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“Bulls, Balls, and Booze”:
War and Gender in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
Hemingway, Spain, July 1925.
War and Gender in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
BA Thesis English Language and Culture, Utrecht University
Noortje Machiels
Dr. P.J.C.M. Franssen
Table of Contents
Introduction............................................................................................................................................. 5
Chapter 1: Modernism ........................................................................................................................... 9
The Modern Period and The Lost Generation ......................................................................... 9
Ernest Hemingway................................................................................................................. 12
Chapter 2: Portrayal of male characters in The Sun Also Rises ............................................................. 15
2.1 Hemingway’s Code of Conduct ................................................................................................... 15
2.2 The Sun Also Rises as a post-war novel ....................................................................................... 16
2.3 Code of Exchange ........................................................................................................................ 18
2.4 Robert Cohn as an outcast .......................................................................................................... 20
2.5 Pedro Romero as the true hero? ................................................................................................. 21
2.4 Shift in gender constructions ...................................................................................................... 22
Chapter 3: Brett – Victim or Vicious? .................................................................................................... 24
3.1 The New Woman ......................................................................................................................... 24
3.2 Brett’s History.............................................................................................................................. 26
3.3 Brett as a destructive force ......................................................................................................... 26
3.4 Brett as a victim ........................................................................................................................... 27
Conclusion ......................................................................................................................................... 30
Works Cited ........................................................................................................................................... 31
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.
The sun also ariseth and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. The
wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about onto the north; it whirleth about continually,
and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the
sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again –
Ecclesiastes 4:1
Hemingway is seen as one of the most influential writers of the modern period. As Edmund
Wilson points out: “He [Hemmingway] has responded to every pressure of the moral
atmosphere of the time, as it is felt at the roots of human relations, with a sensitivity almost
unrivaled” (240). Hemingway’s stories often suggest something rather than explicitly mention
it. Hemingway believed that “there is seven-eighths of the iceberg underwater for every part
that shows (…) Anything that you know you can eliminate from your writing and it only
strengthens your iceberg” (qtd. in Dolan 61). Hemingway is well-known for the stereotypical
notion of masculinity in his writings. As a result, Hemingway was also known as “Papa
Hemingway” (Sanderson 170).
The modern period is a literary period which took place from 1910 to 1945. There are
complex descriptions of the term ‘modernism’. A brief description could be that modernism
was an experimental movement that challenged preconceived notions: “(…) modernism asks
us to reconsider what we normally understand by the center and the margins” (Lauter 485).
Several developments contributed to the beginning of what we now call the modern period. In
particular, World War I was of great influence. After World War I there was a sense of
disillusionment. More than 8 million men had been killed, and countless others had been
physically and psychologically injured. It was the first time soldiers experienced the horrors
of the trenches. The difference between life and death became arbitrary. Due to the new
technology soldiers did not get a chance to fight back and remained passive: “Soldiers rarely
had the opportunity to fight the enemy, not in any classic sense in which one's own agency
and skill might affect the outcome” (Vernon 43). Lauter points out that the notion that war
could be used to advance the cause of civilization became hard to sustain (494).
After World War I changes in gender roles took place. Due to the absence of men,
women occupied jobs which were previously filled by men (Joseph 65). Women were now
able to free themselves from the traditional gender-framework: “(…) they entered the
homefront workforce, took financial control over their lives, and loosened conventional
gender restrictions on their behavior” (qtd. in Vernon 43). In the light of these events the
“New Woman” emerged. She “smoked, danced, drank, and displayed various degrees of
sexual promiscuity” (Sanderson 171): “She is a transitional figure between the protected,
idealized wife and the modern, self-reliant woman” (Sanderson 178-179).
The war was surrounded by the myth that it is a place for “unrivaled displays of
masculinity”, but in reality World War I “crippled” the masculinity of individuals (West 107).
The crisis of masculinity as a result of the war has been examined by various writers. Joseph
observes the destruction of the myth that war could be seen as an opportunity for men to
“reestablish their masculinity” (Joseph 65). The actual experience turned out to be the
opposite of this traditional myth. Joseph points out that: “Instead of becoming heroes, soldiers
often found themselves reduced to anonymous bodies in trenches, where life and death
seemed the result of dumb luck rather than bravery, skill, or cunning” (65). When the
traumatized soldiers returned home they had a changed attitude towards the traditional view
of the “abstract ideals of courage, heroism, and grand national purpose” (Bendixen 492).
During the modern period several writers, such as Dos Passos and Fitzgerald, left the
United States in the late 1910s and early 1920s and formed a collective group in Paris. Morley
points out that these writers travelled abroad so they could see America “more clearly” with
“geographical distance” (149). On the other hand, Nagel believes that the movement of
American writers to Europe was due to the conflict between “conservative Christianity and
the changes in the world brought about by the scientific revolution and empirical rationality”
(492-493). The American culture had grown “increasingly conservative” and the soldiers who
returned no longer felt at home (Bendixen 493). Writers were looking for a place where they
could express themselves more freely, especially in political and sexual matters (Lauter 486).
