Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

When asked whether he would admit to there being symbols in his work, Hemingway said, "I suppose there are symbols since critics keep finding them. If you do not mind I dislike talking about them and being questioned about them. It is hard enough to write stories without being asked to explain them as well. Also it deprives the explainers of the work. If five or six or more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them?"

Well, after reading that, I resolved not to attempt to be an "explainer"--if Hemingway disdained explaining his work, then I certainly don't want to try. (And I doubt he would consider a 19-year-old college sophomore to be a good explainer.) So I'm going to do the best I can in this review of The Sun Also Rises to take a leaf out of Hemingway's book and just be as simple as possible.

There is such a beauty in this book--a beauty similar to The Great Gatsby, which is still stuck in my mind after a year and a half. It's not remarkable that these two books are so similar in style, considering that Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were contemporaries and very good friends. I kept thinking, as I read it, that the biggest difference between the two novels was the openness of the characters. The Gatsby characters are completely closed off, completely fake, never say anything that's on their minds. Hemingway's Sun characters, on the other hand, run around puking up emotion and slime and base humanity.

Okay, sorry, that may have been a little too crude. But as the characters' hearts spilled out all over the streets of Spain, I couldn't help but think how little it mattered, how easily they might change their mind the next day, how little the world cares about the petty problems and idle cares of these perpetual drunks who have never spent a single minute trying to make anyone happy but themselves.

I can't help but wonder from the epigraph...

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever . . . The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose . . . The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. . . . All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. --Ecclesiastes
...whether Hemingway, as he was writing the novel, felt that way himself.

What's interesting about the novel is that it's based almost entirely on an experience from Hemingway's own life. Once he spent a vacation in Pamplona, Spain, for the fiesta of San Fermin, the same fiesta the novel is based around. The drama-filled vacation provided the story for The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway even used his acquaintances' original names in the first draft.

Hemingway is on the far left--don't ask me to
remember the others' names
I love this picture of Hemingway and his friends in Spain. It's like the characters are right there--if you've read the book, you know who was the inspiration for which character without even having to ask. (Although Hemingway's wife Hadley, in the back, seems a little out of place since, as far as I know, she didn't make it into the story.) I particularly love Hemingway in this picture.

Side note--I love all pictures of Hemingway. I have yet to see one that I don't love. I think it's because, unlike most people, he never tried to fake it for a camera. You can perfectly imagine everything he ever said by looking at his face in the pictures.

One of the most masterful things, I think, about this book is that I found it impossible to separate myself emotionally from it. I found myself hating stupid Robert Cohn and his superior attitude--while, if the story had been told from Cohn's perspective, I might have empathized with him. I found myself feeling oddly indulgent toward Brett Ashley, even though she's a self-centered, godless woman who cares about no one but herself. I hope I have never been anything like the characters in the story--I at least have never spent my life the way they spend theirs--and yet I felt strangely connected. Not as though I understood them. No; it was worse. It was as though I was them. I saw my reflection so clearly in them, it's impossible to explain how, and I kept flipping back to that epigraph--one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever... Am I doing anything that really matters?

But maybe I'm getting away from the point. To be a little more practical, would I recommend this book? I would say yes, but if you're not already a fan of American literature from the 1920s (which I get the feeling most of us aren't), this is what I would recommend. Don't read the book in isolation. Read a biography of Hemingway or a critical article about the book as you read. I discovered, just from spending a little time with a biography and an interview with Hemingway, that Hemingway is one of the most interesting authors to walk the face of the planet. I frankly love Hemingway. I would never want to meet him, but I love reading him. He was not afraid to be blunt and cynical. Here's a gem from the interview: "The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely. I will be. Don't worry." Once you realize how absolutely devoted this extraordinary man was to his work, you might find a way to love it.

I'm going to quit while I'm still ahead--that is, before I start turning into a (very inept) explainer. Needless to say, I had a beautiful experience with The Sun Also Rises. 

Now onto my next summer read: Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert! I'm really excited to start this one. (I actually finished The Sun Also Rises a couple days ago but I've been a little swamped with finals coming up.) See you soon!


  1. What a great piece on this book! I've only read one book by Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, and I didn't really like it. But your writing about The Sun Also Rises makes me want to read more! Actually, I don't really want to read more Hemingway, I want to read more Emily!

    1. Thank you! I was trying to be very open-minded while I was reading it. I think the key to liking a lot of books--that is, books that aren't immediately palatable to our modern minds--is just trying. Part of the reason I love the classics is that it's impossible to read them passively (and still like them). That's why I recommend reading the book along with other things, but if you don't want to do that then I think it's important to at least put everything you have into appreciating the book. That's my perspective, anyway. :) Thank you for your comment!