Heroism and Tragedy in The Sun Also Rises

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.”

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, we encounter a series of vignettes that, together, tell the story of a group of expatriate Americans as they roam around postwar Europe. In a certain light, it is a tale of two cities: Paris and Pamplona, two cities of celebration divided only by an Arcadian excursion to the Pyrenees (in England The Sun Also Rises was published as Fiesta, an early working title).


The novel is told in the past-tense as a recollection. Our hero, Jake Barnes, is a former World War I soldier with a terrible injury leaving him (presumably) impotent. The novel is a fading memory from Barnes about his infatuation for Lady Brett Ashley. She is his unrelenting love interest who engages in numerous love affairs with different men in the group including Barnes’s boorish associate, Robert Cohn. Cohn is based on the person of Harold Loeb, a Princeton boxer and wrestler who descended from two upper-crust New York families. Lady Brett Ashley is based on Lady Duff Twysden, a British expat who came to Paris to weather the storm of a nasty divorce (and thus lose her title). Both of whom were friends with Hemingway during his years in France and Spain.

The Sun Also Rises explores questions of courage, virtue, and heroism by using the imagery of boxing, fishing, and, above all, bullfighting. Each sport tests a man’s courage and resilience. The vitalizing competitions are also juxtaposed with impotence, war, and infidelity. With boxing, fishing, and bullfighting there are natural rules of behavior, or codes of virtue, in contrast to the machinery of modern warfare which has eliminated all semblance of natural decorum. As in Don Quixote, the old chivalrous mores of courage and virtue struggle to find their footing in a rapidly changing world that has been traumatized by modern warfare. There are no more knight errants -and maybe they never truly existed except in chivalrous romances. Yet, heroically and perhaps tragically, Jake Barnes trudges onward, limited by his inability to be intimate with a woman and driven by his respect and admiration for the delicate, graceful art of Spanish matadors. Barnes longs for the old chivalric code of Western Civilization, yet the malaise of the world around him bears no respect for the old values. Unlike the Homeric war heroes, Odysseus or Achilles, the modern war hero is wounded and impotent, yet he is also dedicated and brave. He knows that he is living in a New World, but he cannot keep from clinging to the Old World. European culture had been decimated by the Great War, yet natural law still remains and the ‘earth abideth forever.’ Barnes and Lady Brett are both ambiguous -Barnes in his sexuality and Brett in her almost masculine appearance- while Romero the matador is unequivocally unambiguous: he wants a feminine woman.

The San Fermín festival is a week-long celebration in Pamplona, Spain honoring Saint Fermín, a 3rd century Roman who converted to Christianity, becoming the first Bishop of Pamplona. He was martyred by being dragged to death. The most famous part of the festival is the encierro, or the “running of the bulls” which takes place through the city center each morning, but other traditions include bullfighting and the ‘giant heads’ parade. The festival takes place in early July each year.

Hemingway popularized this festival. He first wrote about it when he attended the festival in 1929, and he visited many more times until 1959.

The bullfighting only begins in the second part of the novel (the novel is divided into three books) when Barnes recounts the groups’ experiences at the San Fermín festival in Pamplona, Spain. Again and again, he praises the ‘grace under pressure’ exhibited by the bullfighters as they face their own death, only narrowly surviving. Barnes sees this activity as a kind of ancient manly virtue that has somehow survived into the modern age, despite the vulgar and repulsive advent of new technologies that prevent men from displaying courage. One is reminded of the scene in Homer’s Iliad in which Hector and Achilles, mortal enemies, exchange armor with one another before doing battle as a demonstration of honor. The Timocratic roots of high society are ever-present in Jake Barnes’s mind as he observes the careful, calculating dance of the bullfighter. Devoid of modern conveniences, the bullfighter stares down the wild, chaos of nature -the untamed, pre-civil creature may strike at any time if the bullfighter is not careful.

Likewise, as a metaphor, each of the men in the American expatriate group represent bullfighters, each needing to display his qualities of honor and virtue. Robert Cohn, the man for whom the opening sentence and chapter are dedicated (“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton”) behaves the most cowardly. He is the least in control of his temperament, like a bull needing to be tamed, and Jake Barnes regularly makes note of it. Together, all of the expats pursue Lady Ashley, however Jake Barnes does not actively pursue her. Instead he waits for her to come to him, preferring to dangle his red garment and wait for her charge. However, she only comes to Barnes when she is broken. While Barnes may be able to win her heart, he can never win her body. His victory is incomplete.

Jake Barnes is a modern tragic hero with an ancient disposition for classical virtue. He is plagued by the apparent meaningless of modern life -a life not governed by old narratives of faith and human greatness in battle. The Sun Also Rises is like a Sisyphean cycle -it opens as Barnes, Lady Brett, and others are roaming around Paris in the evening, seemingly without greater purpose, and the novel closes in a similar fashion – Barnes picks up Lady Brett from her escapade of a failed affair with the matador. Barnes and Lady Brett ride off in a taxi together as the sun is setting. Barnes is with the woman he loves, but can never have her.

“La vara rota” by Arturo Michelena (1892)

Appropriately, the title of the novel alludes to the King James translation of the book of Ecclesiastes -popularly thought to be King Solomon’s Heraclitean despair after the loss of his son. Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most Epicurean book of the Old Testament, explores the tragic and apparent nihilism that haunts the philosophers, as they contemplate the nature of life. It is the same fatalistic sentiment echoed by certain Shakespearean characters. By alluding to Ecclesiastes in the title of the book, Hemingway chooses to highlight the rising sun, not the setting sun. Perhaps the novel is not a work of despair, but rather a work of redemption -a kind of Nietzschean redemption of joy through suffering.

“‘Oh, Jake,’ Brett said, ‘we could have had such a damned good time together.’ Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’”

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner; Hemingway Library ed. edition, February 16, 2016.

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