Like Hemingway's later novel A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises offers the reader two stories in one: a war story and a love story. What's remarkable about this book — truly radical, really — is the fact that it features no scenes of battle whatsoever (not even in flashback) and no love scenes. Hemingway took on an enormous challenge when he wrote this, his first full-length novel. Most readers would agree that he rose to that challenge and perhaps surpassed it.
Some necessary historical background: World War I (or the Great War, as it was known at the time) began in August 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand. The war pitted the Central Powers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) against the allied forces of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, who were joined in 1917 by the United States. Largely as a result of the entry of the U.S. into the conflict (by which time Russia had withdrawn and Italy was effectively defeated), the Great War ended in victory for the Allies. Both sides agreed to an armistice on November 11, 1918.
Other nicknames for World War I were "the War to End All Wars" and "the War to Save Democracy." There was a feeling on the part of many Americans who were drafted in 1917 and 1918 (as well as those like Hemingway himself who enlisted for service in the armed forces of other allied nations before the U.S. entered the fighting) that they were involved in a conflict that would change the world in fundamental ways. Additionally, most returned home after the armistice far more worldly and sophisticated than when they left. And yet, the Americans who hadn't served were as provincial and isolationist as they'd been before the war — more so, in fact, as a new mood of conservatism swept the country.
This reactionary period manifested itself in a number of ways:
- Rejection by the U.S. Senate of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations proposed therein.
- Ratification in January 1920 of the Eighteenth Amendment, which forbade the manufacture and sale of all intoxicating beverages.
- The so-called Great Red Scare, set off by the spread of communism in Europe following the 1917 Russian Revolution, and by labor unrest in the States. Like the McCarthy Era of the late 1940s, the Red Scare period involved widespread suspicion and denunciation of Americans as communists and/or socialists.
- The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1915 and dedicated to attacking African-Americans, Jews, Roman Catholics, and others. The Klan's membership had grown to five million by 1924, the year before The Sun Also Rises takes place.
- Legislative restrictions on immigration, especially from southern and eastern Europe, in the Immigration Act of 1921 and the Johnson Act (1924).
One result of the ugly postwar mood was a series of novels by U.S. writers critical of American provincialism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and racism. These include Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919); Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) and Babbit (1922); and An American Tragedy (1925) by Theodore Dreiser. The journalist H.L. Mencken was the unofficial leader of this movement to satirize, criticize, and thereby strike blows against what many saw as a moral failure on the part of American society at large.
A second, related response on the part of American writers involved leaving the country altogether, and many — best-selling novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and Modernist poet Ezra Pound, among others — did just that. They joined disaffected English- and Irishmen like Ford Maddox Ford and James Joyce in Paris, in a social and artistic circle that formed around the writer Gertrude Stein, herself an American expatriate. Stein is responsible for one of the epigraphs that introduce The Sun Also Rises ("You are all a lost generation") and it was she who served as a creative writing teacher to Ernest Hemingway, who left the States in 1921.
Hemingway himself had fought, and was wounded, in the Great War, and as his short story "Soldier's Home" illustrates, the writer-to-be felt profoundly alienated upon his return to the U.S. He moved to Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and in addition to making the acquaintance of Stein and her cohorts, he befriended many others (Hemingway was famously gregarious as well as remarkably handsome) from different countries and social classes, all of whom the war had affected profoundly. While employed as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, Hemingway traveled around Europe, worked at improving his storytelling skills, and socialized tirelessly with fellow veterans and others in Paris and elsewhere. It is these experiences that provided him with the then-unique and forever-unforgettable milieu of The Sun Also Rises: the so-called Lost Generation and their exploits in the cafés and nightclubs of Paris, as well as on fishing trips and at the bullfights in Spain.
Though this is easy to lose sight of amidst the frenzy of Parisian nights and the Spanish fiesta, bear in mind that the novel's central characters are both veterans: Jake Barnes flew an airplane in the Great War, while Brett Ashley served in a wartime hospital. In fact, one of the novel's primary dichotomies is between those characters who are war veterans (Jake; Brett; Brett's fiancé, Mike Campbell; Count Mippipopolous) and those, like Robert Cohn, who are not. (Bill Gorton's status is unclear; perhaps he was a war correspondent.) Nearly everything that goes on in The Sun Also Rises is a reaction to the trauma of the war, both physical and psychic, from the almost unbelievable consumption of alcohol by the veterans and their compulsive traveling from place to place, to Brett's sexual promiscuity and the healing fishing trip taken by Jake and Bill. If the Great War hadn't happened, we are meant to understand, these characters would be doing very different things.
