1994-05-18: The Sun Also Rises

The Sun Also Rises (1926)

by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

This novel “immediately established Ernest Hemingway as the preeminent writer of his generation.” As I read it, the question in my mind was “Why?” The answer, of course, is not in the book, but in the minds of the readers of 1926.

The dedication is followed by two quotations:

“You are all a lost generation.” – Gertrude Stein in conversation

“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever … The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose … The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits … All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” – Ecclesiastes

Unlike the “typical” novel, there is little character growth. The characters at the end are the same as they are at the beginning. But at the beginning they mainly have a sense of their own unchangingness.

Two items:

The Boulevard Raspail always made dull riding. … I suppose it is some association of ideas that makes those dead places in a journey. There are other streets in Paris as ugly as the Boulevard Raspail. It is a street I do not mind walking down at all. But I cannot stand to ride along it. Perhaps I had read something about it once. (Chapter VI, p 41)

There is no reason why because it is dark you should look at things differently from when it is light. The hell there isn’t!

I figured that all out once, and for six months I never slept with the electric light off. That was another bright idea. To hell with women, anyway. To hell with you, Brett Ashley.

Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.

I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as the all other fine philosophies I’ve had. (Chapter XIV, p 148)

This book is basically a description of one man paying his way into things he likes, having a good time. The good times primarily involve male companionship, sharing appreciation for mutual interests, such as fishing, bullfights, attractive women, the ability to get along with other men. The man who can’t get along with other men, Cohn, is despised and eventually ostracized; he is also the most deeply involved with women, and doesn’t get along with them either. Additionally, a good deal of alcohol is consumed, often to excess, except by Cohn.

The quote from Ecclesiastes recognizes the unchangingness of all things, and the futility of looking for change in life. Even when introducing a new activity, or locale, Hemingway makes it something long-known to the narrator, Barnes. This gives the book a feeling of waiting, as if for something significant to happen (as it might in another book), but nothing does.

With one exception. Barnes has a long-standing friendship with Montoya, based on aficion for the corrida. But when he introduces Ashley to the torero, Romero, he introduces a factor into Romero’s life that disrupts his dedication to the corrida. Montoya’s world-view doesn’t allow such behavior from an aficionado, and reduces his esteem for Barnes. Perhaps permanently, or perhaps not, but it is a distinct change in a part of Barnes’s world, and for the worse.

The question of the state of mind of Hemingway’s readers of 1926 remains. What was the prior literary experience of those readers? What aspect of this book struck them so strongly as to make of him such a strong literary presence? Without further research (which I don’t intend to do), I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the reason is less to do with Hemingway’s “fine philosophy” than with the background memes exposed throughout the book. These basically acknowledge and accept the high position of pleasure-seeking in the value systems of the protagonists. Other writer’s of the 1920s were doing the same thing, and the spread of these memes throughout the English-speaking (and presumably French and other) societies in this period was a significant development of the century. The children born to this generation of writers and their like-age readers were my generation’s parents.

Hemingway’s was not a “lost generation”. His cohort had a crucial effect that has lasted over seven decades. They tipped a balance away from the “classical” Victorian values toward the “romantic”, a balance (some would say imbalance) that has been in effect ever since. We are still trying to sort out the implications of the shift. The political marketing phrase “family values” is a detonator for the tension between different attractors in the value system. Peaceful domestic relations depends on the resolution of the conflict between these two attractors.

 

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