Hemingway’s classic The Sun Also Rises shows us the timelessness of twenty-somethings drinking and partying while trying to figure their lives out
One of the most famous epigraphs in history comes before Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel The Sun Also Rises: “You are all a lost generation.” It became the monicker for those who fought in World War I and fled to Europe in the 1920s – the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways of the time. One of Hemingway’s literary mentors Gertrude Stein uttered the now famous phrase to him in conversation in her studio apartment in Paris.
“That’s what you all are,” she said to him. “All of you young people who have served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
Hemingway asked why that is.
“You have no respect for anything,” she replied. “You drink yourselves to death.”
“Have you ever seen me drunk?” he asked.
“No, but your friends are drunk,” she said.
“I’ve been drunk,” he said. “But I don’t come here drunk.”
“Don’t argue with me Hemingway,” she said. “It does no good at all.”
So there you have it. Because they lived through a catastrophic global conflict, traveled outside of the United States for leisure, and occasionally drank in excess, they were considered lost causes by their aging predecessors, who didn’t care to elaborate on their generalizations. This sound familiar? After almost a century of generations being declared lost, great, booming, cynical, and narcissistic, we still find ourselves, like Hemingway, defending our own against potshots. It’s a timeless gripe that will live longer than plastic. There’s nothing inherently new about it, but Hemingway was among the first to thumb his nose at his elders so unapologetically, carrying literature forward without them. And he did so with The Sun Also Rises.
Jake Barnes is an American newspaperman living in Paris. He fought in World War I – simply known then as “the war” – and suffered an undisclosed injury from it. He has literary friends, also expatriates – mainly Robert Cohn, a middleweight boxing champion from Princeton. Together Jake and his compatriots wander through the nightlife of Paris drunk and ultimately bored with their exploits. Enter Lady Brett Ashley, a British aristocratic flapper girl in between marriages, who enjoys occasional flaky romances with Jake. She enchants most men around her with her flamboyant personality that borders on reckless. Cohn, a deeply insecure writer of moderate success, falls for Brett one night out and from there the drama unfolds. Jake, Brett, Cohn, and others travel to Pamplona, Spain for the bullfights of the San Fermín Festival and each of their jaded viewpoints of life and love crash into one another.
It would be all to easy to dismiss The Sun Also Rises – and Hemingway for that matter – as relics of an era that’s nearly a century in the past, but there is a fundamental philosophy in the story that transcends eras, generational trends, and progressiveness: that of young twenty-somethings trying to make sense of the mess their lives have become. They stay out late, drink, have promiscuous sex, and take trips together to do it again in different cities. They engage in affairs more out of boredom than romance. “You’re getting damned romantic,” Brett tells Jake when she seems him out with a random girl he had just met. “No, bored,” he replies. They harbor secret loves for each other, careful not to reveal them too hastily. Why? They couldn’t tell you and would likely keep it to themselves if they could. They lived through cataclysmic changes and found unorthodox ways, at least unorthodox for the time, to cope.
Some were former soldiers and others citizens adapting to the societal fallout of World War I – it was the beginning of PTSD symptoms being realized, but never fully identified, so it continued on unaddressed. “We would probably have gone on and discussed the war and agreed that it was in reality a calamity for civilization, and perhaps would have been better avoided,” says Jake. “I was bored enough.” As the back of the paperback edition says: “It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions.” It’s a novel set in the 1920s with brash ideals of youth that can apply seamlessly to 2018, or any era in between.
The idea of the great American novel (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Catcher in the Rye just to name a few) is that it deals with a generation, or rather a singular character who is a representative of their generation, in the moments they lose their innocence, finding their lives irreversibly changed. They lose faith in structures and myths that comforted them through their adolescence: religion, government, elders’ influence, and conformity. Individualistic ambitions begin to blossom, butting heads with these more traditional, communal values. The Sun Also Rises certainly fits into this mold with characters who haphazardly spend their time and money being drunk rather than invest in a more stable future. “How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways: gradually then suddenly.”
