Hemingway’s focus on and description of the external, material world is a way of avoiding and, therefore, sublimating his characters’ (particularly Jake Barnes’) emotional landscapes. By focusing on the material world Hemingway can, through that sublimation, hint at his characters’ interior lives, leaving them more open to interpretation.
What Hemingway understands is that all literature—in fact, all language—is constructed to express particular absences. Action takes place in a sentence (mediated through verbs describing what the sentence’s subject does) because of a perceived lack of something: We speak out of desire for what we want.
Hemingway’s language, however, doesn't seem to demand anything from the hollows of absence but rather to depict absence itself, as it exists, and that absence permeates throughout The Sun Also Rises as if it were an entity, a phantom presence of which the characters themselves are composed. This absence, as a presence, forces the novel’s characters (particularly Jake) to search for meaning outside themselves without explicitly expressing their desire to do so.
According to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories in Semiotics, humans identify signifiers not by their relation to other signifiers but by their differences from them (“Course in General Linguistics,” 70). Humans, then, identify themselves not by their relation to other humans but by their differences from them. The gaps these differences create only nurture the absences language exists to describe/depict, hindering Jake’s ability to identify himself—i.e., if humans identify themselves by what they are not, these absences allow Jake no space in which to objectively define anything other than his surroundings, so he cannot accurately define himself. This is why the main focus of the narrative is externally anchored.
As a result of these descriptions of the external, material world, “a great deal of this novel's action occurs beneath the surface” (
It is unclear just who Jake is addressing in his narrative, so it may exist as a novel-length justification for his own existence predicated through a series of cursory glances of his surroundings—which Hemingway exploits to show how detached Jake is. (Whether Jake behaves this way intentionally or not is another absence we must contend with.) Despite the cockroach Jake defends the hotel’s cleanliness, glorifying its surface appearance rather than admitting to any underlying impurity.
It is within these external spaces where Hemingway can show how Jake sublimates his emotions regarding both his mysterious war injury and his relationships with other humans. According to David Tompkins:
Hemingway seizes on such instances of loss in material terms by emphasizing a variety of material objects—both inanimate and corporeal—that commemorate immaterial events. In doing so, Hemingway shows that it is the absent or lost ‘thing’ that matters, maintains the greatest value, and defines rather than undermines. (“The ‘Lost Generation’...,” 746)In chapter 16, Jake describes a fireworks show during the fiesta in Spain. He describes flaming balloons and rockets going up in the square. For Jake, this image of genitalia is heightened more so—however unconsciously—by Mike’s sexual pursuit of Bill’s unnamed female friend, and the fact that Brett Ashley soon after admits that she is in love with Romero, thus again reminding Jake of his inability, due to his injury, to satisfy her sexually. Jake, therefore, loses his masculinity twice: the first a physical loss, then emotionally as a result of that physical loss.
“[T]he specific nature of Jake's injury,” according to David M. Raabe, “is not that he has been emasculated in the conventional sense of castration but that he has lost his penis, while retaining all other mechanisms for sexual stimulation and desire” (“Hemingway's Anatomical Metonymies,” 160). The image of the balloons bursting between people’s legs then symbolizes Jake’s frustration and anxiety over his sexual inability, in that he cannot utilize his remaining masculinity in any way that would allow him (or Brett Ashley) any sexual or even emotional release.
If Jake can only identify himself according to who he isn’t, then his sexual inability is counteracted by the libidos of other characters like Mike and Robert, and especially by Brett herself, who plays a stereotypical male role more convincingly than do the other males in the text. If humans identify themselves by their differences from others, then foils exist in literature as merely a method for characters to discover and assert themselves.
Brett, though, exists in contradiction to this (as her own foil, in this sense), in that she and Jake reflect one another as a result of their differences. Brett is hypersexual, whereas Jake lacks (and therefore desires) sexual release. Brett also assumes the role of the group’s dominant Alpha male, whereas Jake, as the protagonist, monopolizes the entire novel in patriarchal terms as a gender-male colonial power. Brett’s power, then, is an inverted version of Jake’s. I will go into this later.
