Heroism and Tragedy in The Sun Also Rises

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.

The novel is told in the past-tense, a recollection by the hero, Jake Barnes. He is a former World War I soldier who had received a terrible injury leaving him (presumably) impotent. The novel is a fading memory from Barnes about his infatuation for Lady Brett Ashley, his unrelenting love interest, who has numerous love affairs with different men in the group including his associate, Robert Cohn, a man who frequently behaves boorishly.

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 a 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 of Spain. He 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, like Odysseus or Achilles, the modern war hero is wounded and impotent, yet is also dedicated and brave.

The bull fighting 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 Fermin 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 the 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 animal may strike at any time if the bullfighter is not careful.

Likewise, as a metaphor, each of the men in the American expat group represent bullfighters, needing to display the 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 ex-patriot men are in pursuit of 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.

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. In total, the novel 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 a bullfighter. 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.

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, the most Epicurean book of the Old Testament, explores the tragic and apparent nihilism that haunts the philosophers, as they contemplate the unending meaningless of life. It is the same fatalistic sentiment echoed throughout the works of Shakespeare. 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 stoic suffering, despite the bleak picture of modern life.

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