When I first read The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway, I was an undergraduate student in a class on American Modernism. My professor was a tall bald man who said the word “modernity” in a nasally voice at least 100 times every class period. It was hard not to laugh and smirk when he wasn’t looking.
However, I stopped laughing when I got my grade back on my final paper. I had spent hours and hours in the library researching it. I had written on the New Woman portrayed by Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, and I had tried to set some historical context by looking at old magazines for women of the era. I felt good about the paper because of the research, time, and attention I had paid to it. I even used visual elements from the 1920s magazines! It was my first experience with archival research and I loved it. So, when the paper came back with a B-, I was confused and upset.
I went to the professor and asked him (yes, tearfully—I was only 19) why I hadn’t done better. He explained to me that I looked young and that I should take my upper division writing course before attempting to take upper-level literature classes. I responded that I had taken the writing course. He said, “What grade did you get?” I proudly told him that I had gotten an “A.”
He looked puzzled. It was as if he suddenly realized that although I was young and that I looked even younger (my freckles and short stature have never been my friend when trying to prove my maturity), I was still on par with the other students in the class. He revised the grade to a B+. I avoided taking another class from him. (He’s now the chair of the English department at that university!)
So my experience with writing about The Sun Also Rises has not been pleasant, but I did enjoy the novel. That paper I tried to write reminds me that I’ve always been interested in the feminine and the female contributions to any situation, even though at that time I would not have called my research efforts “feminist.” They were, and I’m glad I’m still on that road to recovering women’s contributions to my field.
Anyway, the novel depicts the expatriate lifestyle of the “lost generation” with only essential dialogue and action. Hemingway’s sparse style seems to present only the necessary facts; however, under this terse language we can find more meaning. One important example of this is the use of bullfighting as a metaphor for the males’ competition over Lady Brett Ashley.
One connection to this is Cohn’s characterization as a steer. He has an affair with Brett, but once it is over and she’s with Mike, Cohn continues to follow her. Of the steers in the ring with the bulls, Brett says, “They don’t look happy” (143). This has double meaning because it also refers to Cohn, who isn’t happy because of his longing for Brett. The metaphor is taken further when the group talks about the herd. Cohn comments, “It’s no life being a steer” (145). Again, the observation applies to the animals and to Cohn himself, who realizes he is being shunned but continues to try to be a contender in the fight for Brett.
The steers are also symbolic because they usually end up gored when the bulls enter the ring. Cohn also ends up being “stabbed” because he loses Brett to Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter. He beats up Romero, but ultimately loses because Brett stays with her lover instead of going with Cohn. He feels betrayed, and the imagery of a bull goring a bystander during the running represents this. The man is gored through the back, and a waiter astutely comments that it happened “All for sport. All for pleasure” (201). Brett also stabs her lovers in the back, including Cohn and Mike and eventually Romero. This carnage occurs “all for pleasure,” yet none of it ends well. The fighting over Brett results in hurt and damage.
Although Brett seems to feel somewhat worried about her actions, she still acknowledges that she has a weakness for men who pursue her. “There are thousands of bulls,” she says (189). She cannot stay true to one man, although Jake would like her too, because there are too many to choose from. She also says, “Funny . . . [h]ow one doesn’t mind the blood” (215). She knows her actions are causing metaphorical bloodshed, yet she does not care. She has become used to competition over her, and she even enjoys it.
These examples, and many others, show the metaphor Hemingway drew between male competition for females and bullfighting. The comparison is apt and gives us insight into his views on male-female relationships.