Loss and it’s Impact on Modernist Works: Winseburg, Ohio and The Sun Also Rises
Modernism was a period within literature that saw authors experimenting with different storytelling techniques and showcased the lives of the new generation who were living in an ever advancing technological society. This was an exciting time filled with innovation and creating new from the old, but from these changes a sense of loss of certain things was seen. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson are both modernist novels that explored the theme of loss, in similar yet different ways. These novels shared in the common ideas of how loss of communication, reputation, truths and overall how the lost generation lived with these losses and the ways they handled them. Even though both books shared these themes, they also had their differences in how the characters dealt with the loss or how the loss affected them.
The modernist time period was one that dealt a lot with the ideas of how individuals can feel a sense of loss in an ever changing world. This was especially true within The Sun Also Rises and Winesburg, Ohio. Both these novels showcased what it means to be in a world that had been changed and altered which has created a sense of loss. In Hemingway’s work many of his characters can be seen as the lost generation since they grew up in a post World War 1 world, where loss was something that became to be expected. One thing that is mentioned by David Tompkins in his article The Lost Generation and the Generation of Loss is:Hemingway shows that it is the absent or lost “thing” that matters, maintains the greatest value, and defines rather than undermines every generation. Moreover, it is through his emphasis on absent (yet nonetheless crucial) things that Hemingway makes the experience of loss central to the production of a new postwar American literature. (746) When it comes to the Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s characters face a world that they can no longer define which was also a major theme of modernism and they also face a world full of lost things. A standard loss for the individuals who had to face this war affected world was the loss of themselves or sometimes body parts which used to make them feel whole. Jake Barnes is a prime example of someone who lost a piece of himself due to the war. When it comes to Jake Barnes he has been permanently affected by the war physically, such as the loss of his genitalia.This made him feel alienated from society since he no longer has a sense of himself and he’s essentially lost the piece of himself that makes him masculine. So, with Jake losing this piece of himself he is losing a piece of what makes him a man, but he also feels the loss impact his psyche and how he feels about himself and also how others feel about him. The war also affected the characters psychologically since they have to try and define how they will live after losing the sense of security they had in the past. This is why within the novel they resorted to excessive drinking and partying to try and distance themselves from the horrors of the world, and the loss of psyche that occurred. These characters also hated the place they were living in and wanted to be able to escape from where they were living. This idea of escapism results primarily from feeling a loss of yourself and hoping that moving can connect you back to the sense of self you lost. One thing that Jake mentions in the novel is, “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.” (19). This quote shows how Robert has this desire to try and move away from his problems, but in reality he really can’t escape from himself and what he has lost. This idea is one that can also be seen in Winesburg, Ohio but in a different way. One strong example of this idea of movement and escapism that can be found in Winesburg is within the short story Adventure, concerning Alice Hindman and how once she was left behind she lost the essential part of herself in this case a man who she loves. In this short story, “As time passed and she became more and more lonely she began to practice the devices common to lonely people. When at night she went upstairs into her own room she knelt on the floor to pray in her prayers whispered things she wanted to say to her lover”. This showcases how this loss became the essential thing for her, like Tompkins mentioned in his article. Near the end of Alice’s story though after being stagnant within her life she decided to have an adventure. Basically Alice decides to participate in her own form of escapism, which translates to Robert Cohn’s idea of escaping from himself. Both of these characters have a sense of alienation or loss attached to them that creates a desire to escape. One difference between them though, is how in Alice’s case she is gaining a sense of freedom or adventure but in Cohn’s case he can’t run from the loss he feels. So loss and a sense of alienation becomes prevalent in both narrative works yet characters have different forms of loss and different ways of trying to deal with said losses.
Returning back to the David Tompkins quote he talks a lot about how Hemingway expresses how a sense of loss becomes a main point of a postwar narrative since the characters are a part of the lost generation. I would also like to argue that this idea brought up by Tompkins can also be seen in Anderson’s novella. Anderson doesn’t implicitly reference the lost generation but I feel like all the characters within Winesburg can also be seen as a “lost generation” in the way that they had to face loss. David Stouck in his article Winesburg, Ohio As a Dance of Death mentions, “The central insight in the book concerning human relationships is that each man lives according to his own “truth” and that no one can understand and express fully that truth for someone else. Or, put another way, every human being in this world is ultimately alone.” (525). This describes how the lost generation would have been seen as individuals who were looking for a truth or who had a truth that they weren’t able to fully communicate, so in this way the characters in Hemingway and Anderson’s stories face a loss of communication. For example, within Winesburg in the short story “Hands” a man by the name Biddlebaum is expressed in terms of “Although he still hungered for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger became again a part of his loneliness and his waiting”. Wing Biddlebaum has this hidden truth of how he hungers of love from men which has created a sense of loneliness within him and since he has lost his ability to communicate he is isolated. Biddlebaum also lives segregated from society due to the “truth” of his wandering hands and how those got him into trouble. There is this truth about Biddlebaum that he doesn’t express which is not only how he really didn’t assault a young child but also in how he does have these hidden homosexual desires which in the time period would have created a sense of alienation for individuals. Wing Biddlebaum is someone who has had to face the loss of his reputation such as Jake did. Biddlebaum also feels a loss of understanding which I believe relates directly to the idea of being a part of the lost generation. The lost generation, lost their understanding of what the world was and tried to find their own truths which was common between Anderson and Hemingway’s characters who were trying to make sense of the losses they felt and also the truths they couldn’t express.
