Ernest Hemingway(Continued from an Part 1.  Read more in Part 3, and Part 4)

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

NietzscheThe Arts reflect the spirit of the age and literature is no exception.  Nihilism, a worldview that rejects ultimate meaning and purpose in life, heavily influenced the literature of the early 20th century, in which this philosophy was illustrated and addressed.  The influence of nihilism is particularly evident in The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and “The Wasteland”.

The early 20th century was ripe for the advent of nihilism.  Indeed, its arrival had been predicted by one of the most influential philosophers of the previous century, Friedrich Nietzsche.  “What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries,” he wrote in his notes which would be published in The Will to Power, “I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of nihilism.”  The nihilism that Nietzsche viewed upon the horizon was the inevitable consequence of the undermining of traditional Western thought that was underway in his own day.

Darwinian evolution, the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, the First World War, and the consequent decline of the Christian faith in the Western world were the primary contributors to 20th century nihilism.  Darwin’s theory left mankind bereft of his own unique status in the natural order. Freud transformed man into a psychological marionette whose invisible puppeteers were the various neuroses that he had developed from repressing (largely sexual) desires.  World War I with its incredible death toll and socio/political upheaval left the modern world wondering what had happened to the utopian vision inspired by the industrial revolution.  And looming over everything like a great, gray thundercloud was the solemn declaration of Nietzsche, “God is dead”.

Nietzsche’s declaration seems to capture the spirit of the age better than any other.  When the ultimate Absolute is stripped away, where does humanity get its existential bearings?  What remains for man when objective beauty, truth, morality, and immortality have vanished?  To quote Nietzsche once again:

“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” (The Parable of the Madman)

WWI Soldiers

While these questions occupied the minds of many philosophers in the early twentieth century, the First World War was the catalyst that caused their consideration outside of the ivory tower of academia.  The horrible events that took place between 1914 and 1918 shattered the illusion that the civilized world was morally progressing as millions of men were slaughtered in a mechanized massacre that proved to be more pointless with each death.  Western civilization was stripped of its ideological finery and compelled to grope its way through the “infinite nothing” that had been predicted by Nietzsche’s madman.  How could this have happened?  What will become of mankind?  These were the questions that modernist authors attempted to address in the years that followed the war.     

(Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)