The Sun Also Rises is a novel about those most impacted by the Great War: the individuals who made up the aptly named “lost generation”. World War I took nearly 9 million lives, but it ruined the lives of many more who survived. Hemingway’s story of Jake and his post-war companions presents more than just an interesting account of Parisian social life and Spanish bull fighting; it demonstrates the incredible toll that the war took upon those who were most intimately involved in it. For them, the effects of the war never ended.
Hemingway gives a wink and nod in his title to anyone familiar with the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Within its ancient pages we find a story of existential angst as presented through the eyes of a Jewish king who was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to find meaning in life. Ecclesiastes’ theme “vanity of vanities” perfectly elucidates Hemingway’s novel. The characters in his book fly from one diversion to the next, but never to anything substantial.
Jake and Brett represent the two paths down which the worldview of nihilism can lead and the diverging experiences of Europe and America after the war. Jake’s impotence is an important symbol within The Sun Also Rises. It represents the loss of ideological life that resulted from World War I. In his outward appearance Jake looks perfectly healthy, but he has lost something vital: the ability to consummate passion and impart life. This is a strong comparison to post-war Europe: it had survived the Great War, but it had come out of it vitally wounded. No one could pretend any longer that things were alright with the world. A society that had produced such atrocities was fundamentally broken. “Enlightened” Europe had entered the war ideologically robust; it had emerged sterile.
Brett is the antithesis of Jake and the “Americanized” nihilist of the novel. This may come as a surprise to some readers due to the fact that Brett seems to be the most vivacious and care-free character of the book. However, a closer reading will reveal that this is nothing more than a veneer to cover the inward angst that she is experiencing. “I’ve got to do something,” she tells Jake as he walks her to Romero, “I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.” (187) A few sentences later she bemoans the fact that she “can’t stay tight all the time”. (187) Alcohol is her panacea to a painful existence.
Brett is the quintessential nihilist-turned-hedonist. Traditional values are shattered, nihilism ensues, and hedonism is embraced as the existential life-raft to keep from going under. Thus Brett becomes an excellent picture of the “booming twenties”: an era of music, art, excitement, and despair.
It is interesting to note that Hemingway does not seem to extend any hope at the end of his novel. Brett remains a devoted pleasure seeker and Jake seems to adopt the same artificial and shallow set of values that “the Count” (67) has embraced. However, this is consistent with the cyclical emphasis of the novel: “The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)All quotations taken from: Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2003