Stouck’s point about having truths that can’t be expressed and how that leads to alienation can also be seen within The Sun Also Rises in how the characters have a sense of truth about them that causes alienation. This can be seen in how Jake Barnes has this “truth” of how he will always be permanently scarred by the damage that happened to his genitalia in the war. This is a truth that is out and open especially since Brett knows about this which leads to her wanting in a way to alienate herself from him. Even though Jake’s truth is something that has been communicated, his truth also leads to his own form of isolation. Stouck mentions within the same article that, “These fragments remain embodied in physically and psychologically damaged, sexually incapacitated figures like Jake—figures whose profound lack ironically allows Hemingway to pay a debt to the American literary past while, simultaneously, revising heroic convention.” (758). This shows how Jake’s physically damaged body has led not only to his own form of isolation from his loss but showed how modernism was expressed within the novel. Jake Barnes expresses the truth of being damaged within a postwar society but he also showcases the truth of being this new idea of a “heroic convention” which was a staple piece of how modernism looked to reinvent the old ways of telling stories, since he isn’t the epitome of masculinity. So, even though Jake lost a piece of what made him whole this idea he creates a narrative that showcases how sometimes losing something can create something new. Essentially these two narratives (Jake’s and Wing’s) are both expressing truth, with one (Wing’s) being a lack of communication leading to alienation and in Jake’s case there is a sense of alienation due to the loss of his genitals which was a lost communication between Jake and society.
Another aspect of loss and loneliness that occurs within both books is the idea of how a godless world can become a sense of trouble and isolation for characters, but this idea was expressed differently within both novels. The Sun Also Rises and Winesburg, have a sense of how living in a godless world can affect both the characters since they lost that piece of the world which instilled companionship. With Jake’s case “And “making sense” of loss and life emerges as a major theme in a novel whose characters look for salvation in a predominantly Godless world and who find it, ultimately, in the community of other lost souls (Helbig 86) which shows how Jake has a loss of religion even though it is present so that he looks toward solving his sense of loneliness through a community of like-minded individuals. On the other hand in Winesburg, “Jesse’s unsympathetic disdain establishes his religion as a self-enclosing impulse, unable to furnish the communion he so desperately seeks. (Dewey 254), Jesse feels the same sense of isolation within a world that is godless but what separates him from characters like Jake is how his isolation is something that he has created for himself, which makes him alienated. He is alike with Jake though in how he craves a sense of companionship which is a big thing for these characters who are stuck being alone and feeling lost from their modern society. When it comes to this idea of a godless world it also fits with the overall idea of modernist ideals which is how modernist authors were trying to separate themselves from the ideals of the past. So both of these characters take their search of god and try to attach it to a sense of community which will solve their loneliness. This is an interesting ideal though for both novels since they are already embedded in a community that isn’t fulfilling their needs, so even though they have a sense of community they are looking for this movement or “escape” from the communities they grew up in. This idea of a godless society also relates back to the idea of how the lost generation had to deal with a world that had been damaged due to the war. Winesburg, Ohio and The Sun Also Rises are set in two completely different places yet they both showcase how war can affect how the individuals lives and also in the words of Edwin Fussell in his article Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation, “Loneliness is a universal condition and not a uniquely personal catastrophe” (114). So not only do these characters feel their own personal loneliness, loneliness can be something universal that everyone feels which in my eyes seems like seems to be an indicative aspect of modernism.During the time period that modernism was created, established and used the individuals who lived through it were trying to establish themselves from the past and create something new. I believe a sense of loss can also come from the idea of setting yourself apart from the past since they don’t want to completely have their roots in things of the past, and in creating something new on their own. Modernist pieces did incredible things with experimentation so even with this idea of loss attached to it it was worth it and it showcased what it meant to be this lost generation of youth trying to find their way in the world. Both Winesburg, Ohio and The Sun Also Rises looked at how loss and being the lost generation affected the individuals in both novels and how this loss affected the characters. They also used the modernist point of view to commentate on the things that may have created loss in an ever changing world.
Anderson, Sherwood, and Irving Howe. Winesburg, Ohio. Simon & Brown, 2012.
Dewey, J. “No God in the Sky and No God in Myself: “Godliness” and Anderson’s Winesburg.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 35 no. 2, 1989, pp. 251-259. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.0.0630
Fussell, Edwin. “”Winesburg, Ohio”: Art and Isolation.” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 1960, pp. 106, Periodicals Archive Online, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1301324482?accountid=8116.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner, 2003.
Stouck, David. “Winesburg, Ohio as A Dance of Death.” American Literature, vol. 48, no. 4, 1977, pp. 525–542. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2925218.
Tomkins, D. “The “Lost Generation” and the Generation of Loss: Ernest Hemingway’s Materiality of Absence and The Sun Also Rises.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 54 no. 4, 2008, pp. 744-765. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mfs.0.1578
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