The collective group of expatriates were also known as the “lost generation”, a term
introduced by Gertrude Stein (Lauter 494). Writers from the “lost generation” shared the
desire to make something “new” in the literary arts and dealt with the theme of “alienation” in
the aftermath of World War I (Morley 148). These writers had been, each in their own way,
influenced by the war. They felt cut off from any sense of belonging in the world. They were
looking for a way to form “any basis for meaningful values and experience” in a secure way
(Lauter 494).
Hemingway was part of the lost generation. He served in World War I as an
ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in Italy. After a few weeks at the front
Hemingway was wounded and he had to stay in a hospital in Milan. The arbitrariness of death
in the war affected Hemingway and he objected to the use of “big and noble words”: (…)
[H]e felt that patriotism and duty had been corrupted by the uses to which they [the soldiers]
had been put by those who managed the war machines of the modern age” (Lauter 495).
This paper will focus on Hemingway’s novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. The novel
tells the story of Jake Barnes, a war veteran, who works as an American newspaper
correspondent in Paris. The crippling effect of World War I can be seen in the character of
Jake, who is literally emasculated by the war. This wound makes him unable to have a sexual
relationship with the woman he loves, Lady Brett Ashley. An Italian colonel stipulates the
misfortune of Jake’s wounding when he visits Jake in the hospital: “You, a foreigner, an
Englishman (…) have given more than your life. (…) Che mala fortuna! Che mala fortuna!”
(Hemingway 27). The idea that Jake has given more than his life stipulates the catastrophic
nature of his emasculating wound.
Gender plays an important role in Hemingway’s work. A number of scholars
recognize Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises as documenting “the shift in gender
constructions that followed World War I and the societal effects of that shift” (Sanderson 177,
Martin 65). As mentioned before, Hemingway is often criticized for the “stereotypical notion
of masculinity” in his writings (Onderdonk 62, Sanderson 170). As a result, Hemingway is
seen as the “preeminent man’s man” of the twentieth century (Onderdonk 62). Is this image
The aim of this paper is to examine Hemingway’s response to the shift in gender
constructions. On the one hand by investigating how and if normative conceptions of
masculinity are challenged in The Sun Also Rises and on the other hand by investigating how
Lady Brett Ashley, representing the “New Woman”, is portrayed (Sanderson 178).
This paper will first give a brief overview of the modern period in relation to gender
identity in the aftermath of World War I and Hemingway’s attitude towards gender identity in
the modern period. It will then go on to the portrayal of male characters in the novel and how
they represent the shift in gender constructions that followed World War I. The last chapter of
this paper will examine how Lady Brett Ashley is portrayed by Hemingway.
Chapter 1: Modernism
The broader context in which Hemingway lived and worked will be discussed in the
following chapter. First, there will be a brief overview of the modern period in general. It will
then go on to the phenomenon of the lost generation. Finally, this chapter will examine
Hemingway in the context of modernism.
1.1 The Modern Period and The Lost Generation
The modern period is a literary period which took place from roughly 1910 to 1945. There
are several brief descriptions of the term modernism. As mentioned before, a brief description
of modernism could be a literary experimental movement that challenged preconceived
notions (Lauter 485). During the modern period not only literature was subjected to change.
The changes in American literature as a result of the experimental movement went “hand in
hand with similar developments in science and technology and the visible rise of consumer
capitalism” (Morley 10-11). Modernism contains “contradictory elements” as Lauter points
out. On the one hand, it was “tilting against (…) the importance of the patriarchal family as a
cornerstone in society, and the need to honor long-established laws and customs” (486). On
the other hand, modernism was also “elitist, since it made claims for the artist that it was not
always willing to extend to ordinary men and women” (Lauter 486). Therefore modernism
was not “wholly embraced by African American, Native American, or immigrant authors”
(Lauter 486). This paper looks mainly at modernism in the context of World War I, which
was one of a number of major events that stimulated the development of modernism.
The writers of the lost generation were famous “exponents” of literary modernism
(Morley 147). As mentioned before, Gertrude Stein introduced the term of the lost generation.
Hemingway wrote Stein’s remark down in the epigraph of his novel The Sun Also Rises and
after that the phrase became a “fetish”: “(…) young men tried to get as imperturbably drunk
as the hero [of Hemingway’s novel], women of good families took a succession of lovers in
the same heartbroken fashion as the heroine” (qtd, in Dolan 16). According to Lauter Stein
was speaking of alienation: “[a]lienation can be viewed as a condition of permanent
marginality” (494). Dolan points out that in essence, what Stein had done was “to give an
Anglo-European name (‘lost generation’) to an American phenomenon (the rise of a
noticeable and noticeably anti-traditionalist youth cohort)” (14). Writers of the lost
generation were looking for new means of exploring “the frontiers of consciousness” (Morley
The lost generation and World War I are inextricably linked. According to Morley,
“participation in war effort necessarily meant exile, which was central to the experience of
this group of writers” (147-148). That the lost generation is a product of the war is illustrated
by the following quote of Malcolm Cowley:
It was lost, first of all, because it was uprooted, schooled away and wrenched away from
its attachment to any region or tradition. It was lost because its training had prepared it for
another world than existed after the war . . . The generation belonged to a period of
transition from values already fixed to values that had to be created. (Malcolm Cowley
qtd. in Morley 148)
On the other hand, Lundberg believes that the reaction from the writers of the lost
generation was part of a larger “cultural rebellion” that had begun before 1914:
There is no question World War I made a deep impression upon Dos Passos,
Cummings, and Hemingway, but by itself it did not instill a sense of disillusionment in
them. Rather, the war accelerated and intensified their doubts about the prevailing
cultural standards of American society, doubts that they held even before the United
States entered the fighting. (380-381)
Additionally, Lauter points out that for many years “American artists had reacted negatively
to what they identified as the Puritanical and repressive elements in our [American] culture
[and] this reaction grew stronger in the period before and after World War I” (486). Similarly,
Hemingway believed that the lost generation was not a particular post-war phenomenon. He
believed “that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would
be” (qtd. In Dolan 42). This becomes clear in the bible passage Ecclesiastes 4:1 Hemingway
quotes in the epigraph of his novel The Sun Also Rises as a response to Stein’s remark about
the lost generation.
