The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway’s first biggie. But it’s not just about a bunch of expatriates frolicking in 1920’s Europe. Instead, it observes a momentous period in America’s history where gender roles become obscured and an opportunity for women to present themselves as equals to men develops.
The blurring of gender roles is initially apparent in the female characters names; Brett, Jo and Georgette (no offense to anyone named Brett, Jo or Georgette by the way). This is totally against the traditional Jane’s, Elizabeth’s and Emma’s that were commonly used in early pre-war Victorian fiction.
Not only do the women in the novel have quasi-masculine names. their appearance too becomes less feminine and increasingly masculinised. Brett’s hair, for instance is described as being “brushed back like a boy’s”. Brett, who represents sexual freedom in the book, also refers to her male friends as “you chaps”, projecting herself as their equal. Other female characters also appear to be on an equal social footing as their male counterparts: Jake asks Georgette: “are you going to buy me a dinner?” (dream on buddy).
War is certainly the driving force behind this gender inversion. Alongside the masculinisation and increased social power of women, Hemingway also depicts the post-war emasculation of men, which takes its most physical form in the character of Jake, who is sexually crippled:
One group claims women support you. The other claims you’re impotent.
This sums up Jake’s emasculation. At one point, Georgette touches Jake sexually and he does not reciprocate her affections, instead telling her he is sick and was “hurt in the war.”
Then there’s the post-war boom. Robert Cohn is financially dependent on none other than his own MOTHER:
Robert’s mother had settled an allowance on him, about 300 dollars a month.
His lack of financial independence represents a major post-war power shift: the death of millions of fathers, husbands and sons during the period of 1914 to 1918 resulted in a shift of financial power to their wives and mothers. Money plays an important part in the story. You’ll notice that throughout the novel money, counting, conversion and values are noted consistently, Brett surrounds herself with rich men and Jake quantifies emotion as carefully as he documents his own spending:
One was a bank statement. It showed a balance of $2,432.60. I got out my cheque-book and deducted four cheques drawn since the first of the month, and discovered I had a balance of $1, 832.60. I wrote this on the back of the statement.
In the period following the Great War, men lost their ‘masculine-invincibility’ with the death of millions in the trenches; and women shook off their Victorian, submissive and docile image, and began to blossom into what we now perceive as the ‘modern woman’. Young women across America were inspired to sport short hair and dress like the women in the novel.
The Sun Also Rises is a modernist masterpiece, written in Hemingway’s groundbreaking style the novel appears to be deceptively simple and it’s short, yet there’s so much to say about it, I could go on and on. Admittedly, I did not find it gripping. However, this IS the first of Hemingway’s work that I have read, so perhaps I am just not quite used to his style.
It makes for an interesting comparison when read alongside another expat tale, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (post on it’s way soon!)