Ernest Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises has received immense critical attention, ever since its arrival on the literary scene. While the novel has met with its fair share of harsh, dismissive criticism, as those of the early readers: "Here is a book which, like its characters, begins nowhere and ends in nothing"; "a most unpleasant book"; "raw satire"; "entirely out of focus”1 and even of Hemingway’s mother, who reflected upon the characters as "utterly degraded people" and that the novel might better have never been written2, The Sun Also Rises has invited applaud and appreciative critical reviews too. One of the most controversial works in Hemingway’s canon of works, The Sun Also Rises continues to garner attention, even close to ninety years post its publication. Needless to emphasise, the work has gravitated the various thematic strands of the post-war chaos, the modern human condition, issues of gender and sexuality coupled with a compelling surety of purpose and an innate ingenuity in the craft of writing fiction, honed and polished over a four-year apprenticeship with literary geniuses. The work, however, has received a gargantuan share of excited critical commentary on a singular characteristic, namely ‘style.’ This excitement hasn’t seemed to ebb over the years. There have been seemingly heated and overheated debates about Hemingway’s "extremely delicate"3 prose and "rather subtle and complicated"4 style of writing and whether it seems to engulf his thematic concerns whole or on the contrary, strengthen and stimulate them to leap off the ‘words on the page.’ This paper seeks to take issue with the very same concern and proposes to launch into a study of Hemingway’s style in The Sun Also Rises and examine the interrelationship between style and content. Whilst delineating the aforementioned interrelationship, it means to establish its essential nature- symbiotic or antagonistic, and delve deeper into the processes vis-à-vis which such a relationship between the two elements (style & content) in the text are evinced.
The first feature that comes to mind on an investigative journey, as the one proposed, is the narrative focus. Unlike the third person narratives of Hemingway’s short stories, The Sun Also Rises is a shift away from Hemingway’s short story narrative technique to a deployment of the first person narrator. In giving the readers Jake, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, and making him the mouthpiece who self-proclaims his inconsistency and unreliability or disavows any tall-standing claim to objectivity, Hemingway carves his first stroke of brilliance in providing readers with a warning- that of being wary of accepting Jake Barnes’ version of events:
I did not want to tell this story in the first person but I find that I must. I wanted to stay well outside of the story so that I would not be touched by it in any way and handle all the people in it with that irony and pity that are so essential to good writing. I even thought I might be amused by all the things that are going to happen to Lady Brett Ashley and Mr.Robert Cohn and Michael Campbell Esq. and Mr.Jake Barnes. But I made the unfortunate mistake, for a writer, of first having been Mr.Jake Barnes. So it is not going to be splendid and cool and detached after all. "What a pity"! as Brett used to say.
In doing so, Hemingway cleverly denounces any internalized perspectives of the whites, the ones considered ‘normative’ and uses the dominant discourse, draped in Jake’s language to subvert the same. An exercise, as this one, is an ingenious use of irony and indirect discourse that achieves the status of a dazzling token of literary efficacy. This bears testament to the fact that this characteristic of Hemingway’s style serves to strengthen and reinforce the purport of the novel’s emphasis on the limitations of a worldview and significantly so. However, the deployment of irony, as an integral part of Hemingway’s style, shall be picked for analysis later, in the course of the paper. Also, critics have noted Jake Barnes’ narrative as one that is akin to The Waste Land and is symbolic of the sterility of life in the modern world. Whether or no such a reading befits the test of critical vantage points- either from that of literary history or that of literary accuracy, it surely does tie up with reverberating themes in the novel. The disillusionment and disenchantment with the war, the modern human condition and the meaningless, sterile existence it signifies, the split between the ‘moi’ and the ‘je’- the self and the other, mirrored both within Jake and between Jake and Brett, the semi-autobiographical element in the experential learning embedded in Hemingway’s stint with the expatriates and the pursuit of new values in the face of a decadent, almost withering and redundant social and moral order are some of the themes which lurk and pop to the surface vis-à-vis Jake’s narrative. It is significant to note, in this context, that Jake Barnes’ unreliability as a narrator and clouded objectivity serves to reinforce and reemphasise the myriad significations and plurality of meaning/s in the novel. By means of a series of juxtapositions, omissions, repetitions, eclipsing, understatements and irony, Jake’s narrative achieves this herculean feat of collating the numerous strands of an enormously rich work as The Sun Also Rises. It is interesting to note how Hemingway deploys what Genette calls “a scheme of narrative focus” in that Jakes uses a series of focalised and non-focalised narratives, in keeping with Hemingway’s ‘iceberg theory’ and the occasional direct address to the reader respectively, to attain a dramatic presentation of events and perfect his intricate exercise of embroidering content and style onto the fabric of his work to achieve a united whole. It is, in this sense, that the whole story contributes to the meaning.