In the decades surrounding World War I tensions over “women’s role and status” in
society increased significantly (Lauter 490). Women gained more rights and freedom at the
end of the 19th century up to the 1920s. Since 1890 more women were able to work outside
the home and “labor-saving machines” “freed” them (Lauter 490). In 1920 the Nineteenth
Amendment was adopted, which gave women the right to vote (Lauter 489). Additionally,
Kimmel believes that the changing ideology of gender was due to “the explosive spread of
monopoly capitalism”: “[t]he opportunities for self-making afforded by small-scale capitalism
began to disappear; men became increasingly reduced to parts in a bureaucratic machine,
unable to achieve the sense of autonomy so central to the meaning of manhood they inherited”
(qtd. in Forter 23).
Furthermore, as mentioned before, World War I was of great influence on the
changing “ideology of gender”: “With so many men away at the front, women assumed roles
previously denied them and made household and economic decisions usually reserved for the
“men of the house” (Joseph 64). The war experiences affected the soldier’s “conceptions of
himself as a man, and by extension his general conception and experience of gender relations”
(Vernon 35). The idea of a heroic war and the opportunity for men to establish themselves as
heroes turned out to be a myth. As a result, soldiers returned home disillusioned. Moreover,
Gilbert argues that “the unmanning terrors of combat” led to an “anger” directed against
women because “women did not fight; because they entered the homefront workforce, took
financial control over their lives, and loosened conventional gender restrictions on their
behavior; and because they remained ignorant of the facts of the front (…)” (qtd. in Vernon
In the aftermath of these developments the New Woman emerged, a modern woman
with “bobbed hair and short skirts as an embodiment of female sexuality” (Lauter 490). She
was a sexually liberated “urban creature who was young and tom boyish in appearance and
behavior” (Sanderson 171). In Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises Brett is the embodiment of
the New Woman: she drinks, smokes and has short hair, she is a “sexy modern woman”
(Sanderson 178). There is no clear consensus whether or not Hemingway respects the “New
Woman” represented by Lady Brett Ashley or if he is “ambivalent” about this generation of
women (Sanderson 178). In chapter three Brett’s role in The Sun Also Rises as a New Woman
is further examined.
1.2 Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was one of the most important writers of the modern period. Hemingway
was self-confident. He was aware of his literary talent and saw himself as a “literary heavyweight champion” (Sanderson 170). Furthermore, Hemingway believed that “the world of
writing” should be a “man’s world”. As a result, “the accusation of male chauvinism” hangs
over his work (Sanderson 170). Hemingway attempted to reestablish “male domination” in
the cultural sphere (Sanderson 193). Wilson noticed Hemingway’s “growing antagonism to
women” (237). In The Sun Also Rises this can be seen, according to Wilson, in the personage
of Brett who is an “exclusively destructive force” (237). Wilson explains Hemingway’s
instinct “to get the woman down” as a fear that the woman “will get the man down” (239). In
the 1960s in “the rise of the women’s movement”, Hemingway became “Enemy Number
One” for many critics, as Sanderson points out (171).
Hemingway was born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. He was the son of Clarence, a
physician and Grace, an “opera-singer-turned-music-teacher” (Lauter 742). Hemingway’s
parents influenced him greatly but, on the other hand, Hemingway rebelled against them
(Lauter 743). His parents divided their roles in marriage according to ideals of “equal
partnership” (Sanderson 173). Yet Hemingway found his mother “domineering” and he
accused his father of being “weak and unavailable” (Lauter 743, Sanderson 173). Hemingway
and his generation grew up “admiring the frontier ideals of ‘rough rider’” (Onderdonk 63). In
his speech in 1899, Theodore Roosevelt promoted a “widely influential template for proper
American manhood”: “a doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of effort, of labor and strife”
(Onderdonk 63). Hemingway practiced masculine hobbies: fishing, hunting and he enjoyed
the outdoor life. He was looking for adventure throughout his life: he served in World War I
as an ambulance driver in Italy, went on a safari in Africa and worked as a correspondent
during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. He married four times and was a heavy
Hemingway is famous for the “code of conduct” he uses in his work (Bertens 404405). The Hemingway Hero is courageous; confident; noble and “utterly masculine” (Bertens
404-405). As mentioned before, the accusation of “male chauvinism” hangs over
Hemingway’s work (Sanderson 170). Likewise, Schmidt argues that beneath “all the tragic
implications of failed human relationships” lies a “sexism so profound that it can view
equality of men and women only in terms of women's being permitted to become men
because only men can be equal to men” (Schmidt 903). On the other hand, several other
authors believe that Hemingway’s code could serve as a “holding-on” or to “restore
masculinity” (Bertens 406, Onderdonk 66) Bertens points out that Hemingway’s code could
serve as “a substitute religion for a period in which God is incurably dead and there is little
reason left to believe in humanity instead” (406). In the next chapters the portrayal of male
and female characters in The Sun Also Rises is examined and how Hemingway’s code must be
interpreted in the context of the novel.
