English 1A Tue/Thu
A Literary Criticism of The Sun Also Rises From The Perspective of Gender-Roles
In The Sun Also Rises, Earnest Hemingway tells a fascinating story in a very unusual way. The most unusual part of the story may be the way he breaks the typical mold of gender roles, or perhaps it is the way he breaks the traditional elements of plot. I think it is both. His contrarian approach to a contrarian story makes both of these issues microcosms of each other. The Sun Also Rises explores complex topics in a very minimal way. The author implies greater depth than he conveys directly, drawing at the perspective of the reader to fill in the vast spaces between the lines and to challenge their assumptions and preconceived ideas about gender, and what the characters ought to want from one another.
The story is told in the first person by “Jake,” but it would be easy to argue that it is about a woman named Brett. (Notice the traditionally masculine name.) Brett is what one might call a “New Woman,” a period motif which challenged gender role assumptions, especially relating to power (Yu). She is by far the wealthiest, most powerful, and most sexually libertine character in the book. Despite heraldic claims to various hereditary titles by many characters early on, only Brett’s is substantiated by the author’s character. When a friend asks him, “Is she really Lady something or other,” Jake replies, “Oh, yes. In the stud-book and everything.” Here we see another subtle pun intended to cast her in a masculine light. Jake is referring to her heraldic pedigree as one would to the pedigree of a male breeding animal in the form of a stud-book. (Hemingway)
Together with several other friends, they are going on an adventure to Spain from Paris to watch bull fighting. The story is chock-full of men who love and obsess over Brett, and none of them can approach her station, strength, or wealth. She talks about these men like many men talk about women. When she realizes that one of the men she is womanizing has earned a more serious and unrequited affection from her, she says to Jake, “When I think of the hell I’ve put chaps through. I’m paying for it all now.” (Hemingway)
Like most of the men in the book, Jake, the character telling the story, holds a deep love for Brett but unlike the others, he chooses not to seek out its fulfillment. They sometimes talk about it but in general, they have an unspoken understanding that it wouldn’t work between them. This is just one way in which Jake lives out a softer form of masculinity than the traditional role one might expect in an early 20th century novel.
Jake’s soft-masculinity is in stark contrast to Robert, the Princeton boxer and Brett’s obsessive former lover. He shared a brief romance with Brett, and was entirely overcome by it. He ceaselessly chases her and tries to fight to earn her affections despite the fact that she has long-since moved on to another man Mike who is along for the adventure. Mike, like Jake, reviles Robert. “I would have thought you’d loved being a steer, Robert,” Mike says… “They lead such a quiet life. They never say anything and they’re always hanging about so.” Mike is constantly insulting Robert and denigrating his traditional masculinity. (Hemingway)
When Brett asks Robert to leave her alone for a while because she needs some space, she confides in Jake that she saw him stalking the shadows, following her and unable to be apart from her. Despite this obsession, Jake and Brett manage to lose Robert for a time, and Brett convinces Jake to help her arrange a rendezvous with a handsome young bullfighter she wants to sleep with. When Jake leaves them to it and rejoins the rest of the group at a bar, Robert immediately attacks him and demands to know where she is and with whom. Jake refuses to tell him, and they get into a fight. Jake is knocked unconscious but not before he hears Robert call him a pimp, implying that Brett, the object of his affection, is a whore. Robert has gone full Fox-and-the-Grapes.
When Jake regains consciousness, he goes to confront Robert and finds him crying in bed. Robert has finally been forced to confront the fact that his expectations are unrealistic. His classic masculine archetype wanted to keep fighting and win Brett’s affection, but her interests could not be farther from him, and the more he tried, the less she liked him.
Meanwhile, Mike, Brett’s chosen primary partner, has told the story to the group of how he knows that Brett is always running off with other men. Admitting to something like that would typically be considered emasculating for a classic male gender-role, but Mike readily and enthusiastically admits Brett’s nature. He is fine with her having her own fun and then coming home to him. He accepts her very unusual role. Jake and his soft-masculinity, along with Mike and his, are able to see past Robert’s classic, yet unrealistic goals and methods.
When Brett runs off with the bullfighter, she soon sends a telegram to Jake, asking him to come and save her from the mess she has made. Jake arrives to find her fine, but embarrassed at running off with this young man who doesn’t have the maturity to understand the way she is. She has made him leave after interpreting the collapse of this unfortunate tryst as punishment for the sin of objectifying and womanizing so many male partners. Despite coming to this conclusion, you will notice she is still the one in power over the bullfighter as she has “made him go” (Yu).
She walks with Jake towards the story’s end and some next destination. She turns to him on the last page and says, “Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together.” Jake turns to her and replies, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” This ending compels the reader to infer that Jake does not see himself as either Robert or Mike. He knows Brett will never settle down and be happy with just one man, so he refuses to attempt to be such a man, opting to be a confidant and companion, rather than chasing the futile, quixotic ideals which Robert has, in his traditional role. (Hemingway)
This story is strong in exposition and conflict, but you will notice there is no resolution. No one gets what they want, and it really doesn’t end well for anyone. Of all the characters in the story, only Jake seems to leave with a clear understanding of what has happened, and a confidence that from the beginning, he made the right choice by rejecting the traditional male role.
Hemingway, Earnest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1926.
Yu, Xiaoping. “English Language Teaching .” n.d. The New Woman in The Sun Also Rises. Ed. Qingdao University of Science and Technology College of Foreign Languages. No. 3 Vol. 3 and September 2010. <http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1081778.pdf>.