Ernest Hemingway, the author of The Sun Also Rises, was part of a generation of writers who made their mark on the literary scene beginning in the 1920’s. The end of the Great War had significant effects on the attitudes of many artists, who felt that the values under which they had been raised no longer mattered, because of the sheer horror of the war. The horrific weapons that were used for the first time during this war, such as mustard gas, and the size of the war, which dragged most of the West’s major powers into conflict, were without historical precedent; as a result, the expatriate generation headed to Europe after the war ended wanted nothing more than to live for today, partying hard and living without any real commitments (“Lost Generation”). Alcohol was a major factor in the lives of the writers in this generation, both as something they drank heavily themselves, and as a motif in much of their writing. “Babylon Revisited,” a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, another writer in this group, details the ways in which alcohol has robbed the protagonist, Charlie Wales, of his wife and daughter (Fitzgerald). Fitzgerald himself suffered from alcoholism; his heavy drinking habit wreaked havoc on his own health (“F. Scott Fitzgerald). This chaotic lifestyle motivated the writer Gertrude Stein to tell Hemingway, “’You are all a lost generation’” (“Lost Generation”). It was this remark that Hemingway made the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises. In the novel, drinking is not only a social ritual but also a form of medication that the main characters use to make themselves feel better, even if only a short time, as the forgetfulness that comes with intoxication allows one to move through a day without emotional pain – even though the pain will return. It serves as a mirror for the expatriate impulse: just as the expatriates fled the United States, thinking that leaving would somehow absolve them of membership in modern society, so they drink heavily, thinking that drinking will somehow remove them from the prison of the self. Alcohol is just another doomed route for escape.
The character of Brett Ashley provides one of the more intriguing portrayals of the role of alcohol as a form of self-medication in The Sun Also Rises. In her own time, Brett was viewed as having no class because of her promiscuity; after all, she is married to Lord Ashley and engaged to Mike Campbell, all the while having other affairs. Nevertheless, Jake finds her to be fascinating, in her refusal to be tamed. As critic Lorie Fulton has noted, “Brett is one of Hemingway’s richest female characters; her personality gradually emerges as an intriguing mix of femininity and masculinity, strength and vulnerability, morality and dissolution” (61). As with many of Hemingway’s characters, Brett wanders back and forth across the hazy line between genders. Even her name has a masculine cant; when we first see her in the novel, she has a man’s hat and shirt on. The way in which she conducts her relationships and travels around on her own also would have been more acceptable for a man. However, her promiscuity and use of alcohol both serve as attempts to fill a void in her life – namely, the lack of companionship that she feels in her marriage. She claims that Lord Ashley is her second great love; however, her first love had been a casualty in the Great War, having died of dysentery. The two had planned to start a life together, with a family, after he came back from the conflict; in her grief, she has fallen into a relationship with a man who is controlling her, even keeping her child away from her. As critic Charles Nolan notes, “Brett is this way because of the things that have happened to her and because of what she has seen[w]hen [her husband] returned from the war badly damaged, he made Brett sleep on the floor with him because he could not sleep in a bed. He also kept a loaded pistol with him when he retired for the night and sometimes threatened to kill her with it” (111). This abuse breaks her as a person; her attempts to gain a divorce have cost her a relationship with her daughter. As a result, she forms a complicated relationship with the other men in her life – and with alcohol. Her interactions with Jake and the other men in the novel involve helping them deal with difficulties in their lives. This might seem like a nurturing role, but it also allows her to use the men for her own purposes – in this case, companionship. Her own husband, Lord Ashley, needs her – but to fulfill a submissive role. With the other men in her life, she can be more of a nurturer, which gives her control over the situation. However, these interactions do not give her enough satisfaction to fill the hole in her life, and so she turns to alcohol. As a result, she shows up at Jake’s house at 4:30 A.M., completely drunk, looking for some companionship. Despite the ostensible independence of her way of life, she is actually dependent on the affection and companionship that others show her; even though she is proud to travel by herself, within the social circle, she refuses to go anywhere without someone else. Turning to alcohol was one way for her to deal with her pain; the fact that she shows up at Jake’s nonetheless indicates that the alcohol did not effectively bring her pain to an end. The combination of sex and alcohol is the strategy that Brett has developed to get through life. Clearly, it is not a pleasant way to live.
