Resistance of Gender Norms in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway seeks to address changes of life and attitudes following World War I through the disjointed lens of the narrator, Jake Barnes. Told through his stream of consciousness, the novel investigates psychological aimlessness and alienation resulting from a tangible sense of trauma as well as its problematic means of repeating itself. The sense of loss, disjointedness, and wandering in conjunction with a challenge of pre-war ideas is central to Hemingway’s work and ultimately classifies it as a Modernist text. Jake exposes the activities of his group of “friends” within the Parisian expatriate society, characterized by their constant drinking and mindless travel from place to place. Both by literal and situational means, Hemingway’s masculinity (or lack thereof) asserts itself boldly through Jake in both his prose and micro-aggressions towards other characters. Juxtaposed to Jake’s self-loathing and feminine atrophy is Lady Brett Ashley, the central female antagonist with arguably some of the most “masculine” behaviors. Specifically, Brett depicts the “New Woman” in response to shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder, both exemplifying and challenging changing gender and sexual ideals.
Brett embodies the gray area between the divergence of patriarchal values and rising feminism. She sleeps with men when she desires to but implicates she eventually wants to fall in love and settle down. She is the sole female in a male group of expatriates and dominates the conversation with her bold personality and beauty. After a long night of drinking and gallivanting around Paris, she confides in Jake “Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable” (Hemingway 32). In a scene where it seems like Brett should be enjoying herself, she admits to Jake that she is depressed, exposing her use of alcohol as a coping mechanism and giving a sense of the emptiness resulting from wandering around Paris’s cafes. Brett’s partying and radically sexual activity serve as solely a distraction from her inner turmoil rather than a means to enjoying herself. This component of Brett exhibits patriarchal values, portraying her as if she is a “wayward” woman, resulting from her seeming lack of values, promiscuous behavior, and drinking habits. While Hemingway seems to condemn Brett for her behavior and the way it hurts Jake, he also admires her for her controlling presence and personality, perhaps because she contains a masculinity that is lacking in himself.
Modernist literature seeks to investigate stereotypical masculine and feminine behavior, and Brett behaves as one of the most masculine characters in the novel. Her hair is cut short in a bob-style fashion, and she often refers to herself and her friends as “chap,” challenging the pre-set standards of femininity in the pattern of the “New Woman.” Hemingway’s most prominent allegory in The Sun Also Rises characterizes the bull-fights in the rings of San Sebastian as a parallel to the events of the characters themselves. In this way, Brett acts as the character of the bull-fighter, constantly manipulating and teasing the men she encounters for sport. When the men think that watching the bull-fights will be too violent for her, she surprises them by paying rapt attention and describes her passion for it: “They do have some rather awful things happen to them…I couldn’t look away, though” (Hemingway 170). Both captivated by the concept of the bull-fighter and Pedro Romero’s technique specifically, Brett is self-aware of the effect she has on people and her keen ability to both manipulate men and string them along. While evolving sexual ideals allowed her to do as she pleased, a constant old-world ideal looms behind her, exemplified through Robert Cohn’s inability to accept that she does not want him despite their prior sexual relationship. As she experiences post-war stress, she quickly rejects these pre-war ideals to numb herself from facing her trauma.
With The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway creates an aimless tale exemplifying the often harmful behaviors of expatriates to themselves and others. By never removing themselves from the site of their trauma, they are constantly doomed to repeat it, numbing their experiences of these emotions through constant drinking in different exotic locations. Masculinity is challenged and proves itself to be more fragile in the coming age, but it still always present in the narrative and many of the characters’ activities. Brett Ashley perpetuates some masculine behaviors that challenge gender norms – but not healthily. Rather than using her masculine behavior to create further independence for other women, she manipulates the men in her life and avoids dealing with any of her past experiences. While a breakdown of sexual norms is welcomed by modern reader, the stringent meaninglessness, aimlessness, and rejection of history make A Sun Also Rises a very complex read despite its minimalist prose. Hemingway uses literary Modernism to masterfully convey the attitudes and feelings of the time, allowing the reader to feel alienated and question their purpose alongside the experiences of the troubled characters.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York City: Scribner, 2006.
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