Chapter 2: Portrayal of male characters in The Sun Also Rises
In The Sun Also Rises there are several important male characters. In this chapter both
prominent and less prominent male characters are discussed. First Hemmingway’s “code of
conduct” will be further examined (Bertens 405). Secondly, the portrayal of the male
characters in The Sun Also Rises will be discussed. The question who is able to keep up the
standards of conduct is examined. Finally, Hemingway’s response to the shift of gender
constructions which took place in the aftermath of World War I is examined.
2.1 Hemingway’s Code of Conduct
Hemingway’s code of conduct emphasized “style”: “the way a man behaves in a
specific situation” (Bertens 405). As mentioned before, the Hemingway Hero is courageous;
confident; noble and “utterly masculine” (Bertens 404-405). The Hemingway Hero has a
stoical character, immune to external influences: “[i]t is made of the controls of honor and
courage which in a life of tension and pain makes a man a man and distinguish him from the
people who follow random impulses, let down their hair, and are generally messy, perhaps
cowardly, and without inviolable rules for how to live holding tight” (qtd. in Comley 207).
Several writers argue that the code is used as a device to survive in a godless world. For
example, Bertens believes that Hemingway’s “self-chosen code” is “a substitute for religion
for a period in which God is incurably dead and there is little reason left to believe in
humanity instead (…) it is a belief against reason, a holding-on to the most elementary of
values” (Bertens 406). Likewise, Robert Warren believes that in a world which is abandoned
by God the code gives “meaning to life which otherwise seems to have no meaning or
justification” (3).
Question is how this masculine code functions in The Sun Also Rises, where gender
roles seem to be reversed: on the one hand women are portrayed with masculine features and
on the other hand men act or are being treated, according to Onderdonk, like women: “(…)
that is, adopting or being forced into states of shameful passivity or disempowerment” (61). In
the following paragraphs this question is examined.
2.2 The Sun Also Rises as a post-war novel
The war is an essential element in the novel. It has an influence on all characters and
their relationships. The main character and the narrator of the story is Jake Barnes. Jake was
injured during World War I. As a result of his wound he is unable to have sexual intercourse.
The war had an impact on everybody who experienced it, physically and/or psychologically.
When Georgette, a prostitute, tries to kiss Jake he pushes her away. She asks Jake what’s
wrong: “‘What’s the matter? You sick? ‘Yes.’” Georgette answers: “‘Everybody’s sick. I’m
sick too’” (Hemingway 13). The “precise nature” of Jake’s injury is never explicitly
mentioned (Dragunoiu 876). In a conversation between Jake and Bill during their fishing trip
the mysteriousness surrounding Jake’s wound becomes clear:
[Jake] ‘It sounds like a swell life, I said. ‘When do I work?’
[Bill] ‘You don’t work. One group claims women support you. Another group claims
you’re impotent.’
‘No’, I said. ‘I just had an accident.’
‘Never mention that,’ Bill said.’That’s the sort of thing that can’t be spoken of. That’s
what you ought to work up into a mystery (…).’ (Hemingway 100-101)
According to Dragunoiu, this mysteriousness points to “an inexpressible trauma that can only
be revealed outside the text” and it indicates that “the nature of the ‘secret’ is less important
than the distortions it effects in the lives of the protagonists” (874). This corresponds to
Hemingway’s “iceberg principle”, as Hemingway explains: “This was omitted on my new
theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would
strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood” (qtd. in
Dragunoiu 875).
What does the nature of Jake’s wound tell us about the portrayal of Jake’s
masculinity? Several writers argue that Jake’s wound is part of the code. For example, John
Aldrigde argues that the “unreasonable wound” is part of the “defensive” code of conduct
(qtd. in Pidgeon 91): “It is the code of the hero who suffers from an ‘unreasonable wound’,
and who is inwardly tough and outwardly reticent, and who must be able to live by selfrestraint and perhaps even by self-hypnosis” (qtd. in Pidgeon 91). In addition, Merbitz argues
that Jake “has learned something from his wound”: He [Jake] is stripped of his illusions about
himself and the world because his wound has been so catastrophic that he either had to give in
to it or demonstrate the emotional strength needed to survive it” (20).
On the other hand, it becomes clear that Jake struggles with his handicap despite the
fact that he had “considered it from most of its various angles” (Hemingway 23). Jake realizes
that his wound is a “joke” for other people: “Of all the ways to be wounded. I suppose it was
funny” (Hemingway 26). He is looking for ways to cope with his injury: “I try and play it
along and just not make trouble for people. (…) The Catholic Church had an awfully good
way of handling all that. Good advice, anyway. Not to think about it [sex]” (Hemingway 27).