The issue of identity arises again out of the concept of time and space. In chapter 3, Jake’s encounter with Georgette offers a glimpse into the post-World-War-1 era, in which traditional ideological concepts such as nation and culture and history are ultimately abandoned. The two pass a shop window full of clocks which tell the time in different cities all over America. By leaving America for Europe, Jake has distanced himself from, if not completely abandoned, his origins, creating a physical and temporal gap between those origins and his present condition or status in life.
Jake has, in a sense, become his own absence. Speaking with Robert earlier in the novel, Jake remarks that “going to another country doesn’t make any difference. [He’s] tried all that. [He] can’t get away from [himself] by moving from one place to another” (The Sun Also Rises, 11). Jake is more concerned with his inner struggle, with reconfiguring his identity according to subjective perception as opposed to the collective consciousness of conventional cultural and societal structures. Jake does, though, contradict that position soon after, during his encounter with Georgette, when he asks:
'Don’t likeGeorgette makes Jake’s earlier point to Robert for him: “Isn’t anywhere else.” It doesn’t matter where these character are or where they go, because they will haunt themselves. That Jake’s question contradicts his earlier remarks to Robert shows even he is incapable of maintaining a fixed position, any semblance of cognitive consistency.
'Why don’t you go somewhere else?'
'Isn’t anywhere else.' (15)
This oscillation is due to his perception that there is no country, no home, no true identity—no values or morals on which to found or sustain a society or an ideology which, after World War I, no longer relate to any traditional sense of stability through existing power structures. There is no escape, neither from or into themselves. The absences they feel will always be present.
The bullfights represent another symbol of masculinity with which Jake is unable to synonymize, as “the bull is a symbol of sexual strength and vitality” (Schmigalle, 15). Jake is, then, sexually attracted to the violence of bullfighting, as well as that of boxing. According to Schmigalle, Jake attends such events to regain the manhood he has lost, and “by contemplating these spectacles or participating in these rituals, Jake manages to overcome, momentarily and precariously, his human condition” (15).
Jake not only attends but is aroused by these “spectacles” because of a passive-aggressive desire for the destruction of the very symbols he sublimates due to the absence he feels. Just as killing the cockroach in his hotel room in
The bulls may also be viewed as a symbol of birth (for Jake, a rebirth). From the dark cages they wait in like wombs, they emerge dizzy and confused into a short, painful and pointless life—that which “[becomes] more something that [is] going on with a definite end, and less of a spectacle with unexplained horrors” (The Sun Also Rises, 167).
This is Hemingway’s description of life itself, something we all possess which, despite its mélange of tragedy, its complicated pantheon of arbitrary affliction, there is relief to be found in the assurance that it will one day cease to inflict injury upon those who possess it. This proposition is indeed reminiscent of Freud’s theory of the “death instinct,” by which humans, indeed all living organisms, utilize their self-preservation instincts only to further “the attainment of the goal of death” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 48).
These passive-aggressive impulses are the direct result of Jake’s injury. This then raises the question of the entire male gender’s obsession with such violences. That Jake’s position is one in which he is driven by male instincts yet inhibited from acting them out implies that all males are biologically disposed to repression and sublimation of their sexual desires and frustrations through aggressive behavior. Jake’s affinity for these “spectacles” is derived from his frustration at physically being neither fully capable nor utterly powerless. According to Dana Fore:
Jake occupies a psychological middle-ground between the disabled characters Count Mippipopolous and the bullfighter Belmonte—and as he accepts or rejects these characters, we are meant to understand that he is embracing or discarding the stereotypes of able-bodiedness or disability they represent. (“Life Unworthy of Life?...,” 76)How Jake relates to the novel’s other male characters is, as stated earlier, necessarily antonymous. Jake does not embrace the Count precisely because he is, as Brett says, “one of us” (The Sun Also Rises, 60). The nature of the Count’s injury is no less obscure than Jake’s, as he undresses to reveal wounds which to the reader may not be fully apparent, yet Brett’s implication is that he, too, was wounded in the same manner as Jake, that their common infirmity is indeed a missing penis.
