Hemingway Week: The Sun Also Rises

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.

hem sun also rises

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.

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40 thoughts on “Hemingway Week: The Sun Also Rises

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  1. I just bought ‘To Have and Have Not’ so this post piqued my interest.

    I feel you on the B- marking seems to follow no logic. I have some beef to take with me to my next visit to university as a result of one of my exams which I studied hard for.

    1. Sometimes grades are based on something other than the actual work. I try not to do that with my students, but we are human, and it is hard not to make judgments based on the person, rather than the quality of the work.

      1. I dream one day of running an experiment to test the grades given by markers for accuracy and consensus.
        I can imagine personal bias must be hard to eliminate for sure. But there are so many factors that must affect what grade someone gets on any given day.

        I always figure if someone is marked somewhere in the middle of a pile they will get worse grades due to markers fatigue.

        1. I’ve actually done some research on this in my field, and people have conducted studies. It is quite interesting. Reading all of it helped me, in my opinion, to be aware of my bias and the issues that can arise while grading and therefore made me better at it. Rubrics also help.

  2. It’s good to have your insight, as I did not like this book enough to finish it. I always finish what I’m reading no matter what but made an exception here. Perhaps I should try some of his other work.

    1. I’m excited that you have him ahead of you. All week, I’ve been saying how great The Old Man and the Sea is, but I didn’t formally post on it. Maybe in the future! But you could start there. 🙂

  3. I’m not writing about “The Sun – – – – -” although I did see the movie years and years ago. Yesterday I happened to catch “The Old Man and the Sea” with Spencer Tracy while folding my weekly wash. I read the book in College for a lit. class and had also seen the movie. Yesterday’s movie brought back the while experience. It made what had been a so-so day into a wonderful experience. Must read the book again. kris

    1. I must see the movie! I’ve read the book a couple of times, but now that I know the movie has Spencer Tracy in it… 🙂 Do reread it. It is one of those worth looking at again and again.

  4. This is one of those books that I have been meaning to read, but have not. Come to think of it, I haven’t read much Hemingway, and the little that I have read was limited to high school literature– Snows of Kilimanjaro. Maybe I was too young for Hemingway because I didn’t get the underpinnings of that terse style. I knew there was more, but I didn’t speak, let alone understand, that metaphorical language very well. It’s not like I could draw on experience. High school relationships are notoriously immature. 😉 But, like another commenter said, your post has inspired me. Perhaps I shall gave Hemingway another chance. Why not? I gave Fitzgerald another chance.

    1. Yes, do! I love your comparison to high school relationships. After our minds have time to develop and mature, we can better appreciate some great literature. (And get over some not-so-great boys!)

  5. Emily, I’ve enjoyed your critiques of Hemingway all week long. Yet couldn’t help noticing how much the female charaters affected you, both emotionally within the story and personally. I have no negative comments regardin gyour experience and research( which I found wonderfully strong, for I love to research), only an observational tacit question. As hemingway must be one of your favorites and the strong character behind the women chosen by his antagonist, also the turn of the era coming into “their” own mentality- does Hemingway provide fodder of a benign since of realization and motivation or a look at the deeper truth of who “the reader” is? Althought that is a question, I beg for a deeper sense of you, the writer, not just the reader. Hope to read your stuff someday. Thanks

    1. Absolutely! My critiques for sure reflect who I am, and I am interested in women, feminism, female characters, and the female experience. Hemingway is actually NOT one of my favorites, but I took a class on him during my Master’s degree, so I have a lot of “stuff” about him and his work. My current research focuses on women in my field (professional communication), so you are absolutely right to say that my interests affect the way I read texts. I think that goes for all of us. Great observation!

  6. First I understand your plight with professor, being of the youthful looking, and a student athlete, it’s hardto be taken seriously. I actually had a professor, when I approached about a B grade laugh and say, “Aren’t you just here to play lacrosse? Do not worry the grade will not affect your scholarship.”
    On a second note, “The Sun Also Rises” is my all time favorite novel. I love what you wrote and agree. On another point, do you find it interesting that though they think of her, on the fishing trip, that is just the gents, they all seem much happier than when she is there during the bullfights.
    Absolutely awesome book, and your post has done it more than justice!
    -Brooke’s Sister

    1. Ooh, that’s interesting. They ARE happier when she’s not around. Good observation. And that stinks about how your professor treated you. It must be tough to have that sort of prejudice follow you around because you happen to be athletic as well as smart!

      1. It’s strange, I think the lesson for me was, everyone at times gets held back or discriminated. Honestly, being a student athlete has had far more advantages than disadvantages. At times I’ve felt sorry for students that work equally as hard in class but don’t receive some of the small things being an athlete offers you, like support system, study groups, and guidance help. Of course 4 am practices get old though.
        Thank you, again. Great write up on this book. You opened my eyes to things I’d yet to learn and may never have.

  7. This is a great review! I read The Sun Also Rises last year and I fell in love with his writing style. Although it is bare and minimalistic it is also deep and provides beautiful and vivid imagery without boring the reader. One of my favourite authors, so thanks.

  8. Your college English experience reminds me what’s wrong with so much of formal education. There are so many bad teachers who take the fun out of literature. I’m glad you survived to tell the story — and so very well 🙂

  9. Hi Emily 🙂 I saw this post and I wanted to tell you that I am taking an 11th grade Honors World Literature course next year that requires us to read The Sun Also Rises along with Wuthering Heights this summer. I enjoy reading your blog and its always nice to see something I can relate to. Thanks!

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