Despite his struggle Jake is looking for ways to live in the world: “All I wanted to know was
how to live in it [the world]” (Hemingway 129). This corresponds with the code: he does not
“give in” despite his “catastrophic” wound (Merbitz 20).
Jake’s wound is not the only scar from the war which is displayed in the novel. The
story begins in Paris where Jake spends his days writing for a newspaper and drinking.
Bertens points out that the excessive drinking is an attempt to “drown out the horrors of the
war that are still fresh in everybody’s memory” (404-405). In a scene at the beginning of the
novel where Jake and Robert Cohn are sitting in a bar, this emphasis on liquor becomes clear:
“‘This is a good place,’ he [Cohn] said. ‘There’s a lot of liquor,’ I [Jake] agreed’”
(Hemingway 9).
In the novel there is a strong connection between those who experienced the war. This
becomes clear when Brett tells Jake about the Greek count Mippipopolous she met in a bar:
“He’s one of us, though. Oh, quite. No doubt. One can always tell” (Hemingway 28). Another
example of the strong connection between veterans is the encounter with Harris on Bill and
Jake’s fishingtrip. When Bill and Jake leave Harris, he tells them: “I say. Really you don’t
know how much it means. I’ve not had much fun since the war” (Hemingway 112). Robert
Cohn, a Jewish tennis friend of Jake, has not experienced the war and therefore he is
perceived as an outcast. Cohn’s role is further discussed in paragraph 2.4.
2.3 Code of Exchange
Money plays an important role in The Sun Also Rises. At the beginning of the novel it
becomes clear that Jake is extremely aware of money. An example is the following passage
where Jake gives a detailed description of a transaction: “We paid for the beers, we matched
and I think Cohn paid, and went up to the hotel. It was only sixteen francs apiece for Bill and
me, with ten per cent added for the service (…)” (Hemingway 80). There are countless other
examples in the novel where Jake draws up a balance. These examples show that it is
important that you pay your share. The exchange of money can be seen as a part of the code:
an “inviolable rule for how to live” (qtd. in Comley 207). It could be argued that in The Sun
Also Rises financial integrity reflects moral strength (Donaldson 406). For example, when
Harris insists on paying for a bottle of wine, Bill in his turn insists he pays the next bottle:
“‘This is mine,’ said Bill. ‘Or we don’t drink it’” (Hemingway 112). Jake’s “strict
accounting” established him “as the novel’s moral compass” (Leland 39).
Furthermore, Jake regards friendship as an “exchange of values” (Hemingway 129).
Jake realizes that his friendship with Brett is not in balance, because he is not able to give her
sexual pleasure in return: “I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting
something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came”
(Hemingway 128-129). Jake often facilitates romantic encounters for Brett. It could be argued
that Jake often operates as a “pimp” so he can keep up the code of exchange (Hemingway
165). Jake believes that you have to pay in order to receive enjoyment: “You paid some way
for everything that was any good. I [Jake] paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that
I had a good time” (Hemingway 129). Jake’s philosophy shows that money has become a
substitute for meaning. It is a way to make sense of the world from which he feels
alienated.This existential philosophy fits into the code of conduct, there is no room for selfpity. You control your own destiny: “The world was a good place to buy in” (Hemingway
Finally, Jake is the only character in the novel who actually works for his money.
Mike Campbell is an “undischarged bankrupt”, Robert Cohn lives from an allowance he gets
from his mother and Brett “never has any money” (Hemingway 201). Furthermore, Jake
always makes sure he pays: “Someone at the counter, that I had never seen before, tried to pay
for the wine, but I finally paid for it myself” (Hemingway 136). Unlike Mike, Jake is able to
keep up the code of exchange. This becomes clear in the following passage: “Stop eating their
dinner, Michael,’ Brett shouted from the wine-barrels. ‘I don’t want to eat up your meal,’ I
[Jake] said when someone handed me a fork” (Hemingway 136).
2.4 Robert Cohn as an outcast
Robert Cohn is a friend of Jake, who was not in the war and therefore has not been
wounded, pyshically or psychologically. As a result he holds on to “idealistic and romantic”
values (Nagel 491). Therefore Cohn is perceived as an outcast. Cohn’s romantic nature
immediately becomes clear when he tells Jake he wants to go to South America because he
has a feeling that his life is “going by” (Hemingway 9). Cohn found inspiration in W.H.
Hudson’s novel The Purple Land which contains “(…) amorous adventures of a perfect
English gentleman in an intensely romantic land” (Hemingway 8). When Cohn tries to
convince Jake to go with him to South America Jake’s response highlights Cohn’s position as
an outsider because Cohn is unable to understand that travelling will not solve anything:
“Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any differene. I’ve tried all that. You
can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that”
(Hemingway 10).
Cohn is a passive character. He is madly in love with Brett, with whom he had a
romantic get-away. He cannot believe that their momentary romance did not mean anything.
Cohn believes that marriage and sex are inextricably linked with love. This becomes clear
when Cohn says to Jake: “I don’t believe she [Brett] would marry anybody she didn’t love”
(Hemingway 34). Cohn is unable to accept the way things turned out, because he holds on to
his romantic values. Cohn follows Brett wherever she goes like a “poor bloody steer”,
according to Mike (Hemingway 123). A steer is a castrated bull. Cohn’s passive attitude
becomes clear in the following passage where Mike compares him with a steer:
‘Don’t you think so?’ Mike said. ‘I would have thought you’d loved being a steer
‘What do you mean, Mike?’
