The Sun Also Rises at first appears to be a story based upon Robert Cohn, a shy and awkward ex-boxer, who is insecure, yet disciplined in his struggle to rise up and out of the shadows. Quickly we realize that Cohn is little more than a weak and tormented scapegoat for the narrator and the other expatriates of the novel to debase and mock, all in efforts to ignore their own self-loathing and disgruntled lives.
Cohn, a self-conscious writer lacking any true connection with others, whilst shouldering emasculating abuse from women as a constant, is a clear and vicious reminder of all of the traits that Jake Barnes, our narrator, despises about himself. Since the feminizing war, Jake is not unlike many other men who had returned from combat broken and lost, choosing to pay no mind to their servitude and how it had changed them. Theirs is a life impaired by an arrested development, devoid of any meaning, direction or significance. They stay numb with drink and forever search for the next form of entertainment to keep their minds occupied. Some trivial, like getting ‘tight’ at the bars, some poetic, like the destructive and metaphorical bull-fights.
At the contrast of the weak men, we are presented with few women in The Sun Also Rises, all of which are strong, dominating and controlling, and, frankly, come off as bitchy whores. Lady Ashley, our femme fatale, is quite possibly the most tragic and damaged of all the flawed personalities we encounter. It is interesting to note that although she was not part of the war, she did lose her true love to it, leaving her part of the lost generation indirectly, as a consequence. Although you would be hard pressed to find any very likeable men or women in this cast of characters, I did finish the novel with an aftertaste of misogyny in my mouth, and I’m interested to see what the female roles of Hemingway’s other works amount to.
Hemingway’s clean and precise writing style, lacks in rhetoric or pretentiousness, yet this is not meant to imply that his work is simple or commonplace, as The Sun Also Rises is like a pungent onion, that you slowly peal-back layer by layer, always respectfully aware of its strength and savouring its dissolve.