What is the Message in The Sun Also Rises?
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway follows a group of American and British expatriates as they move through Europe in the 1920s.
Throughout the story, Hemingway depicts the main characters- Jake, Brett, Mike, Cohn, and Bill- as mentally, morally, and emotionally bankrupt. Because their lives lack purpose after WWI, they seek immediate gratification in alcohol and sex to distract themselves from their unpleasant lives. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway captures the disillusionment and aimlessness of the “Lost Generation” through the use of water as a symbol for purification, metaphorical language about Jake’s impotence, and the symbolic use of bullfighting.
Water in The Sun Also Rises symbolizes physical and emotional purification from alcohol and fornication.
Most characters in the novel are alcoholics because it allows them to temporarily escape their meaningless lives rather than confront it. Like most characters, Jake, who is bitter and impotent after the war. Moreover, spends his days seeking distractions in small, immediate pleasures, and the only time Jake finds inner peace is when he is surrounded by water on his fishing trip to Burguete.
This vacation seems to have a therapeutic soothing effect on Jake. He describes the serene rhythms of nature, sleeps peacefully for the first time, and happily fishes with Bill. Reflecting on his trip, Jake says, “The water was buoyant and cold. It felt as though you could never sink” (Hemingway 191).
The water relieves him from shallow, toxic relationships with his friends and the mental torture caused by his impotence which prevents him from dating Brett. As a result, when Jake returns home, he wants nothing more than to swim in the ocean. Water also means purification to Brett, which is represented by her frequent bathing.
Throughout The Sun Also Rises, Brett bathes as an excuse to escape social gatherings or to emotionally cleanse herself after fornication.
For instance, when Brett returns from San Sebastián after having an affair with Cohn, she says, “ I can’t meet Jake… I haven’t bathed… must clean myself” (Hemingway 61). Her frequent bathing signals a sense of remorse over her sexual promiscuity as she tries to wash away her guilt. Using water as a symbol for purification from alcohol and sex, Hemingway encapsulates that the lost generation’s aimless life is filled with amoral activities, such as drinking and sex.
Bullfighting dominates the second book in The Sun Also Rises and symbolizes the fraught relationship between Brett, Jake, Cohn, Bill, Mike, and Romero. Just as the bullfighters use their red muleta to enrage the bulls into a fight, Brett antagonizes her male friends into competing for her affection.
Because Brett symbolizes the bullfighters, the men are the bulls, and Jake acts as an emasculated steer, which is a castrated bull. After each competition, the steers round up the bulls, paralleling Jake’s effort to keep the group of friends together by constantly scheduling travel plans, dinners, and hangouts with men who continually fight for Brett’s love.
Both the bullfights and the character’ relationships are described with seductive, sexualized language, yet they always end in death or intense emotional pain. Bullfighting, then, symbolizes the dangers of love and sex.
This symbolism is further evident in the Fiesta de San Fermín, where Belmonte, a matador, is cast aside by the fans as soon as someone better comes along, in this case, Romero. The crowd’s fickleness mirrors Brett’s short, ever-changing relationships, who dates Jake, then Mike, then Cohn, then Romero, and likely goes back to Mike.
As she jumps from man to man, she leaves a path of lost friendships, broken hearts, and damaged careers.” But, when Jake, the only man she considers settling down with, asks, “Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together” Brett says, “I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody because of your war wound” (Hemingway 45).
Brett’s response reveals the danger of sex because it destroys a potential relationship between Brett and Jake.
Through bullfighting symbolism, Hemingway captures the characters’ carnal desire, like sex, and effectively connects the potential dangers of sex to bullfighting.
Hemingway also uses Jake’s impotence as a metaphor for the condition of the entire expatriate group. Each person has been damaged in some fundamental way by the war—physically, morally, psychologically, or economically—and their aimless existence can be traced back to it.
The symbolic importance of Jake’s wound is that while it deprives him of the capacity to perform sexually, it does not rid him of the desire. His experience mirrors the main character, who fervently wants meaning and fulfillment, but they lack the ability and means to find it, leading to their lives feeling meaningless.
In the book’s epigraph, Gertrude Stein’s quote reaffirms the principal theme of The Sun Also Rises: “you are all a lost generation” (Hemingway 1). The quote encapsulates Hemingway’s characters’ ambiguous and pointless lives as they aimlessly wander Europe, drinking, making
love, and traveling from place to place and party to party. Despite Hemingway’s simple, straightforward writing style, his symbolic language and metaphors provide the reader with a deeper meaning of bullfighting, water. And Jake’s wound, showing the shallowness and disillusionment of the “Lost Generation.”