Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is classically known as a novel that portrays the hardships that the people of the lost generation had to endure. However, the question can be raised, did the people of the lost generation fall victim to the times; having their warfare way of life swept from under them? Or rather, was the Period known as the lost generation a product of the people themselves? A key theme in The Sun Also Rises is the repetitive cycle of each character’s depression combined with their narcissistic, pleasure-seeking actions. By emphasizing this point through Repetition, Hemingway shows us that it was this generations’ conscious commitment towards superficial ideals and psychological suicide that reflects back on that time as being lost.
The cyclic nature of the book is divided into the characters’ state of depression, their subsequent pursuance of a temporary means to counter that depression, and finally the return of the depressed state. An example of this is when the fiesta ends and Jake once again finds himself “Low as hell” (Hemingway 226). Bill feeds him some absinthe and tells him to “Get tight. Get over your damn depression” (Hemingway 227). The three primary, but not limited to, ways in which the characters attempt to cure their depression are through alcohol, food, and sexual relations. However, because these pleasure devices are only temporary, the characters never make any meaningful progression in life, and therefore give the impression that they are lost.
One of the most noteworthy characters that illustrate this point is Robert Cohn. Since Cohn’s Princeton days and his subsequent loss of his inherited wealth, he has been hanging on to whatever illusionary feeling of happiness he can. As Jake says, “For four years [he] had been absolutely limited to his wife. For three years…he had never seen beyond Frances. I am sure he had never been in love in his life” (Hemingway 16). In other words, he had never known real love, but his life during this period revolved around a false pretence of love in order to make himself feel good.
Like the other characters, when Cohn’s sense of happiness begins to run shallow he looks for an adventure to hide behind. For instance, when Robert explains to Jake that he feels like his “life is going by and [he’s] not taking advantage of it,” Robert asks Jake to go to South America with him. Jake ironically tells Robert that “going to another country doesn’t make any difference. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (Hemingway 19). However, when Jake tells Bret that he’s miserable in another scene, he suggests to resolve his unhappiness by going “off in the country for a while” with Brett (Hemingway 62). This seemingly hypocritical statement by Jake illustrates the point that the real lapse of morality is not imposed on the characters as victims of the generation in which they live. Rather, the characters make the conscious decision to not pay attention to their better reasoning.
Another clear example of this occurs when Brett reveals to Jake that she is in love with Romero. Brett tells Jake, “I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him.” Jake warns her, “Don’t do it” (Hemingway 187). Against her better judgment, Brett does not listen to Jake and pursues Romero. For what reason does Brett decide to do this; what is the driving force behind her action? Is it true love? How could it be- she had never even met Romero before! Her reasons are external and superficial. She lusts over Romero for his youthful grace and looks.
There is no true love in this book. All of the characters expressions of love for one another are phony. For instance, if Brett and Jake truly were in love, why would his accident be enough to prevent them from getting married? Brett tells Jake she loves him, yet she won’t let him touch her in the taxi. She says she “can’t stand it,” and she doesn’t “want to go through that hell again” (Hemingway 34). Brett acts as if sex is the defining factor that makes true love work.
Brett lives off the praise and recognition that others pay to her, weather it is for her beauty or her name. She is a trickster in the way she plays off her name as Lady Ashley and the way she plays the men’s desire for her off one another. Mike reveals later the fact that “She never has any money” (Hemingway 234). She is nothing more than a simple charlatan that gives the false impression of an important, wealthy English Lady.
Jake’s moral character does not fall far behind that of Brett’s. He uses his money to make his friends. He explains once back in France that he “did not tip the porter more than [he] should have because [he] did not think [he] would ever see him again. [He] only wanted a few good French friends in Bayonne to make [him] welcome in case [he] should come back there again” (Hemingway 236). Both characters pray off the acceptance and recognition of others. There is no substance in these people. In this sense, Hemingway shows that they live very much on the surface and this is directly why they feel meaningless and lost on the inside.
Robert Cohn is another character that puts a great amount of his effort into being accepted by others, although in his case this is not very successful. Nobody seems to like Cohn because he hangs around when he’s not wanted and spoils everyone’s fun mood. When Cohn is faced with the fact that he is not liked by others he childishly retaliates by knocking people out, but then is sorry for it afterwards. For example, after Cohn knocks out Jake he tells him, “I’m sorry, Jake. Please forgive me” (Hemingway 198). Cohn has the maturity of a schoolboy, foolishly acting on his short temper and than feeling terrible guilty later. For instance, after Cohn beats Romero, he “was crying, and Brett had told him off, and he wanted to shake hands” (Hemingway 206).
Similar to the way Cohn acts on his violent impulses, Brett acts on her sexual impulses and then regrets it. For example, after she runs off to Madrid with Romero she has an emotional breakdown. She comments to Jake about her relationship with Romero, “I won’t be one of those bitches…Please don’t let’s ever talk about it” (Hemingway 247). Of course, this is not the first time Brett finds herself grieving about her relationships. Brett displays characteristics of narcissistic behavior with no self-control. She flings herself into any relationship that she finds enticing without any regard for how it affects others around her. For example, she went off with Cohn to San Sebastian without thinking about her fiancé. Naturally she felt terribly guilty about it after it was done, but this is nothing more than a narcissistic symptom of not being able to see anything beyond her own immediate pleasures, including any consequences of her actions until it is too late. At this point, she does nothing more than cries over it with Jake, both after Cohn and Romero. The book comes full circle with this pitiful display she puts on. It begins and ends with Brett and Jake riding in a taxi. At the end of chapter three, Brett turns to Jake for support, and while in a taxi with him says, “Oh, darling, I’ve been so miserable” (Hemingway 32). At the end of the book, Brett once again feels miserable in a taxi with Jake. She then proposes the one pleasure that she has longed for throughout the book as a cure for all her problems- a sexual relationship with Jake. At this point Jake realizes that if he were capable of having a sexual relationship with Brett it would have been nothing more than the disgrace of all her other relationships. Jake say’s in an act of defeat, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Hemingway 251). It seems as though Jake finally comes to the realization that his whole life and the lives of his compatriots are nothing more than a meaningless void. At this point, Jake can only fantasize about living a life that contains real inner beauty.
In the end, Hemingway makes the point that one cannot truly live without moral character. It is true that life is lost for people who live only for themselves. Viewed in this context, The Sun Also Rises is more of a representation of the inner turmoil man faces in conflicting with his innermost needs and desires than a testament of the struggle of man versus society.