‘They lead such a quiet life. They never say anything and they’re always hanging
about so.’
We were embarrassed. Bill laughed. Robert Cohn was angry. Mike went on talking.
‘I should think you’d love it. You’d never have to say a word. Come on Robert. Do
say something. Don’t just sit there.’ (123)
Finally, Cohn fails to keep up the code of exchange. As mentioned before, he lives
from an allowance he gets from his mother. Furthermore, when Cohn wants to leave the bar
after a row with Mike, there is a “clear implication” that Cohn “rarely buys drinks”
(Donaldson 410): “Don’t go,’ Mike said. ‘Robert Cohn’s about to buy a drink” (Hemingway
124). In conclusion, Cohn fails to observe the code. At the end of the novel Cohn gets in a
fight with Jake, Mike ánd the bullfighter Pedro Romero. The timing of this fight however
reveals Cohn’s holding on to old romantic ideals. This becomes clear when Jake thinks: “He
should have hit somedbody the first time he was insulted, and then gone away. He was so sure
that Brett loved him. He was going to stay, and true love would conquer all” (Hemingway
2.5 Pedro Romero as the true hero?
On the other hand, Pedro Romero, the bullfighter, is seen as the embodiment of the
Hemingway Hero: “[h]e is courageous, a master at his trade or profession, unostentatious with
his skills, utterly masculine, and possesses a native nobility, with each of his gestures perfect,
and his poise always natural” (Bertens 405). Romero is a talented bullfighter who has the
ability to turn the “meaningless violence of modern life into meaningful aesthetic spectacle”
(Forter 28). Furthermore, Romero kept fighting back when Cohn knocked him down.
Romero’s stoic character is shown in the fact that he is able to give a great performance after
the fight with Cohn: “The fight with Cohn had not touched his spirit but his face and his body
hurt” (Hemingway 190). Furthermore, Romero keeps up the standard of exchange. When he
left Brett, or rather after she sent him away, he paid the hotel bill.
2.4 Shift in gender constructions
What does the portrayal of male characters in The Sun Also Rises, as described above,
tell us about Hemingway’s response to the shift in gender constructions in the aftermath of
World War I? Nagel points out that events from Hemingway’s life served as a background for
The Sun Also Rises (Nagel 89). In 1925 Hadley and Hemingway went to Pamplona for the
fiesta with a group of friends. Some characters from the novel show great resemblance with
the people from Hemingway’s group:
Joining them [Hemingway and Hadley] was Lady Duff Twysden, bright and beautiful,
with a boy’s haircut, who was going through a divorce. Her intended, Pat Guthrie, a
Scotsman fond of the vine, was part of the group, as was Harold Loeb, who had been
the first Jewish student at Princeton. Loeb and Duff just spent a romantic interlude at
the coastal resort of St. Jean-de-Luz. (Nagel 89)
As mentioned before, Hemingway is well-known for the stereotypical notion of
masculinity in his writings. It is believed that Hemingway’s “obsessions with male authority
shaped his writing career and life” (Strychacz 246). On the other hand, Sanderson points out
that a “common but mistaken assumption” about Hemingway’s work is “that he automatically
sides with his fictional males” (Sanderson 176). Likewise, Forter argues that recent studies
made clear that for Hemingway manhood was “a fraught and always a fragile aspiration rather
than an accomplished fact” (22). Therefore, according to Forter, Hemmingway can no longer
be seen as the “He-man of American literature” (22).
Vernon points out that “[o]ne historical consensus about World War 1 is the
unprecedented degree to which its soldiers were rendered passive by the new technology of
machine guns, indirect fire artillery, and mustard gas” (43). The passivity of the soldier
described by Vernon is also present in Hemingway’s stories (Onderdonk 61, Sanderson 176):
“(…) [T]he men seem very passive in response to women; they are either indifferent or
insensitive, unwilling or unable to take action or to accept responsibility for the way things
turn out” (Sanderson 176). This passivity can be found in the narrator Jake as well.
Onderdonk describes Jake as a “sensitive, socially passive observer” (62). Jake’s passivity is
shown in his reaction to his “physical defeat” by Cohn (Wylder 55). Unlike Romero, Jake was
unable to get back up after the fight. Furthermore, when Cohn apologizes, Jake decides that
“he does not really care and symbolically wishes to retire from the world into an obviously
symbolic womb” (Wylder 55-56): “I [Jake] did not care. I wanted a hot bath. I wanted a hot
bath in deep water” (Hemingway 168).
How does this image of Hemingway as a macho can be combined with the feminine
features of Jake? The comparison between Cohn and a steer for example is remarkable
because not Cohn but Jake is in fact a steer. At first sight Cohn has more code hero features
than Jake. Cohn is a boxer (he even beats Jake up at the end of the story) and he was able to
sleep with Brett. Despite Cohn’s typical code hero features he is clearly unable to observe the
code (paragraph 2.4). Onderdonk argues that “feminization” is a “universal condition for
men”: Jake’s “feminization ultimately elevates him [Jake] as one of the novel’s only true
men” (66).
