Analysis of Three Characters in The Sun Also Rises
Following the tumult and terror brought upon by the First World War, the so-called “Lost Generation” was hopelessly scattered across Europe and often characterized by lost, aimless souls who were dissatisfied with hedonistic lives lacking in purpose and morality. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises personifies several of these dark souls and their unsuccessful attempts to safely find balance and satisfaction. The males of the novel, notably Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes, struggle against feelings of feebleness and inferiority due to their respective woes, which are amplified in an unforgiving post-war setting. Cohn is alienated as he clings to his bothersome pre-war notions of love, chivalry, and honor and realizes how little genuine friends he actually has. Jake is left impotent by the war, a physical affliction which results in his prolonged mental anguish. Meanwhile, these two broken, emasculated souls bounce and swirl around the irresistible Lady Brett Ashley, who is largely dissatisfied and unhappy as well, cracked by the post-war world yet incapable of owning up to her true feelings. Through these characters, The Sun Also Rises reflects universal crises in truth with which the characters find themselves trying come to terms amidst moral ruin, social chaos, and widespread cruelty.
Despite never having actually gone to war, Robert Cohn’s insecurities, cultivated by his spinelessness and compounded by his Jewish blood, lead him on a path of self-destruction with the war-torn expatriates until he is forced into disillusionment, a ferociously violent and tragic boiling point. Hemingway details Cohn’s recent past immediately as the novel begins: “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton… It meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.” (11)
Hemingway simultaneously glosses over Cohn’s fatal flaws and establishes core themes of male competitiveness and insecurity. Indeed, Cohn’s shortcomings as a coward and a Jew segregate him from other men and force him to relentlessly seek acceptance in any form. This insatiable yearning for acceptance proves to be damaging to all parties when combined with the hostility of his supposed friends at Pamplona. Cohn’s need for acceptance also gives rise to fear of rejection and loss. As such, Cohn is unable to separate himself from Jake, Brett, and company as their patience begins to dwindle and their heckling turns to pure animosity. Similar to the situations regarding his ex-wife and Frances, Cohn clings adamantly to Brett, choosing to ignore the blatant lack of reciprocated affection and the constant drunken badgering from Mike. Cohn’s crisis comes to a head as soon as Pedro Romero is added to the mixture. Seeing Brett “pimped out” by Jake devastates Cohn and serves as his own equivalent to a figurative castration. Jake’s actions provide enough of an emotional impact on Cohn to finally push him over the edge after years of cruelty. Cohn snaps, brutalizing those in his path, as well as debasing his own pre-war moral code. In a single tragic spectacle, Cohn tramples over all the men involved, including himself as he finally acknowledges his pitiful life and the unspeakable damage which he inflicts upon Romero. Cohn loses it all: sportsmanship, honor, love, and, most importantly, Brett. Ultimately, Cohn yields to his insecurities and frustrations at the cost of violence and severe lashes to his pride and morality.
Jake, although initially unable to acknowledge the harmful emotional impacts of his impotency, slowly evolves from post-war malaise to finally acceptance of his condition. Initially, Jake’s narration is sharp, condescending, and often indirect, particularly in reference to his injury and the consequent sensitivities which go along with it. For example, Hemingway expresses Jake’s bitter voice, “I was very angry. Somehow they always made me angry. I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure” (28). Here, Jake’s dissatisfaction and frustration develop into fierce jealousy. He observes “them” as almost alien beings devoid of masculinity, yet still struggles to accept himself as their inferior due to their proximity to Brett, the crux of Jake’s insecurities. It is Jake’s inability to exhibit his love for Brett which embitters him and fosters his feelings of inferiority. Indeed, these feelings find ample opportunity to manifest themselves, be it through animosity toward Cohn or Brett’s other numerous friends and partners or through soul crushing self-deprecation and hopelessness. When alone, Jake frequently finds his “hard-boiled” demeanor to be no match for the despair he truly suffers with regards to his war injury and his relationship with Brett.
However, by the end of the novel Jake is emotionally drained by his cataclysmic experience at Pamplona. With these events freshly in Jake’s perspective, Brett once again entertains the notion of a relationship together. Hemingway concludes with Jake’s final, cynical reply: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (251). At this point, such a dream has lost all perceptible value in Jake’s mind as he has come to a state of bitter yet understanding acceptance of the impossibility of their love. Jake fully realizes any feeble assemblage of a “relationship” was likely to end in similar fashion as her other relationships: wretched, numb, and broken. Acknowledging that the idea of a fulfilled life with Brett is nothing more than a fleeting dream finally liberates Jake to a certain degree.
Lastly, Brett’s crisis of “unrealized love,” only exposed when she confides her sorrows in Jake, appears to seek momentary flings of closure through fake stints of love rather than a definitive conclusion, despite the blatant emotional wreckage Brett leaves behind after her feeble attempts of love collapse and explode. Prior to the poignant final exchange between herself and Jake, Brett leaves before her the devastation of Cohn and Romero, as well as inciting her intentions to return to an equally heartbroken Mike. Above all, Brett’s sexuality acts as a form of release, the only manner of satisfaction and contentment she is able to utilize, although highly impermanent and often damaging to the men involved. However, despite this outright dependence on sex, Brett’s insistent love for Jake, which cannot be consummated, leads Brett to conceal much grief under the surface. Her internal misery is in many ways similar to Jake’s own. The major difference lies in their respective methods of coping with the heartache. Although both seem to fully respect their love to be a fanciful delusion, Brett continues to force herself upon partner after partner, as if she were addicted to the reciprocation of false love, an opiate to dull her senses of the everlasting post-war condition. Playing well the role of Circe, Brett even replies to Jake’s early pleas for a life together: “I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it” (62). Brett is fully aware of her need for artificial romance and denies Jake the possibility of even attempting a life together; she knows fully well of the prolonged suffering that would ensue. Eventually, both Jake and Brett come to terms with this harsh, brutal reality in their own way. Jake relies on his slow, painful internal mediation, while Brett insists on drifting haphazardly from one hedonistic pleasure to the next in hopes of distracting herself sufficiently enough in order to maintain her resolve and normality.
Ultimately characterizing an entire era of crisis, Cohn, Jake, and Brett all struggle painfully with their respective dejections and in due time come to some form of acceptance. Depictions of harsh realities within the novel reflect the cruelty and challenges experienced under the thick blanket of the post-war condition. To Hemingway, the current state of the world was one of dashed hopes and emotional withdrawal marked by fleeting, unattainable dreams of what life could have been.
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