I have read a lot of really great, classic fiction, including authors such as Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, Bram Stoker, Homer, Henry James, Daniel Defoe, and Jane Austen (my personal favourite), to name a few. I feel like I’m a relatively well-rounded reader. But one famous author I had never read – until recently – was Ernest Hemingway.
I knew a bit about him, of course. I knew he was an early 20th century writer who died young (suicide) and won Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for his work. I figured I would one day get around to reading some of his stuff, but I wasn’t making it a priority (reading classics is a challenge when you work right beside a big, beautiful Chapters store and its displays always emphasize new books). So when my fellow book lover and oldest friend Brigitte decided to choose The Sun Also Rises for her book club pick, I was more than ready to take it on.
I was particularly excited because this particular novel is all about traveling and partying in France and Spain, and when I read it I was in the midst of booking out hotels for… you guessed it, France and Spain. The timing was perfect. It helped me get excited for my trip!
When we discussed this book at book club, I started the conversation by saying I thought the novel had three distinct themes – post-traumatic stress disorder (it’s set right after WWI), the “new woman” (in the form of Lady Brett Ashley), and anti-Semitism (towards Jews). Let me elaborate on those:
Post-traumatic stress disorder
If I were to describe the novel in one sentence, I’d say it’s a story about a group of guys drinking and partying their way through France and Spain in the 1920s. But this doesn’t even come close to describing the extent of their drinking and partying – they are quite literally drunk all the time. After WWI, many Americans were drawn to European society in an effort to escape the depressing United States. They were searching for a new, bold and artistic lifestyle, and this is how this particular group of Americans came to be in Europe. These people are often known as the “lost generation”, meaning they were so scarred and affected by the tragedies and trauma of WWI that they’re “lost”… in this case, drinking away their pain without any identifiable direction in their lives. All of the characters in The Sun Also Rises are suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, on varying levels.
The new woman
Lady Brett Ashley is the definition of the liberated woman that emerged in the 1920s. She’s been divorced twice, openly sleeps around without looking for love, smokes and wears her hair short, and exudes confidence. She also doesn’t appear to care about what is socially appropriate for a lady. She’s engaged, but that doesn’t stop her from being overtly promiscuous. She loves the protagonist, Jake Barnes, but he’s sexually unavailable due to a war injury, so she basically writes him off. Later in the novel, she takes off with an incredibly handsome teenage bull fighter, even though she’s significantly older. If that’s not “liberated” in terms of a 1920s woman – or even a present-day woman – I don’t know what is.
Written in the wake of World War I, it’s no surprise that this novel contains blatant racism. Although the Americans were against the Germans, racism against Jews – albeit it minor in comparison to concentration camps and the like –was still rampant across the United States and other parts of Europe. Hemingway paints Robert Cohn (the novel’s token Jew) as an annoying, pathetic nuisance amongst the travelers. The other characters are outright mean to him, making racist comments and telling him to get lost, but Robert still lingers around the group, chasing after Brett. It’s not a coincidence that the novel’s most irritating and pitiful character is a Jew. For me, this served as a reminder that racism unfortunately existed even outside of Germany.
In general, I didn’t find the novel incredibly interesting or, frankly, enjoyable. The novel seemed relatively anti-climactic, and I skipped over long descriptions of bull fighting because I didn’t care. When I was finished reading, I didn’t really feel as though I’d read anything brilliant or overly stimulating.
The novel is more like a snapshot of the era. I now have an excellent grasp on what life was like for Americans living in Europe post WWI, but otherwise, I felt largely unaffected by the story. I am glad I read it, mostly because I strive to sample all great authors, but I wasn’t keen on Hemingway’s writing style and for that reason, I won’t go out of my way to read another of his books. I did, however, find the characters and themes interesting, but the story itself was rather lack-luster. If you’re looking for snapshot of post-WWI life in Europe, this is the novel for you – otherwise, I’d stick with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.