Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“The Sun Also Rises”, Ernest Hemingway

July 23rd, 2009 · 4 Comments · History

sunalsorise Synopsis: A group of American dilettantes living in post WW1 Europe travel from France to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls.  The men in the group (as well as many of the locals they encounter) covet and vigorously pursue the beautiful and promiscuous Brett Ashley, but the narrator, war veteran Jake Barnes, is unable to consummate his desire for her as a result of a war injury that spared him his life, but took his manhood.

My Take: So I’ve got a bit of a thing about macho writers – the Hemingways, the Mailers, the Updikes and the Roth’s of the literary world. There’s something in me that enjoys seeing their antiquated and uncomplicated visions of masculinity put down on paper. It’s not because I think it’s a realistic view, but more because it makes for some great fiction as conflict inevitably manifests itself between their ideals of manhood and reality.

“The Sun Also Rises”, one of Hemingway’s best books is a great example of this tension. The protagonist of the story, American war veteran Jake Barnes, is a none-to-subtle exploration of what it means to be a man. Barnes physically lost his manhood in a plane crash in WW1, but did not lose his manly desires.  In Hemmingway’s world, this inability to act on the most fundamental aspect of manhood meant that Barnes could never be happy.

It is the basic act of consummation that matters beyond all else. Any other form of non-physical fulfilment never crosses Hemmingway’s mind. Throughout the book, Barnes attempts to salve his wounded manhood through physical labour, heavy drinking, hunting, fishing, bull fighting, through a whole series of actions, but can never bring himself to seek emotional satisfaction.

What I find most interesting about “The Sun Also Rises”, was that Hemingway chose this conflict not to critique this over-emphasis on the physicality of masculinity, but to emphasise it. Hemingway has obviously thought deeply about the subject. As Gary Dexter writes at the excellent ‘How Books Got Their Titles’ blog:

On July 8, 1918, while serving as an ambulance driver on the Italian Front at the end of the First World War, Hemingway was seriously injured by a trench mortar, receiving over 200 separate shrapnel wounds to his lower body. His scrotum was pierced twice, and had to be laid on a special pillow while it recovered. His testicles were undamaged and his penis intact. He had not lost his penis. But he knew a man who had:

Because of this I got to know other kids who had genito urinary wounds and I wondered what a man’s life would have been like after that if his penis had been lost and his testicles and spermatic cord remained intact. . . . [So I] tried to find out what his problems would be when he was in love with someone who was in love with him and there was nothing that they could do about it.

So Hemingway had considered the central conflict of this book in some depth and the conclusion he reached was that without sex, ‘there was nothing they could do about (their love)’. Seriously, you can’t help but be amused at self-parody as good as this.

“The Sun Also Rises” is a Hemingway at his best. Succinct and direct writing, great dialogue and a pervasive overlay of out of control machismo. Great stuff.


“This was Brett that I had felt like crying about. Then I thought of her walking up the street and stepping into the car, as I had last seen her, and of course in a little while I felt like hell again. It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night is another thing.”

Tags: Ernest Hemmingway

  • The Worst of Perth

    Strangely I’ve never read this one. Have you a Mailer on the list? Taken two out recently, but he has this awful habit of writing about himself in the 3rd person every now again, which must have seemed a hideous mistake even then. These episodes separate some really good writing, but someone who writes “the popular young author thought…” about himself is never going to out manly Hemingway.

  • Tim

    It’s definitely worth a read IMHO. Classic Hemmingway.

    Yes, there will be a few Mailers coming up (The Naked and the Dead and Armies of the Night). Yeah, with Mailer I think there sometimes more affected machismo rather than the real thing. With Hemmingway you know that there’s no acting going on – it’s the real him as terrifying as that is….

  • The Worst of Perth

    I’m reading the Ali Foreman fight doco book by NM. Again some lovely writing spoiled by some affectation.

  • Lisa Hill

    I’ve just read this too, Tim, and (apart from the bullfighting stuff, which I could have done without) I thought it was brilliant. I thought some of the other blokes were emasculated too though – what about Cohn? A powerful boxer, but Brett manages to humiliate him because she doesn’t subcribe to the one-man-one-woman POV.
    Lisa (also in Melbourne, isn’t it good to see the rain this Saturday night!)