Critical Essays The Radical Structure of The Sun Also Rises


The Sun Also Rises is a radical book because it is a war story without combat and a love story lacking a single love scene. The novel also risks reader dissatisfaction with regard to structure. Think about it: Jake Barnes wants a satisfying love relationship with Brett, Lady Ashley. And yet, as soon as we figure out Jake's postwar anatomical condition (he was castrated in a place crash), we know that he will never be satisfied. The ending of The Sun Also Rises is foreordained (Jake will not "get" Brett). Therefore, according to the conventions of storytelling — not to mention common sense — there's no real reason to read on. And yet we do read on. Why?

Typically, a contemporary novel begins with a scene, dropping readers directly into the action of the story and thereby piquing our interest. Who are these people? we wonder as we navigate the first few paragraphs of a book we've picked up. What are their relationships to one another, and to their time and place? We read on, at least at first, to find out the answers to such fundamental questions. By the time we've comprehended a story's fundamental situation, we're inside its special world.

Alternately, a book-length work of fiction might start with background, answering those questions before we've had the chance to ask them. Sometimes called exposition, background is information we need in order to fully understand the action of the story. Without it, readers may be unsure of the significance of the scenes they read. They may even lose their way altogether. An example of a novel that begins with background is Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, the first line of which reads "The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex" — after which Austen describes the circumstances (most of them financial) leading up to the book's first actual scene. This is perhaps a more logical way to begin a story than the first approach described. It is also less dynamic and engaging, however. After all, sheer information is never as compelling as action.

However he or she begins, somewhere early in any novel an author must introduce the book's conflict (that is, the situation wherein the protagonist, the main character, lacks something that is not easy to obtain). In a way, conflict is story, as we read, consciously or unconsciously, to see if and how the protagonist will get what he or she wants. Will Odysseus arrive home safely to regain control of his kingdom? Will Hamlet kill his uncle, as instructed by the ghost of his father? Will Jane Eyre survive childhood and adolescence?

When offered a story lacking a conflict, most readers lose interest sooner or later, no matter how nuanced the characterization or poetic the description, no matter how sparkling the dialogue or original the style. Reading a conflict-free novel would be like listening to a piece of music that lacked a melody, or even what musicians call tonality. Or like looking at a painting of . . . nothing — nothing identifiable, that is. And in fact, this is just the sort of Modern music and art that was being made in the early 1920s, by European innovators like the composer Arnold Schoenberg and the painter Pablo Picasso, when Hemingway was living in Paris and crafting The Sun Also Rises. Certainly, there was a context for Hemingway's artistic experiment. Yet that by no means assured the book's aesthetic success.

The novel contains other structural oddities as well. Like many novels before it, The Sun Also Rises begins with exposition. And yet the background offered in the book's first pages concerns a character who is not even at this novel's exact center. Reading the book for the first time, we assume that Robert Cohn will be our hero, only to discover that he is instead a kind of foil for the story's protagonist — an anti-protagonist if not quite an antagonist. (We never learn this sort of background information about Jake at all — where and how he grew up, much less the specifics of his wartime experiences.) Hemingway delays including an actual scene until the book's fourth page. And the aforementioned conflict isn't explicitly stated until the book's fourth chapter, in Jake's apartment, when he asks Brett, "Isn't there anything we can do about it?" (Jake answers his own question: "And there's not a damn thing we could do.")

To recap: The Sun Also Rises opens with exposition on a character other than the book's protagonist (about whom we're never offered much background at all), followed by a relatively late introduction of action and then — finally — a conflict, but one that has already been resolved. Two hundred pages remain. Why read them?

The answer: Hemingway bombards us with the results of his informal but intensive education in the writing craft. Just as abstract artists, deprived of the tool of representation, must wow us with composition, line, color, and perhaps sheer originality, Hemingway made up for his lack of a traditional story structure by means of characterization, description, dialogue, and style.

From the very first line of The Sun Also Rises, the writer introduces us to characters who are unique and sympathetic, and therefore unforgettable. The novel features not one or two, but five fully three-dimensional figures at its center: Jake, Brett, Cohn, Bill Gorton, Mike Campbell, and Pedro Romero. (Secondary characters include Frances, Georgette, the Count, Harris, and Montoya.) They are different enough from each other that there's never any confusion as to who's who, even in scenes featuring nearly all of these characters at once. (This is partly due to the fact that Hemingway brings his ensemble cast onstage one at a time, allowing us to "meet" each player before the next one is introduced.)

Moreover, not one of the characters we encounter in The Sun Also Rises is a "type" we've seen before onstage, onscreen, or in another book — though we may recognize Bill or Frances from our real lives. Each of them behaves badly in one way or another, and some do so again and again. And yet we understand the human failings of these imaginary people. As a result, we care about what happens to each of them; when the gang splits up near novel's end, we're sorry to see them go.

As discussed elsewhere, Hemingway described not just people but places and things in a new way. One of the pleasures of reading The Sun Also Rises lies in experiencing 1920s Paris and the Basque country of France and Spain via the writer's concrete, specific, creative, and careful descriptions. He does inner states, too, reminding us what it's like to be drunk or sleepy, to feel the joy of friendship or the agony of unrequited love.

Hemingway was a master at writing dialogue, too, a fact rarely remarked upon. Scenes like the one in Chapter XIII that begins "We were sitting in the café . . ." are remarkable for the way in which they overflow with information on the characters and their relationships to each other yet never seem forced or artificial. This is the way people really talk, we think as we read — drunk people, at least. Of course that's not quite true. But Hemingway's dialogue-writing brilliance lay in his ability to imitate dialogue without exactly reproducing it; to put it plainly, he left out the boring parts.

Thus, in writing his first full-length novel, Ernest Hemingway followed the lead of the great Modern artists of the early twentieth century. In the manner of Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositions or Picasso's early Cubist canvasses, The Sun Also Rises is a book in which the central question (Will Jake and Brett get together?) is answered only a few pages in. (Imagine if we knew at the outset of Gone with the Wind that Scarlett would never have Rhett for good, at story's end. Hard to conceive of, isn't it?) Hemingway succeeds in his seemingly-impossible quest by virtue of all the other writing-craft elements at his disposal — a considerable arsenal, as it turns out. It is a bravura performance, one that not many writers have equaled, or even attempted, since.