Chapter 3: Brett – Victim or Vicious?
In the 1960s Hemingway was “Enemy Number One” for feminist critics (Sanderson
171). Hemingway was accused of being hostile towards women and having a “sexist mindset” (Sanderson 171). On the other hand, Sanderson points out that rereadings have given
“new visibility to Hemingway’s female characters (and their strengths)”. This “new visibility”
revealed Hemingway’s “own sensitivity to gender issues” (Sanderson 171). Sanderson points
out that there are numerous critics who believe that the women in Hemingway’s work serve
another goal than the manifestation of Hemingway’s so called “sexist mindset” (171).
These contradictions in criticism can be found in the evaluation of the character of
Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. Lady Brett is an important character. Nagel believes
that Brett “might be regarded as more interesting than the men” (92). However, there is no
clear consensus on how Brett must be perceived: as a victim or as a “Bitch” (Schmidt 900).
This chapter examines Brett’s role in The Sun Also Rises.
3.1 The New Woman
As mentioned before, in the aftermath of World War I the New Woman emerged. The
New Woman was a sexually liberated “urban creature who was young and tomboyish in
appearance and behavior” (Sanderson 171). The New Woman appeared after World War I but
was in fact a result of developments which had begun before the war: “(…) the postwar
decade actually consolidated the gains that had been achieved by feminists over a period of
almost 100 years” (Martin 67). Martin points out that the glamorous image of “the short
skirted, shimmying, seductive” woman promised “unprecedented freedom for twentiethcentury women in general” (67).
Brett is the embodiment of the New Woman. She is a beautiful, sexually independent
woman with a tomboyish appearance: “Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover
jersey sweater and a tweet skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all
that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with
that wool jersey” (Hemingway 19). This image of Brett shows that she is both masculine and
sexually aggressive in a feminine way: “curves like the hull of a racing yacht”.
Nagel points out that Brett was not the most “radical” of the literary New Woman
figures: “Unlike most of the others, she was married, intends to marry again, and the chief
agony of her life is that she will not be able to wed Jake” (Nagel 494). Is Nagel’s claim that
Brett’s “chief agony” in life is that she will not be able to wed Jake correct (494)? Brett fits
the profile of the New Woman. For example, she is sexually independent. This becomes clear
when Jake asks her if they could live together. Brett answers: “I don’t think so. I’d just
tromper [to be unfaithful] you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it” (Hemingway 48).
Sanderson argues that Brett’s “modern refusal to suppress or overlook her own sexual needs”
reflects “the sexual attitudes and gender conflicts of the time” (Sanderson 178).
Although Brett may come across as (sexually) independent, she is actually a searching
soul and Jake is aware of this as well: “I suppose she only wanted what she couldn’t have”
(Hemingway 27). In other words, if Jake had not been injured the question is whether or not
he could have kept Brett’s attention. Likewise Fulton points out that “In the end, Hemingway
intimates that if Jake could have a sexual relationship with Brett, then he would become just
another of her lovers, a passing distraction doomed to an eventual rejection” (77). Therefore
Brett’s “chief agony” of her life is not that she will not be able to marry Jake (Nagel 494). It
would rather be the (failed) attempt to make sense of the post-war life, as Fulton points out:
“Rather than pursuing some sort of neurotic self-destruction, Brett, like Jake, simply searches
for a way to make meaning of the changed world the war has thrust upon her” (69).
3.2 Brett’s History
In the novel there are several references to Brett’s past. The reader gets to know Brett
as a 34 year old charming woman, who is a heavy drinker. Brett “hasn’t had an absolutely
happy life” (Hemingway 176). She worked as a nurse during the war in a hospital where she
met Jake. Brett’s “true love” died in the war (Hemingway 34). Then she married and divorced
the aristocrate Lord Ashley. He abused Brett: “Finally, when he [Ashley] got really bad, he
used to tell her he’d kill her” (Hemingway 176). Jake points out that she “can’t go anywhere
alone” and that she “never has any money” (Hemingway 89, Hemingway 201). Brett portrays
herself both masculine and feminine. She refers to herself as “chap”, for example: “Can’t you
give a chap an ash-tray?” (Hemingway 50). Brett has an eye-catching appearance: “The
woman standing in the door of the wine shop looked at us as we passed. She called to
someone in the house and three girls came to the window and stared. They were staring at
Brett” (Hemingway 120).
3.3 Brett as a destructive force
Several writers argue that Brett is a “destructive force,” who is able to “dominate” men
(Wilson 238, Schmidt 902). Moreover, Wilson even suggests that Jake’s injury protects him
from Brett: “(…) he is protected against her and is in a sense revenging his own sex through
being unable to do anything for her sexually” (238). Likewise, Schmidt points out that Brett’s
ability to “dominate every man she meets dooms her to a life of unfulfillment” (902). It could
be argued that Brett is a “destructive force” in Jake’s life (Wilson 238). First of all, it could be
stated that Jake’s friendship with Cohn ends as a result of Brett’s romantic get-away with
Cohn. Jake admits that he feels “an impuls to devil” Cohn because he is “blind, unforgivingly
jealous of what had happened to him [Cohn]” (Hemingway 87). Furthermore, Jake looses the
respect of Montoya as a result of his role as a mediator in Brett’s romance with Romero
(Nagel 495). Brett is aware of her position as an attractive woman and the damage she causes.