But one thing that sets The Sun Also Rises apart is when you meet these characters, their innocence is already gone – in the traditional sense that is. You don’t see the change happen, it’s already set in. And they often choose to not speak of their angst, be it with religion, love, or the war. They talk around these taboos plentiful but rarely head on. These issues of their youth hover above them throughout the novel, in the cafes, bars, restaurants, taxicabs, and bullfights, but the characters stay drunk and busy enough to avoid them. Even in Jake’s private moments, we learn only in short bursts how much these things weigh on his mind, drunk and sober. Hemingway cleverly orchestrates his characters’ conversations and monologues this way with his famous “iceberg theory,” where majority of the story’s deeper meaning cannot be found on the surface, but simmers just below.
Another theme that sets The Sun Also Rises apart – one that is most associated with Hemingway – is bullfighting. A sort of savage pageantry he learned of through Gertrude Stein, bullfighting became Hemingway’s favorite sport to follow. He became what is referred to as an aficionado, often revering bullfighters and their unparalleled bravery outside of warfare. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s surrogate in The Sun Also Rises, is also an aficionado, purchasing all of his friends’ tickets for the bullfights and showing Brett the intimacy between the bull and the bullfighter. Early in the novel, Cohn laments to Jake: “I can’t stand to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.” Jake replies: “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except for bullfighters.” Having been a veteran of World War I himself, Hemingway found in bullfighting a spectacle whose elements resemble closely with war – a dance of life and death, only he found more elegance with bullfighting. Bullfighters embrace death every time they step into the ring to face the bull with a purified grace Hemingway felt he couldn’t find elsewhere. That seemingly incorruptible purity is exemplified by the fictional Pedro Romero, the nineteen-year-old bullfighter performing in Pamplona. A fellow aficionado warns Jake to not let Pedro, a prodigy, fraternize too much with his American friends for fear that their careless drinking will affect his bullfighting career. Though we don’t witness Jake or Brett losing their innocence, we do witness the tragic coming of age of Pedro, the purest character in the novel.
The Sun Also Rises is famously based on Hemingway’s 1925 trip to Pamplona with an entourage of his real life cohorts. Lady Brett Ashley is based off Lady Duff Twysden; Robert Cohn is based off Hemingway’s literary friend at the time, Harold Loeb; and Brett’s fiance Mike Campbell is based off Duff’s lover Pat Guthrie. A real life love triangle played out between Duff, Loeb, and Guthrie in Pamplona which led to several confrontations between the three, some even ending in black eyes. Hemingway – who at the time was already a prominent short story writer but still hadn’t written his first novel – took note of the drama unfolding before him as inspiration for a potential story. In the weeks that followed the 1925 fiesta, he had written the first draft of what would become The Sun Also Rises.
To mention Hemingway’s debut novel is to compare it another novel at the time that also chronicled that generation of expats: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote of their contemporaries’ drunken exploits in their post-Great War world. But what sets The Sun Also Rises apart from The Great Gatsby, which was published only a year before, is the writing style. Fitzgerald’s prose was more lyrical, more consistent with old English literature with its elaborate phrasings. Hemingway famously stripped away colorful adjectives and fanciful descriptions with leaner, more sparing prose – more minimalist and ninety percent below the surface. Both wrote stories of this new generation but only Hemingway wrote it in the style of the new generation.
Why you should read this book: If you had to narrow your Hemingway selection down to only one book, this is one to read. Hemingway captured what has proven to be a timeless philosophy, one where young people act out in response to a world drastically changing around them. It’s not just us millennials who disappoint their overly judgmental elders – everyone disappointed everyone. It’s refreshing to read the struggle of youth was as common ninety-plus years ago as it is now; some situations in the novel involving spurned lovers and their reactions will feel scarily familiar. The Sun Also Rises made the San Fermín Festival and the running of the bulls world-famous (it was virtually unknown outside of Spain until Hemingway wrote about it.) There is the wild pandemonium of the weeklong fiesta and the quieter moments afterward that help put these characters’ actions into perspective. If you’ve ever partied with friends – some of whom you’ve slept with and whom have slept with other friends – and became helplessly entangled in the drama of it all, riddled with guilt and shame once the hangover sets in, The Sun Also Rises is the book for you. It is the bible of drunken, misguided youth. Read it once every summer.
Postscript: If you want to read more about The Sun Also Rises and its lasting legacy in literature and culture, read Everyone Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume. It goes into rich detail about the writing of the novel, the real life story behind the now infamous 1925 trip to Pamplona, and the literary themes that may go over your head. I know plenty went over mine. A must-read if you want to learn more about Hemingway.