The Sun Also Rises
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Aimlessness of the Lost Generation
World War I undercut traditional notions of morality, faith, and justice. No longer able to rely on the traditional beliefs that gave life meaning, the men and women who experienced the war became psychologically and morally lost, and they wandered aimlessly in a world that appeared meaningless. Jake, Brett, and their acquaintances give dramatic life to this situation. Because they no longer believe in anything, their lives are empty. They fill their time with inconsequential and escapist activities, such as drinking, dancing, and debauchery.
It is important to note that Hemingway never explicitly states that Jake and his friends’ lives are aimless, or that this aimlessness is a result of the war. Instead, he implies these ideas through his portrayal of the characters’ emotional and mental lives. These stand in stark contrast to the characters’ surface actions. Jake and his friends’ constant carousing does not make them happy. Very often, their merrymaking is joyless and driven by alcohol. At best, it allows them not to think about their inner lives or about the war. Although they spend nearly all of their time partying in one way or another, they remain sorrowful or unfulfilled. Hence, their drinking and dancing is just a futile distraction, a purposeless activity characteristic of a wandering, aimless life.
World War I forced a radical reevaluation of what it meant to be masculine. The prewar ideal of the brave, stoic soldier had little relevance in the context of brutal trench warfare that characterized the war. Soldiers were forced to sit huddled together as the enemy bombarded them. Survival depended far more upon luck than upon bravery. Traditional notions of what it meant to be a man were thus undermined by the realities of the war. Jake embodies these cultural changes. The war renders his manhood (that is, his penis) useless because of injury. He carries the burden of feeling that he is “less of a man” than he was before. He cannot escape a nagging sense of inadequacy, which is only compounded by Brett’s refusal to enter into a relationship with him.
While Jake’s condition is the most explicit example of weakened masculinity in the novel, it is certainly not the only one. All of the veterans feel insecure in their manhood. Again, Hemingway does not state this fact directly, but rather shows it in the way Jake and his veteran friends react to Cohn. They target Cohn in particular for abuse when they see him engaging in “unmanly” behavior such as following Brett around. They cope with their fears of being weak and unmasculine by criticizing the weakness they see in him. Hemingway further presents this theme in his portrayal of Brett. In many ways, she is more “manly” than the men in the book. She refers to herself as a “chap,” she has a short, masculine haircut and a masculine name, and she is strong and independent. Thus, she embodies traditionally masculine characteristics, while Jake, Mike, and Bill are to varying degrees uncertain of their masculinity.
The Destructiveness of Sex
Sex is a powerful and destructive force in The Sun Also Rises. Sexual jealousy, for example, leads Cohn to violate his code of ethics and attack Jake, Mike, and Romero. Furthermore, the desire for sex prevents Brett from entering into a relationship with Jake, although she loves him. Hence, sex undermines both Cohn’s honor and Jake and Brett’s love. Brett is closely associated with the negative consequences of sex. She is a liberated woman, having sex with multiple men and feeling no compulsion to commit to any of them. Her carefree sexuality makes Jake and Mike miserable and drives Cohn to acts of violence. In Brett, Hemingway may be expressing his own anxieties about strong, sexually independent women.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Failure of Communication
The conversations among Jake and his friends are rarely direct or honest. They hide true feelings behind a mask of civility. Although the legacy of the war torments them all, they are unable to communicate this torment. They can talk about the war only in an excessively humorous or painfully trite fashion. An example of the latter occurs when Georgette and Jake have dinner, and Jake narrates that they would probably have gone on to agree that the war “would have been better avoided” if they were not fortunately interrupted. The moments of honest, genuine communication generally arise only when the characters are feeling their worst. Consequently, only very dark feelings are expressed. When Brett torments Jake especially harshly, for instance, he expresses his unhappiness with her and their situation. Similarly, when Mike is hopelessly drunk, he tells Cohn how much his presence disgusts him. Expressions of true affection, on the other hand, are limited almost exclusively to Jake and Bill’s fishing trip.
Nearly all of Jake’s friends are alcoholics. Wherever they happen to be, they drink, usually to excess. Often, their drinking provides a way of escaping reality. Drunkenness allows Jake and his acquaintances to endure lives severely lacking in affection and purpose. Hemingway clearly portrays the drawbacks to this excessive drinking. Alcohol frequently brings out the worst in the characters, particularly Mike. He shows himself to be a nasty, violent man when he is intoxicated. More subtly, Hemingway also implies that drunkenness only worsens the mental and emotional turmoil that plagues Jake and his friends. Being drunk allows them to avoid confronting their problems by providing them with a way to avoid thinking about them. However, drinking is not exclusively portrayed in a negative light. In the context of Jake and Bill’s fishing trip, for instance, it can be a relaxing, friendship-building, even healthy activity.
False friendships relate closely to failed communication. Many of the friendships in the novel have no basis in affection. For instance, Jake meets a bicycle team manager, and the two have a drink together. They enjoy a friendly conversation and make plans to meet the next morning. Jake, however, sleeps through their meeting, having no regard for the fact that he will never see the man again. Jake and Cohn demonstrate another, still darker type of false friendship. Although Cohn genuinely likes Jake, Jake must often mask outright antagonism toward Cohn, an antagonism that increases dramatically along with Jake’s unspoken jealousy of Cohn over his affair with Brett. At one point, he even claims to hate Cohn. This inability to form genuine connections with other people is an aspect of the aimless wandering that characterizes Jake’s existence. Jake and his friends wander socially as well as geographically. Ironically, Hemingway suggests that in the context of war it was easier to form connections with other people. In peacetime it proves far more difficult for these characters to do so.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The bullfighting episodes in The Sun Also Rises are rich in symbolic possibilities. The multiple possible interpretations of these passages speak to the depth and complexity of the text. For example, nearly every episode involving bulls or bullfighting parallels an episode that either has occurred, or will soon occur, among Jake and his friends. The killing of the steer by the bull at the start of the fiesta, for instance, may prefigure Mike’s assault on Cohn. Alternatively, we can read this incident as prefiguring Brett’s destruction of Cohn and his values. Furthermore, the bullfighting episodes nearly always function from two symbolic viewpoints: Jake’s perspective and the perspective of postwar society. For instance, we can interpret the figure of Belmonte from the point of view of Jake and his friends. Just as Cohn, Mike, and Jake all once commanded Brett’s affection, so too did Belmonte once command the affection of the crowd, which now discards him for Romero. In a larger context, Belmonte can symbolize the entire Lost Generation, whose moment seems to have passed. On still another level, Hemingway uses bullfighting to develop the theme of the destructiveness of sex. The language Hemingway employs to describe Romero’s bullfighting is almost always sexual, and his killing of the bull takes the form of a seduction. This symbolic equation of sex and violence further links sexuality to danger and destruction. It is important to note that the distinctions between these interpretations are not hard and fast. Rather, levels of meaning in The Sun Also Rises flow together and complement one another.