Brett is by no means the only character who has a difficult relationship with alcohol. Most of Jake’s social circle in The Sun Also Rises has an alcohol problem. It does not matter whether it is day or night; they drink – and they drink too much. When Mike Campbell drinks, he turns into a “nasty, violent man” (Shen, 1731). He is verbally abusive toward Brett – who, ironically, has agreed to marry Mike despite her ongoing marriage with Lord Ashley. It is clear that part of Brett’s difficulties includes accepting abusive relationships. However, it is not just the specific instances of Mike, Brett and others drinking to excess that makes booze such a strong motif in the book; instead, it is the general effect that drunkenness has on the overall mood of life in the social circle. All of the characters face a significant amount of emotional and mental turmoil, and they turn to alcohol for solace. Ironically, being drunk only makes the turmoil worse for all of them. This leads – not just for Brett, but for other characters in the book – to a high degree of sexual dissolution. After all, sex takes two partners, and it is also the sense of despair that leads Jake, and Cohn, and others to drink – and to go to bed with Brett (Shen).
Alcohol also plays an important role in the formation of the “code hero” within Hemingway’s works (Rumana and Islam). One of the traits of this character is the physical wound. Jake Barnes has this wound, having been left impotent by an injury during the Great War; as a victim, he now lives in Paris, alone. He is now allowed to feel the passions of love but is kept from being able to consummate that love physically. Over time, though, this physical wound becomes an emotional wound, as this inability to please any lovers makes him, ultimately, unable to please himself. He suffers this injury stoically, though – also typically of the code hero. As he says to Brett, “Nobody ever knows anything” (Hemingway, 23). This has two different levels of meaning: first, he keeps his impotence secret from those around him. Second, though, there is no one around him with whom he can share his secret fully – until Brett. He tries several strategies to get rid of his pain, such as traveling around Europe, finding joy in each new exotic locale. Drinking, of course, is another way for him to assuage his pain. Even though he takes part in the typical “code hero” activities such as playing and watching sports, which boost his sense of masculinity and help, in part, to restore his pride, it is not enough. He still stands apart from true engagement in life. In Pamplona, he serves as a mediator when his friends argue; rather than being drawn in, he is able to stand apart – this is an aspect of the “code hero” while also showing his slight withdrawal from the world.
When Jake takes Brett to Romero, he can sense the awfulness of his deed, and the sense of loss is overpowering. However, he is still stoic – as the code hero should be (Rumana and Islam). Romero, who eventually does what Jake cannot by having sex with Brett, may fulfill the aesthetic role of the code hero more effectively, it is hard to argue that Jake is anything less than a hero, in terms of the emotional absorption he accomplishes, and the ethical life that he lives.
Interestingly, there are many parallels in the use of alcohol between the events of The Sun Also Rises and the life of Ernest Hemingway himself. The time that Hemingway and his friends spent during a trip to Pamplona served as the inspiration for the events of the novel. The character Brett is based on one of Hemingway’s friends, Duff Twysden, who also wore a man’s hat; she also spent some time alone, having a week of sex with someone in the group (Harold Loeb) without telling anyone else in the group about it (Shen). Hemingway does notice Loeb’s penchant for following Duff around like an abandoned puppy, and so he portrays Cohn in much the same way in the novel, in the way that he follows around after Brett. Mike Campbell repeatedly taunts Cohn, telling him that no one in the group wants him around; in much the same way, Hemingway’s friend Guthrie tells Loeb that he should leave the group as well (Shen).
One of the most tragic effects that alcohol consumption has on the characters in The Sun Also Rises is the inability that the characters have to show true, unselfish affection. When Brett is relating with the men in her life, she is either acting as a doormat, as with Lord Ashley and Mike Campbell, or using them to fill her need as a nurturer, as with Cohn and Jake. She cannot authentically interact in a mutual way with anyone, because of the damage that has been done to her through the death of her first husband in the Great War. Alcohol is just a bandage that she uses to cover the wounds of her soul; unfortunately, all it does is keep her from healing in the most important ways. Instead, she simply makes the same cycle of mistakes, over and over again. It is Jake’s last response to her (“’Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”) (Hemingway 242) that shows the entire façade that alcohol, and the rest of her distractions, have created for her.
Ultimately, the title of this novel comes from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. It comes from a passage questioning the value of the labor that a man does his entire life; even though generations come and go, the earth remains. “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose” (Dexter). The significance of the title, then, is that all of the noise and clamor that man makes during his time on the earth matters very little when seen from a longer perspective; while the workings of our lives seem important to us at the time, from a longer view, they ultimately matter nothing. Of course, Charlie Wales reminds us of this too, in his musings at the end of “Babylon Revisited,” with most of his old drinking friends gone, and the rest pitiful and silly, in the perspective of life. Jake sees this ridiculousness as well; meanwhile, the sun continues on its inexorable path.
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