The Sun Also Rises and meaning through action

Almost none of the characters in The Sun Also Rises and have jobs. Jake Barnes works as a journalist, but during most of the novel he’s on the sort of vacation that makes one long for the office. Bill Gorton writes too, but we don’t see much evidence of his writing. Pedro Romero is a bullfighter who apparently loses his magical bullfighting essence (or “aficion” in the language of the novel, but “magical bullfighting essence” makes it sound sillier) due to Brett. The rest—Mike, Brett, Robert—don’t do much of anything beyond drink.

This might be connected to why they all seem unhappy. Not only are they unhappy, but they don’t even appear to be getting much action (with the exception of Brett), which probably compounds their problems. This may be a feature of hanging out with a large group of guys and only one woman.

When I first read the novel, I didn’t notice how dumb most of the characters are. Perhaps I was at an age when I still considered wandering around and mindlessly drinking to be romantic and logical. Perhaps I was just equally dumb. Now I mostly want to suggest to the characters that, since most of them are in their 30s, they ought to find something to do. What that “something” is isn’t very important. Writing sonnets. Working in nuclear physics (which was big at the time). Inventing a new dance. Opening a bar, instead of consuming in a bar. Just have it be something. In short, I want to them to get a job, or, if not a job, then at least a hobby beyond the bottle. Don’t get me wrong. I like the bottle as much as the next guy, especially when it contains gin, and someone has tonic and lime nearby.

Plus, Brett is overrated. By the time I hit 23 or thereabouts, the allure of the manipulative, dissolute beauty had faded—not, mind you, the allure of beauty, or beauty distributed across a number of women, but of the attention-seeking and thoughtlessly cruel kind, who might be worth going to San Sebastian with, but not worth working one’s self up over when she floats to her next lily pad.

That sentence is convoluted, but I’m pretty sure it makes sense and expresses what Brett does to the inner states of the men around her, who really ought to know better. If one doesn’t want to come around, look for another. Note that this strategy or principle also applies to men. If a rival comes along, there’s a decent shot the wishy-washy person will leap to defend her territory. If she doesn’t, you never had a shot in the first place, and you still have someone to keep you warm at night and do other fun things with. (Change the gender pronouns in this paragraph to suit your own sexual temperament.)

When you’re young, long-winded, elusive chases are kind of appealing. But you really ought to learn to know better by the time you’re, say, 22.

I still admire Hemingway’s use of language and style, but I wonder if one reason high school and college students are drawn to The Sun Also Rises is because school mimics the no-stakes, no-purpose world in which characters live. Once you get into the larger world, where things have real effects, the pleasures of wandering aimlessly, drinking randomly, and chasing mentally unstable girls who mostly want attention becomes much lower. Again: wandering, drinking, and chasing sex can still be quite fun for any and all genders, but they require purpose beyond the mere doing of those activities themselves. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake says, “The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta. Everything became quite unreal finally and it seemed as though nothing could have any consequences. It seemed out of place to think of consequences during the fiesta.” Everything is “quite unreal” throughout the novel as a whole. It seems “out of place to think of consequences” for any of the characters, ever. They might be Americans in Europe, but their travels do not appear to have enlarged them.

4 responses

  1. When you’re young, long-winded, elusive chases are kind of appealing. But you really ought to learn to know better by the time you’re, say, 22.

    Gosh, Jake, is 22 no longer considered young these days? I certainly still felt young when I was 22, and I certainly still think of 22 as young now that I’m approaching 42.

    I wonder if one reason high school and college students are drawn to The Sun Also Rises is because school mimics the no-stakes, no-purpose world in which characters live

    Maybe that’s true some high school and college students, but not all. I was drawn to The Sun Also Rises too — I read it two or three times during those seven or eight years *, and I’ve read it since as well — but for me, school was the antithesis of no-stakes, no-purpose. College was not the kind of long, dissolute, parentally-funded party for me that it is for many students. It might have been that I was drawn to that lost generation, ex-pat life not because I identified with it (as you are suggesting some students do), but because I envied it, vacuous though it was. I know, what’s to envy, right? But a central theme of the novel is escape from responsibility, and that has its definite appeal at some stages of life.

    Jake, if you don’t mind a personal question: in what year were you born? Or if you prefer to keep it somewhat vague, can you just say whether it was before or after 1982?

    * I even took the nickname Jake, from Jake Barnes. My best friend took the nickname Gatsby, from our other favorite novel of those formative years. We still sometimes use these nicknames today.

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  2. More about work. It is an easy trap to fall into not to describe your work situation and environment accurately or easily in movies or books. Being at work is not dramatically interesting. and when people do mention jobs, it’s usually lawyers or doctors or (insert glamorous profession here). Actually you’ve inspired me to compile a list of shows, movies and books which describe work authentically….

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