A Generation Disillusioned

A household name in the world of literature is Ernest Hemingway. The American writer has a reputation that precedes his name. His oeuvre is one of the most studied and includes notable classics such as Green Hills of Africa, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. His works have earned him accolades across the world, among them the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. In its citation, the Nobel Committee lauded him “for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” The Old Man and the Sea was certainly the pinnacle of his literary career as it also earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Apart from his writings, Hemingway was also renowned for his travels and his personal life; he was among the most documented modern literary figure.

While Hemingway’s writing talents were already palpable when he was in high school, Hemingway’s path to a successful literary career, however, took the more scenic route. After all, success is rarely immediate nor is it always straightforward. He ditched a college education and a sheltered life to move to a different city and start working as a journalist. When the First World War broke out, he tried to enlist but was rejected due to an eye defect. He was, nonetheless, able to join the war as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross but found himself getting injured at the frontline. This unfortunate event would be the catalyst for yet another seminal change in his life as it paved the way for his renewed vigor in writing. With the encouragement of fellow American writers living in Paris where Hemingway worked as a correspondent, Hemingway worked on his non-journalism writing. In 1925, he made his first big step toward a literary career with the publication of his first major book, In Our Time, a collection of stories.

Hemingway made another breakthrough in 1926 when his first novel, The Sun Also Rises was published. Set in Paris shortly after the end of the First World War, Hemingway’s debut novel charted the story of what would eventually be called the Lost Generation. The novel’s primary voice and main character was Jake Barnes, an American veteran of the First World War. Unfortunately, while fighting at the frontline he suffered a major injury that left him unable to have sex and rendered him impotent. Following the end of the war, he worked as a journalist and moved to Paris where he lived next to his college friend and fellow journalist, Robert Cohn. Unlike Jake, Robert is not a war veteran and was born into an affluent Jewish family.  

“In the morning it was raining. A fog had come over the mountains from the sea. You could not see the tops of the mountains. The plateau was dull and gloomy, and the shapes of the trees and the houses were changed. I walke out beyond the town to look at the weather. The bad weather was coming over the mountains from the sea.”

~ Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

The crux of the tension in the novel was Jake’s relationship with Lady Brett Ashley. Divorced twice, Brett was a socialite, the epitome of a femme fatale, who moved from London to Paris. She was also engaged to Mike Campbell, another war veteran. Brett and Jake first met during the war when Brett volunteered as a war nurse and Jake was recuperating from his injuries. They were also former lovers; she was the love of his life. The reason for their falling out was never directly mentioned but it was implied that she could not commit to the relationship because of his impotence and her unwillingness to give up sex. Despite their past, Jake and Ashley, have remained good friends. The tension, however, escalated when Robert confessed to Jake his romantic interest in Ashley. He tried to issue a caveat but it was for naught. How will these unexpected developments affect the relationship among the characters?

Jake, Brett, and Robert are joined by an eclectic cast of characters, most of them American expatriates who moved to Paris. Most of these characters were inspired by real people who Hemingway encountered; The Sun Also Rises is a work of roman à clef. It was the roaring twenties and the First World War (1914-1918) ended. The spirits were running high across the world as peace was finally restored. Paris, meanwhile, has become a melting pot of cultures, where American expatriates built their own café society. Most of these expatriates were American writers who were disappointed by the US government’s impositions that led to limitations on artistic expression. Europe, particularly Paris, has become a safe haven for those who seek artistic freedom.

But despite the liberties that came along with the end of the war, the war still loomed largely. Its ugly head kept manifesting in different forms, mainly in the so-called Lost Generation. The lifestyle of the Lost Generation was captured vividly in the first part of the narrative; the book was divided into three parts. It was a generation comprised of young men and women who came of age during and shortly after the First World War. Attributed to Gertrude Stein, the term also pertained to American writers and other artists who moved to Paris from 1920 to 1930, among them Stein, Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, all would eventually earn global recognition for their works. Following the end of the war, uncertainty was pregnant in the air. The loss of identity, coupled with disillusionment, was also ubiquitous. It has thence become a common perception that members of the Lost Generation are decadent.

The decadent lifestyle of the Lost Generation was vividly portrayed in the first part. The generation’s disillusionment made them pursue happiness in other avenues. The American expatriates indulged in sex and splurged in alcohol. Hopping from one bar to another, from one party to another, alcohol has become a device to take their minds off the uncertainties that surround them. They were disoriented and, at the same time, disillusioned. Worse, members of the Lost Generation were aimless. The war has left deep scars and nightmares that those who witness them keep being haunted at unexpected moments. Resorting to drinking and sexual escapades were their means of escaping the ugly memories of the war and their existentialist disillusionment. In a conversation between Stein and Hemingway, Stein was quoted saying, “You are all a lost generation.”

“In the morning it was raining. A fog had come over the mountains from the sea. You could not see the tops of the mountains. The plateau was dull and gloomy, and the shapes of the trees and the houses were changed. I walke out beyond the town to look at the weather. The bad weather was coming over the mountains from the sea.”

~ Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

With an unflinching gaze, he managed to capture the decadence that has come to characterize his generation. However, it was this very images of decadence, of being lost and aimless that Hemingway tried to quash when he started working on his debut novel. He disagreed with his friend. Rather than seeing his peers as lost, he considered his generation resilient. Hemingway had a distaste for the phrase “Lost Generation”. In writing The Sun Also Rises, his goal was to paint a portrait of resilient and strong men and women who, despite the odds, endeavored to move past the worst moments of their lives. Sure, angst, frustrations, and pessimism pervaded the atmosphere but the Lost Generation is nonetheless coping in its own way.

The decadent lifestyle prevalent among the members of the Lost Generation was also portrayed in other forms. Society has become more receptive to changes and progressive ideas. Individuals have become empowered and liberal. Women, for instance, have gained more sexual liberty. Divorce has also become commonplace. There was rarely a shame in having one. In contrast to female liberty, the novel also explored masculinity and identity; Hemingway would eventually establish a reputation for his portrayal of masculinity. Because of his impotence, Jake felt incapable of living up to the idea of masculinity. He sees himself as less of a man. This, in turn, resulted in a feeling of self-loathing. There were also undertones of homophobia in the novel.

The image of an ideal man was portrayed through Pedro Romero. He was a nineteen-year-old bullfighter the characters met during their escapade to Pamplona, Spain. He was a young prodigy who was a cut above the rest. There was an air of self-assurance and competence about him that Ashley immediately found attractive. Again, this contrasts with Jake’s troubled masculinity, the primary catalyst in Ashley’s rejection of him. In a way, bullfighting was a metaphor as it encapsulates the qualities that define the very nature of masculinity: bravery, self-assuredness, and competence. It is a high-octane spectacle where the strong survive while the weak end up getting maimed.

Nature was also integral in the novel, and so did the adventure of the characters as they ventured into the Spanish countryside; Hemingway was well-traveled. Nature’s healing qualities were subtly woven into the tapestry of the novel. It is a place of rebirth and rediscovery, a safe haven away from the ugly realities. Nature and the Spanish countryside came alive with Hemingway’s vivid descriptions. In Paris, writers and the like converge to evade memory and disillusionment but it was in the Spanish countryside that they find peace. This homage to the tranquility of the Spanish countryside was yet another form of paradox, a contrast to the turmoil of the bullfighting. Hemingway considers Spain his favorite country.

“Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain towards the north.”

~ Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

While the plot was thin and tended to meander, Hemingway’s first novel abounded with the qualities that would set the tempo for his succeeding works. Several of his seminal works, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, dealt with wars; Hemingway, after all, had first-hand accounts of the war. Apart from wars, other prominent subjects in his works that were explored in The Sun Also Rises include travel, love, and death. Nature was also ubiquitous in his works, perhaps most prominent in the book that was seminal in his recognition by the Nobel Committee.

In the epigraph, Hemingway cited Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another cometh; but the earth abideth forever… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose…” This quote establishes the major theme captured by Hemingway’s debut novel. He captured the proclivities of the Lost Generation, primarily through the study of Jake Barnes. Hemingway’s message was clear: just like the sun, the Lost Generation will surely rise again. But there was too much escapism that it undermines the story and muddles the message. Despite its flaws, The Sun Also Rises is an enduring modernist literary classic that was instrumental in the rise of a literary titan.

Rating

61%

Characters (30%) – 19%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
9%

Who hasn’t heard of Ernest Hemingway? His works are ubiquitous that I also couldn’t help but dip my fingers into his works. True enough, it became reality in 2016 when I read A Farewell to Arms. I loved the book and I also loved The Old Man and the Sea. For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, was another animal and with The Sun Also Rises, I was hoping to regain my enthusiasm for Hemingway’s works. When I started the book, I didn’t realize that it was his debut novel. Imagine my surprise but all the better, considering how I have lately been exploring the debut novels of some of the world’s most popular writers. Anyway, the premise of The Sun Also Rises did interest me at the start. I wasn’t even aware of the Lost Generation until I started reading the book, the same way I haven’t heard of the Beatnik generation until I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. While I liked the writing, I found the characterization a little off, particularly the characterization of Lady Ashley Brett. However, the most lamentable was the extent of escapism present in the story. There was too much sex and too much alcohol. It had bright spots but they were too intermittent. Overall, the impact on me was ephemeral but I don’t regret reading the book. So which Hemingway book to read next?

Book Specs

Author: Ernest Hemingway
Publisher: Charles Scribner’s Sons
Publishing Date: October 1954
Number of Pages: 247
Genre: Historical

Synopsis

The quintessential novel of the Lost Generation, The Sun Also Rises is one of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpieces, and a classic example of his spare but powerful writing style. A poignant look at the disillusionment and angst of the post-World War I generation, the novel introduces two of Hemingway’s most unforgettable characters: Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley. The story follows the flamboyant Brett and the hapless Jake as they journey from the wild nightlife of 1920s Paris to the brutal bullfighting rings of Spain with a motley group of expatriates. It is an age of moral bankruptcy, spiritual dissolution, unrealized love, and vanishing illusions. First published in 1926, The Sun Also Rises helped to establish Hemingway as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

To learn more about Nobel Prize in Literature winner Ernest Hemingway, click here.