It would be inappropriate, however, to attribute the onus entirely to the narrative and narrator’s credo. The effect is due largely to the impeccable characterization, besides the narrative style and technique. While Jake inevitably stands for the modern man prototype, a man, who in the words of Phillip Young, "has been complicated and wounded by what he has seen, done, and been through,” Brett has garnered intense critical attention for her role as the “new woman archetype.” Jake, says James Colvert, "wipes cleanthe slate of his moral consciousness in order to record only those values which he discovers through personal experience" and indulges in the "pursuit of new values [which] is the primary activity of all Hemingway's heroes." Brett, on the other hand, is the beautiful “alcoholic aristocrat” and a goddess who “turns men into swine” and the hinge that supports the structure of the novel. Harold Bloom’s assertion “Whose novel is it anyway? Take Brett out of it, and vitality would depart” is indicatory of the same. It is impossible to ignore the fact that it is through Brett’s immaculate characterization and the dynamics that she forges into the rubric of the novel vis-à-vis her relationship with the ‘men’ in the novel, including Jake, that the deeper pyscho-sexual dimensions embedded in the text are played out. It is through Jake that the Freudian and Lacanian elements in the novel are brought to the fore and through Jake and Brett’s impossible, improbable love that the physical and mental trauma unleashed by war is foregrounded. Mark Spilka inspects this prevalent tenor in his 1958 essay "The Death of Love," in which he interprets the novel as an allegory in which "Jake Barnes and Lady Ashley are two lovers desexed by the war.” Whilst Brett and her role in the novel as a central character can be interrogated and firmly established each time endlessly, also with an intense reconnoitre of her symbolic significance in the text and the ‘new values’ she espouses, the paper at hand shall only serve to reiterate her centrality and primal importance and how that serves to re-enact the dramatic conflict in the novel, bringing Hemingway’s intended concerns to the stage. Linda Patterson Miller, writes, in this context:
Since the publication of The Sun Also Rises in 1926, readers and critics have derogated Brett Ashley as Hemingway’s ultimate bitch. Whether labelling her a drunkard, a nymphomaniac or a modern-day Circe who turns men into swine, these interpretations ignore the complexity of Brett’s character and the intricate role she plays in the novel.
The same stands true for Cohn in the novel. He is an important character, as he stands in stark contrast to the two central characters and serves as a foil, in his belief in the validity of the notion of ‘romantic love.’ Also, he is the site of vituperative attack at the beginning of the novel, albeit a misguided one, and the reader learns by and by, that he is the one who’d ultimately lend the agency for Jake’s cathartic release of emotions. It is here that Hemingway’s incorporation of well-writ dialogue and ingenious and immaculate characterization, with a sharp eye for detail coalesce to reinforce his thematic concerns. This is another triumph for the style-content relationship in the text.
Another important feature, and oft-considered banal, in its capacity of being an over-used site of criticism in Hemingway, is the use of irony. On this journey, the investigation would now subject to exhaustive scrutiny the linguistic and interrelational properties of irony en route, and serve to reinforce how the use of this singular element of style lends the novel its didtinct force and thrust of purpose and meaning. Irony, within the structure of the novel, is inseparable from the difficulties of discrete identity, knowledge and self-expression. Ironic utterances in the text mate with the partial nature of the subjects who voice those utterances, thereby constituting an intersubjectivity that derides the primacy and efficacy of personal knowledge. Irony propounds and bolsters the idea of integrative knowledge, defined and redefined vis-à-vis varied and differing stances and perspectives, that serve as the requisite culvert to establishing the plurification of meanings embedded in the text. However, irony in Hemingway, also serves to distance the reader from sharing in a perspective that a character offers (as already mentioned at the outset). Irony creates, in Linda Hutcheon’s words, “a semantically complex process of relating, differentiating and combining said and unsaid meanings—doing so with some evaluative edge.” This is evinced in the text at multiple instances, as in the exchange between Brett and Jake, when they flee from Pamplona:
As we came out the door I saw Cohn walk out from under the arcade.
“He was there,” Brett said.
“He can’t be away from you.”
“I’m not sorry for him. I hate him, myself.”
“I hate him, too,” she shivered. “I hate his damned suffering.”
It is here, that the assimilative and disjunctive properties of irony are foregrounded. The reader can see for himself the deluded confidence and self-knowledge of Brett and Jake and can see their unconscious appropriation of themselves as victims of their “cultivated aloofness.” Also, in Jake’s narration and use of irony, as mentioned at the outset, time is relegated to an unknown. There is no indication of change, as narrated, in himself or others or in their intersubjective interactions and as such, his past thoughts are muddled with a narration of present events in a seamless continuum. This stylistic feature of subjecting the narration to an atemporal schema/framework makes the work a sort of refractive site for deriding any fundamental, univocal reading and elevating its status as a brilliant document on life, even if one didn’t know “what it was all about.”
Thus, one finds in Hemingway’s simple prose a hybrid breed of stylised content or vice versa, wherein each element serves to reinforce the significance of the other and strengthen its place in the structure of the whole edifice that is The Sun Also Rises.
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