She sees her impossible love for Jake as the price she has to pay for her behavior:
[Jake] ‘We’d better keep away from each other.’
[Brett] ‘But, darling, I have to see you. It isn’t all that you know.’
[Jake] ‘No, but it always gets to be.’
[Brett] ‘That’s my fault. Don’t we pay for all the things we do, though?’ (…) ‘When I
think of the hell I’ve put chaps through. I’m paying for it all now.’ (23)
This quote shows Brett’s ambiguous position as it comes to money. She never has any money
and she leaves her hotelroom in a disorder “produced only by those who have always had
servants” (Hemingway 211). On the other hand, the fact that Brett believes she is “paying” for
her behavior shows her “awareness of the law of compensation” (Donaldson 413). In the next
paragraph Brett’s ambiguous role is further examined.
3.4 Brett as a victim
On the other hand, other critics argue that Brett does not represent a femme fatale or
Hemingway’s fear of female domination. According to Sanderson, very few “bitches” appear
in Hemingway’s writings: “The few times that Hemingway embodies his fears of powerful
women in a fictive ‘bitch’, he is attacking not only or primarily the woman but rather male
passivity and dependence on women – traits he found in himself” (Sanderson 185).
Furthermore, Martin believes Brett represents the change in the normative conception
of gender constructions: “Brett and Jake emerge as the paradigmatic couple who best
represent the shift in the perception of gender following World War I” (Martin 65). The
reversal of gender roles can be seen in the fact that “men cry an women swear” in the Sun
Also Rises (Martin 75). Likewise, Sanderson argues that Hemingway’s female fictional
characters reflect his responses to “the ongoing reformulations of gender in the culture at
large (…)” (171). Finally, Nagel points out that Brett is remarkable “not for her sexual
liberties but for indomitable will and strength of character that permit her to establish her own
prerogatives, to forge relationships, to attempt to find satisfaction and happiness wherever she
is able” (Nagel 494).
Wagner points out that the misreading of Brett as a bitch is due to the deletion of the
first chapter. The original first chapter of the novel portrays Brett as a “bereaved and betrayed
war victim” (Wagner 242). Brett was a broken woman who was afraid of being alone
(Wagner 243). The deleted chapter ends with the following passage: “Brett was left alone in
Paris. She had never been very good at being alone” (qtd. in Wagner 243).
I will argue that Brett is as much as a war victim as Jake is. Brett never lies about or
tries to cover up her promiscuity. This becomes clear when Mike tells Jake: “Mark you.
Brett’s had affairs with men before. She tells me all about everything” (Hemingway 125).
Furthermore, she leaves Romero because he tried to make her more “womanly” and, more
importantly, because she does not want to lead him on: “I’m thirty-four, you know, I’m not
going to be one of those bitches that ruins children” (Hemingway 213). Fulton convincingly
argues that Brett’s decision to not “lead Romero on” is “an important step in defining a
system of belief for herself” (71). Cohn’s accusation of Brett being a “Circe” is incorrect
(Hemingway 125). She does not “turn men into swine” (Hemingway 125). Cohn’s own
shortcomings turn him into “swine”.
Finally, it could be argued that Brett’s promiscuous attempt to make sense of the
world around her is a failed attempt. At the end of the novel she still believes that she and
Jake “could have had such a damned good time together” (Hemingway 216). Whereas Jake
realizes that Brett “only wanted what she couldn’t have” (Hemingway 27). This becomes
clear when Jake answers Brett: “Yes.’ I said. ‘Isn’t pretty to think so?” (Hemingway 216). In
other words, “promiscuity [is] no solution” (qtd. in Sanderson 178). An idea Hemingway
declared central to The Sun Also Rises (Sanderson 178).
The aim of this paper was to examine Hemingway’s response to the shift in gender
constructions. On the one hand by investigating how and if normative conceptions of
masculinity are challenged in The Sun Also Rises and on the other hand by investigating how
Lady Brett Ashley, representing the “New Woman”, is portrayed (Sanderson 178).
The Sun Also Rises is a post-war novel which shows the struggle of the characters to
make sense of the world from which they feel alienated. The crippeling effect of World War I
is seen in Jake, who is literally emasculated. Jake represents “the problem Hemingway faced
depicting American masculinity after the conclusion of World War I” “(…) the problem of
rendering the Wisterian frontier hero in a post-World War I context of American expatriation,
wherein the robust virility that was once a ‘primary sign of social and moral superiority’ has
been replaced by a wounded impotence” (Tomkins 752). Despite his emasculating wound,
Jake is able to manifest himself as a true Hemingway Hero. He is able to keep up the
standards of conduct: he has a stoic character; does not follow random impulses; takes
responsibility for his actions and he never leaves a bill unpaid. Jake “masters his own
feminization” which “elevates him as one of the novel's only true men” (Onderdonk 66).
Brett is a complex, ambigious figure: she is both feminine and masculine and aware of
the conduct of exchange but unable to keep it up. Brett is as much as a war victim as Jake is.
However, unlike Jake, Brett is not able to find a way to live in a post-war world.
In conclusion, Hemingway challenged normative conceptions of masculinity in order
to restore it.
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