One of the major consistent themes of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises is masculine identity. His male characters struggle with what it means to be a man in the post-war world, a world that up until The Great War, romanticized its fighting men as courageous, honorable, and virile. The reality of that war was much different: trench fighting, long-range artillery bombardment, and mustard gas shattered that idealization of the soldier. A writer describes men in this era as having “been damaged by the war, their sense of selves demolished because none of what they were taught about themselves as men seems to apply any more, and they are all made so insecure by this loss that they can’t even discuss it” (LitCharts). His main characters, all ex-patriates like Hemingway himself, live adrift, carousing around France and Spain, at a loss for something meaningful in their lives.
They relate to each other in entirely superficial ways, often vaguely saying one thing, while meaning another. Hemingway’s brisk, first-person narration provides few clues to the true meaning of his characters’ interactions with each other. The primary exploration of this theme comes from the revelation of Jake’s war wound. It is never explicitly stated, but is rather implied that some war injury had made him impotent. Jake’s habit of deflecting uncomfortable conversation topics comes through as he is in his room, “undressing, I looked at myself in the mirror of the big armoire beside the bed. That was a typically French way to furnish a room. Practical, too, I suppose. Of all the ways to be wounded.
I suppose it was funny,” (38). Rather than immediately reveal the nature of his injury, Jake reflects first on the furniture and decoration of the room he is in, and then once he has simply hinted at it, he makes light of it, obviously a method of coping with his loss. Previous scenes make more sense with the connection between Jake’s war wound, and his mentioning it as he is undressing in front of the mirror. When Jake is having dinner with the prostitute Georgette, and he says to himself, “I had picked her up because of a vague sentimental idea that it would be nice to eat with someone,” (24) he most likely does not literally mean that he misses dining with a woman; what he actually means is that he misses the sexual experience. Tellingly, the war wound is mentioned moments later in conversation: “‘I got hurt in the war,’ I said,” (24). Later in the same chapter, Brett arrives with a crowd of men, who are hinted to be homosexuals. Jake feels very threatened by them, saying, “I was very angry. Somehow, they always made me angry.
I know they are supposed to be amusing, and you should be tolerant, but I wanted to swing on one, any one, anything to shatter that superior, simpering composure,” (28). He is angry because they are capable of sexual activity, but unlike himself, they presumably have no sexual desire for Brett. Whether or not they actually put on a “superior, simpering composure,” Jake sees one, and it enrages him enough that he has to immediately go to a bar and drink. A man who intellectually understands that he should be tolerant of homosexuals would not be enraged enough by their presence to be driven to drink, unless some other factor was at work: namely, Jake’s impotence. The relationship between Jake and Robert Cohn is another manifestation of this theme of masculine insecurity. Cohn seems to genuinely like Jake, and while Jake is generally “friendly” toward him, he does not really seem to reciprocate Cohn’s warmth. Their relationship seems to change once Jake finds out about Cohn’s fling with Brett; he is generally more hostile toward him, and is in general more critical of him than before the affair is discovered: “‘And as for this Robert Cohn,’ Bill said, ‘he makes me sick, and he can go to hell, and I’m damn glad he’s staying here so we won’t have him fishing with us.
‘ ‘You’re damn right,'” (108). A later conversation between Jake and Bill hints at Jake’s jealousy. Bill asks Jake if he was ever in love with Brett, to which he responds, “Off and on for a hell of a long time.” Bill apologizes for being insensitive. When Jake insists he no longer cares, Bill expresses disbelief, and Jake says, “Really. Only I’d a hell of a lot rather not talk about it,” (128). It is another example of him deflecting topics on which he feels uncomfortable. Brett herself could be viewed as something of a threat to Jake’s masculinity.
She has, after all, some very masculine characteristics: she has short hair, often dresses in men’s clothes, she drinks just as much, and sometimes more than the men, and she has an extensive sexual appetite, at the time it was not a socially desirable trait for women. In spite of her femininity, she threatens Jake’s sense of manhood. In fact, Jake, Mike, and Cohn all express signs of feeling their inadequacy, as she will not fully commit to any of them. One of the most striking discussions of masculinity in the novel occurs under the disguise of the bullfight, the bull that Romero kills may represent either traditional masculinity in the abstract, or perhaps Jake’s particular masculinity. The bullfight is masculinity made into a spectacle, with the bull being slaughtered.
In either case, the hulking bull is brought down by the graceful, almost feminine figure of Romero, who, additionally, also has a relationship with Brett of which Jake is jealous. Perhaps Romero, as the consummate bullfighter, is Hemingway’s version of a new masculinity. He contrasts strikingly with Jake, who is simply an observer of the bullfights, while Romero is actually participating. Early in the book, Robert complains that, “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it,” to which Jake responds, “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters,” (18). This is the cue to the reader that Hemingway is offering Romero as the archetype of the masculine hero, not his narrator, Jake.
In the end, Jake’s insecurities seem unresolved. He acknowledges to Brett that “isn’t it pretty to think so?” (251) that they could ever be together in a committed relationship together. Hemingway seems to hint that this impossibility is a result of the fact that Jake is simply not enough like Romero in his actions, rather than specifically because of his impotence. Either way, Jake knows that he cannot satisfy Brett’s seemingly insatiable desires, and Brett seems to know this as well. The book ends on a resigned, melancholy note.