Brett seems to be aroused, though perhaps not sexually, by the prospect of introducing Jake to the Count, exhibiting the absent physical characteristics of masculinity they no longer possess in the hope that Jake will be repelled by a living reflection of himself—a reflection which has fully accepted its own disability.
The question then becomes: Does Jake create these absences intentionally as a way to effectively maintain his identity? Has he come to accept his disability in any way, his status in the world—in his own life? The Sun Also Rises is not a novel about progress, in that its characters do not evolve toward a better understanding of their own identities whether according to themselves or to others.
On the contrary—we enter the story at a point when they’ve already become who they are, and no amount of drink, travel, interaction, love or conviction will save them. The novel ends with no sense of resolution—Jake and Brett are, as always, emotionally drawn to one another, but neither are fully capable or willing to compromise how they perceive themselves both according to, and for the sake of, the other.
Whether this is evidence of acceptance of their self-perceptions can be considered two ways: 1) If any of these characters wanted to change, wanted to learn something about themselves and alter any undesired attributes, they would surely, throughout the course of the novel, manage to construct their own particular chrysalises from which to emerge as different creatures. This, however, raises the question of whether 2) the absences present in the novel preclude these characters from realizing not only whether change is possible, but whether it is necessary.
The first point suggests the characters’ behavior (reckless drinking, promiscuous sex, etc.) is intentional, yet only to the extent of being compulsively driven to engage in actions they believe are intentional, which they believe will satiate their undefined desires. The second point implies the characters’ lack of awareness is merely another absence, an emptiness they’re unable to fill with anything substantial, and so their behavior is the result of sublimated desire—an unconscious intention.
This signals Brett Ashley's role as a female in the novel. Her emptiness is an inverted version of Jake’s: They reflect one another as a result of their differences. According to Robert Dale Parker, Brett assumes the role of both “a femme fatale and an iconic figure of Woman, whether endorsing such cliches, parodying them, or—deconstructively—both at once” (How to Interpret Literature, 151).
In terms of identity, Brett, too, “occupies a psychological middle-ground” (Fore, 76), just as Jake is seemingly unable to place himself in the world according to the absolutes represented by the other male characters in the novel—though they represent the antonymy he desires in his companions to maintain his own identity.
This, and not that Brett is female, is precisely why Jake desires her: She is not only the opposite of him (hypersexual, dominant, irrational, etc.); she is the opposite of other women, in that she views her own gender as an absence—a casualty of patriarchal power. She desires the opposite social and cultural binary, i.e., male privilege, not to possess it sexually but to embody it ideologically. She envies Jake for what he once possessed while Jake envies Brett for what she is still capable of acquiring without him.
Where is Hemingway to be found in all these absences? Does he occupy the spaces between genders, between nations, between ideologies? Hemingway is searching for the absence of absence: A space in which none of these absolutes exist, yet a space in which we can still define ourselves without dichotomic or binary distinctions. Unfortunately, even in the aftermath of World War I, Western ideology is still dominated by and mediated through ideological binaries exploited by still-existing power structures.
If Jake Barnes or Brett Ashley or any of the other characters are at all metonymic representations of Hemingway’s own potentially veiled optimism toward an identity forged not by cultural obligation or restriction but by individual autonomy, then the absences themselves are desired and intentionally sought after to mitigate what they represent—signifiers substantiating what they fail to signify.
Fore, Dana. “Life Unworthy of Life?: Masculinity, Disability, and Guilt in The Sun Also Rises.” The Hemingway Review 26.2 (2007): 74-88. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
Fulton, Lorie Watkins. “
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises.
Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies
Raabe, David M. “Hemingway's Anatomical Metonymies.” Journal of Modern Literature 23.1 (1999): 159-163. Print.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Course in General Linguistics.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.
Schmigalle, Günther. “’How People Go to Hell’: Pessimism, Tragedy, and Affinity to Schopenhauer in The Sun Also Rises.” The Hemingway Review 25.1 (2005): 7-21. Print.
Tomkins, David. “The ‘Lost Generation’ and the Generation of Loss: Ernest Hemingway’s Materiality of Absence and The Sun Also Rises.” Modern Fiction Studies 54.8 (2008): 744-765. Print.