I’m trying to decide which story Ernest Hemingway was trying to tell in the book The Sun Also Rises. Is it a tale of bullfighting in Spain during the summer of 1926? Perhaps it’s the saga of a woman who is searching for some answers through sex and booze? Or is it a page out of the life of Jacob Barnes as he works and plays, pursuing solace in the activities he fancies most, while observing the love of his life turn to others for “comfort”? Conceivably it is all or none of the above.
Lady Brett Ashley is a tragic figure, yet so beautiful she collects men’s hearts the way many women collect shoes. After spending two weeks lazing in San Sebastián with the clingy Jewish American author Robert Cohn, she accompanies her indolent fiancé Michael and a crowd of doting male friends to Pamplona to catch the bullfights, departing at the end of the Fiesta for a lusty episode with the handsome young matador, and winding up seeking refuge with the always loyal Jake who has organized the entire excursion. Where her PTSD husband, Lord Ashley, resides is never revealed.
Most of the time Brett remains “tight” in order to maintain her gaiety and devil may care attitude. It is only with Jake that she is able to reveal her true thoughts, especially since he is a safe choice due to the wartime injury which has left him incapable of a normal sexual relationship. As Jake observes “Brett seems to want what she cannot have”.
Jacob is a good sort who enjoys a savory meal and a palatable drink, hanging out with his friends at the various bars and restaurants in Paris and Spain, alternating his time between a drunken stupor and sleeping one off to get rid of the subsequent headaches. Doubtless we should avoid being judgmental since for the majority of this book he is on vacation, first on a fishing trip and then for a week of celebration in Pamplona. A true aficionado, he returns to the same hotel each year where the like minded proprietor welcomes him along with his friends. Hemingway introduces the reader to the finer points of bullfighting as Jake describes the event through his personal observations as well as his explanations to Brett.
Jake is guilty of a sardonic humor, witnessed when he refers to the prostitute he has picked up for some easy company as his “fiancée” and verified when he calls an inebriated friend with an obsession for purchasing stuffed animals a “taxidermist” (not a good profession since the creatures are all dead).
While the narration is simple, full of conversation and descriptions of the various locales Jake visits as well as the numerous individuals with whom he interacts, there is an unwritten story beneath the words alluding to a meaning beyond the tale of their pathetic, wretched lives.
While at first glance one wonders why this novel was considered a groundbreaker with its repetitive dialogue and lack of likable characters, I found it to be one of those rare books that continues to haunt after the last page is read, leaving one wondering whether there is any hope for an eventual favorable resolution. Perhaps the answer is found in the most famous line from this book, the last discussion where Brett indicates the two would have been a great pair with Jake, who is always available to pick up the pieces when her relationships ultimately fail, replies “It would be happy to think so.”
Somehow I think not.