In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway does far more than simply tell the story of Jake and his fellow “Lost Generation” expatriates as they search for meaning in their lives. He deliberately brings the reader into the world of the novel by using a sparse narrative technique and a rather anticlimactic plot structure, both of which create a feeling of emptiness much like the one the characters endure throughout. As a work of modernist fiction, many of the novel’s key details are implied rather than explicitly described, and this technique reflects the kind of subjectivity that many writers of the era sought to explore. Hemingway in particular became famous for imbuing his succinct prose with a rich subtext, an approach which he referred to as the “iceberg theory.” In addition to using such a distinct style of writing to reflect the character’s sense of unfulfillment, Hemingway also uses a nonconventional plot structure to emphasize the futility of their search for meaning. Rather than waiting until the novel’s climax to reveal that Jake and Brett’s love for each other is not enough to bring them together, he inserts this detail into an early conversation between the two of them. This choice emphasizes that Jake is powerless to change his future. With that possibility gone, the novel’s central conflict ultimately becomes about the group’s struggle to find purpose in a hopeless world.

Hemingway divides the novel into three distinct books, and the first book works to establish the dynamics among Jake and his friends as well as the bleak prospects they face in Paris. Ironically, the first chapter begins with a description of Robert Cohn rather than Jake himself. This choice emphasizes Cohn’s fragile sense of masculinity and works to challenge the reader’s perception of who the narrative’s central characters will be, putting them in a directionless position much like Jake. Through Jake’s observational nature, the bleak life that Paris offers to expats like himself begins to emerge. Drinking serves as an activity with no other purpose than to fill the hours of the day, offering a false sense of escape to those who feel dissatisfied in their ordinary lives. The novel’s inciting incident occurs during one of these drinking episodes when Brett arrives at a bar and meets up with Jake and Cohn. Brett, who seemingly has the power to charm any man, quickly becomes the physical embodiment of the satisfaction and meaning that all of the male characters yearn for in the aftermath of the war. Jake expresses his love for Brett but knows that his impotence will prevent them from being together, and Cohn cannot hide his interest in her.

The novel’s rising action plays out across Book Two as Jake and his friends travel to Spain in hopes of bringing excitement and hope back into their lives. Jake and Bill, a fellow war veteran, make plans to go fishing and attend the festival in Pamplona, and Cohn, Brett, and Mike ask to tag along. Bringing these characters together significantly increases the pressure they all feel to achieve happiness as it essentially forces the men to fight for Brett’s favor in front of one another. While the vibrant colors and infectious energy of the Spanish countryside may seem to promise hope and satisfaction, the group’s experience there proves otherwise. The peacefulness of Jake and Bill’s fishing trip offers them some relief, but the complicated social dynamics that play out during the fiesta itself make it virtually impossible for any of the characters to achieve meaningful progress toward happiness. Jake, Cohn, Bill, and Mike’s bickering grows worse the more they drink, and Pedro Romero threatens to win Brett over and claim her for himself. All of this unfolds within the macho culture of bullfighting that characterizes the fiesta, a choice which further emphasizes the men’s struggles with their identities in the aftermath of the war.

The tension within the group eventually reaches a boiling point when Romero, a glorified symbol of traditional masculinity, succeeds in winning Brett’s affection. This turn of events destroys any hope the men have of pursuing a genuine relationship with her or, in broader terms, achieving the sense of fulfillment they hoped to find in Spain. Cohn takes the news of this connection particularly hard and attacks Jake, Mike, and Romero for their role in what he views as a betrayal. This moment serves as the novel’s climax as it highlights the consequences of living in a hopeless world and the futility of searching for a better one. In the aftermath of Cohn’s attack, Romero goes on to impress the crowds with his bullfighting, Cohn quietly leaves town, and Jake, Bill, and Mike separate without having achieved anything meaningful during their time in Pamplona. The novel’s falling action occurs throughout the remainder of Book Two and the entirety of Book Three, revealing that Brett and Romero separated not long after the end of the fiesta. This ending emphasizes that not even the most ideal life can be completely satisfying. Jake and Brett ultimately find themselves find themselves in the same, unfortunate place they began the novel with no hope for the future.