Dripping with booze and bloody tales of bullfighting, The Sun Also Rises is a “hard-boiled”, yet simultaneously heartbreaking story of the Lost Generation. Told in the sparse, yet tightly wound prose that bears the Hemingway trademark, it follows the wandering journey of expatriates, displaced both mentally and physically by the grim realities of World War I.
The novel follows Jake, a crippled war veteran who roams around Europe to escape from his painful feelings of incompetence and to seek a moral lifestyle; but each time he sets out with such intentions, he is sucked back into the moral vacuum of his cohorts and circumstances, trapping himself in an endless cycle of self-indictment and material indulgence. True to its title, Hemingway’s tale is one of the endless and cyclical battle between man and his own conscience, so poignantly depicted in a group of acquaintances jaded by war and failures with love.
As the characters are caught in this game of moral limbo, the readers are conflicted about how to feel about their unethical actions as well, especially Jake’s. Though his battle wounds—both literally and figuratively—are deep and thus partially serve as explanations for his desire to forget and engage in hedonic drinking, they do not excuse his immoral behaviors. But it is hard not to pity his constant struggle against his own shortcomings. Like the futile fight of the bulls and fish against those that hunt them, Jake unsuccessfully combats his carnal desires. In the fashion of the setting and rising sun, his mistakes are repetitive and constant.
The moral spectrum is wide. On one end lies Brett, the uncontainable femme fatale who, like a rogue bull spearing men, behaves without self-restraint. All the way over on the other end lies Pedro Romero the bullfighter—brave and strong, both mentally and physically. Though in love with the alluring and desirable Brett, Jake facilitates the relationship between Romero and Brett—acting much like a pimp to get her what she desires.
Brett is much like a physical entity that pushes Jake further and further away from reaching spiritual restoration. The closer he gets to a balanced and healthy lifestyle, Brett returns and drags him back. Thus Jake’s failures are somewhat circumstantial—exterior obstacles, such as his friends and cohorts, hinder his progress in addition to his own inadequacies.
Though his behaviours are reprehensible, it is difficult to side against Jake. His struggles represent the fundamental human condition. Torn between the desire to reach self-awareness through rational decisions and the wish to satiate his more carnal desires, he is at unease with his behavioural choices yet cannot break the habit. His mind pulls him in a direction while his body goes the other. If anything, it is easy to empathise with him. His limitations, fruitless struggles and self-indictment are altogether so human.
Review by Robin Park