expressed. Thrust into a wickedly sophisticated and morally bankrupt Paris of the 1920’s, Cohn, like the bright eyed soldiers who went off to war in the trenches of World War I, ends up abused and destroyed by the callous, impersonal, realities of the new world order. Brett, a poster girl for the new, liberated, woman, finds herself mired in paradox. Though stimulating and euphoric, the postwar culture leaves her feeling hauntingly empty and unfulfilled. Like many of her female contemporaries, she struggled to reconcile the emotional security of traditional marriage with the ephemeral nature of open relationships.
Common to all of Hemingway’s works is the author’s conviction that bravery, honor, and integrity, are ultimately, the highest expression of human endeavor. All of these traits are exemplified in the young bullfighter, Pedro Romero. It is when Brett discards Cohn for the purity of Pedro Romero, that irony reveals itself. Like all the damaged and dissolute characters in The Sun Also Rises, Brett, too, seeks the spiritual redemption represented by the untainted, nobility, of the exquisite bullfighter. Yet, while most of the characters in the novel are content to bask in the glory of Pedro’s spirit, Brett seeks to possess it for herself, to restore the lost sense of purpose and security that has fled not only her, but her whole generation.
The disgust and sadness expressed by the old innkeeper, Montoya, upon witnessing Brett’s affair with Romero, reflects the general sense of despair and melancholy prevalent among many members of the Lost Generation. For instead of recapturing the lost sense of innocence and hope she seeks, Brett’s relationship with Romero corrupts the young man, tainting and diminishing the admirable qualities he possesses. The closing scene of The Sun Also Rises sums up the cynical realities of a society divorced from the secure conventions of traditional culture, and forced to acknowledge the irony and hard truths of their times.