Heroism and Tragedy in The Sun Also Rises

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, we encounter a series of vignettes that tell a story of a group of expatriate Americans as they roam around postwar Europe.

The novel is told as a past recollection of Jake Barnes, a former soldier in World War I who received a terrible injury leaving him (presumably) impotent. The novel is a kind of fading memory of Barnes’s as Lady Brett Ashley, his unrelenting love interest, has numerous affairs with different men in the group including his associate, Robert Cohn, who behaves poorly.

Hemingway explores questions of courage, virtue, and heroism by using imagery of boxing, fishing, and bull fighting -each juxtaposed with impotence, war, and infidelity. As in Don Quixote, the old chivalric mores of courage and virtue struggle to find their footing in rapidly changing world. 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 bull fighters.

The bull fighting only begins in the second part of the novel (the novel is divided into three books) as Barnes recounts the groups’ experiences at the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, Spain. Again and again, he praises the grace under pressure exhibited by the bullfighters as they narrowly face their own death, he 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 the Iliad in which Hector and Achilles, mortal enemies, exchange armor with one another before doing battle, as a showcase of honor to see who will be the most excellent man between the two of them. Similarly, each of the men in the expat group are like a series bullfighters, needing to display 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, and Jake Barnes regularly makes note of it. Together, all of them are in pursuit of Lady Ashley, however Jake Barnes does not actively pursue her. Instead he waits for her to come to him.

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 in the gods and human greatness in battle. The novel opens as he and Lady Brett and others are roaming around Paris in the evening and it closes as he goes to pick up Lady Brett from a failed affair with a bullfighter and they ride off in a taxi as the sun is setting.

Appropriately, the title of the novel alludes to the King James translation of the book of Ecclesiastes -thought to be King Solomon’s Heraclitean despair after the loss of his son. Ecclesiastes, the most Epicurean book of the Old Testament, explores the tragic and apparent nihilism that haunts philosophers. One can recall numerous Shakespearean passages that demonstrate the same kind of thinking that once someone is exposed to the philosophic art of inquiry, he runs the risk of embracing fatalism, provided that he is not courageous and virtuous in his endeavor. In King Solomon’s poem, Hemingway chose 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 stoic suffering, despite painting a bleak picture of modern life.

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