Which brings us to The Sun Also Rises as a love story. Even the most casual reader recognizes that Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley share a profound mutual attraction. They love one another deeply, and their carnal desire for each other is fierce. The problem: Jake has been wounded in the war in such a way that sexual intercourse is now impossible for him. Significantly, the particular nature of his wound has not ruled out desire, just its satisfaction. (It seems that he has lost his penis but not his testicles.) Therefore, being near Brett is agony for Jake. He could probably satisfy her sexually, and he may have done so during the period referred to when they attempted a relationship. But Jake himself exists in a kind of erotic limbo, like Greek mythology's Tantalus, who keeps bending over to drink the water he stands in, only to have it drain away immediately.
Note that the cause of Jake's agony was an airplane that crashed. The early Moderns believed that industrialization, with its laborsaving and communication-enhancing devices, was wholly good, and that an increase in the mechanization of life could only make living easier, happier, better. The combatants in World War I discovered that the opposite was true: mass-produced, mechanized tools of destruction — tanks, planes, submarines, mines and machine guns, not to mention deadly mustard gas — made life on earth more terrible than ever before. Moreover, in this war, a soldier might kill and be killed without ever seeing the enemy. The Great War was the first truly anonymous war; in this conflict, the individual was entirely dispensable.
Thus, Jake is not merely a casualty of war in general, like the characters of Homer, Tolstoy, and others before him. Bayonets were still in use at this time; Hemingway could have made Jake a victim of one. Instead, Jake is injured specifically by the Great War's modern aspect — by modernity itself, one might say. Hemingway expanded upon this theme in A Farewell to Arms, the hero of which is famously wounded by an enemy bomb while eating a bowl of spaghetti.
As a result, we have a love story in which it is clear from the start that the lovers will never be together. At least, they will never be happy together. In the vast majority of stories ever told, there is at least some possibility that the protagonist, or main character, will get what he or she wants by the end. In The Sun Also Rises, it becomes quickly evident that Jake will not — cannot — "get" Brett. How, then, will Hemingway retain our interest in the goings-on he describes? Because we know the conclusion of the story at its outset, why read on? (The short answer: Hemingway's characterization of Jake, Brett, and the rest, who are portrayed with such originality and believability that they seem like real people to us.)
The Sun Also Rises is probably Ernest Hemingway's greatest novel, largely because it is more inventive in its treatment of love and war than the other work that vies for this distinction, A Farewell to Arms, published four years later. Both are less propagandistic than Hemingway's third great war story, For Whom the Bell Tolls — which relies partly on flashback for its effect and also descends at times into the stylistic mannerism that marred Hemingway's later work. Certainly The Sun Also Rises is vastly superior to the remaining Hemingway novels (To Have and Have Not and Across the River and Into the Trees, and the posthumously published Islands in the Stream and The Garden of Eden) as well as the novellas The Torrents of Spring (which preceded The Sun Also Rises) and The Old Man and the Sea. In fact, the only other volume in the Hemingway oeuvre that stands up to a comparison with The Sun Also Rises is the writer's debut story collection, In Our Time. That book's postwar tales, "Soldier's Home" and "Big Two-Hearted River," both share a subject with The Sun Also Rises. "Big Two-Hearted River" was perhaps a kind of rehearsal for this novel; it is a story about war's destructiveness that never even mentions war — not once.
The action of The Sun Also Rises takes place during the mid-1920s in three locations:
- Paris, mainly the city's Latin Quarter and Montparnasse districts, on the Left Bank south of the River Seine. Because the University of Paris is located in the Latin Quarter, intellectuals and artists have frequented this neighborhood for centuries.
- The Basque region of France and Spain. For hundreds if not thousands of years, a distinct people known as the Basques have occupied three provinces in the southwest of France and four in northern Spain. The Basque country straddles the Pyrenees mountains, and it faces the Atlantic Ocean on one side. (The resort town of San Sebastian is located here.) The town of Pamplona, the setting of much of The Sun Also Rises, is in the Spanish province of Navarra, in the Basque region's rural interior. The Basques speak a language that is entirely unrelated to either Spanish or French, and they are credited with inventing the beret (worn by Brett and Mike in the novel), the espadrille (a rope-soled shoe), and the game of jai alai. The Basques are fiercely independent, which may partially explain the attraction of the region to Jake, Brett, and the others; it is a place apart from the rest of Europe and, thus, to some degree, apart from European history, including the Great War.
- Madrid, capital of Spain.