Ernest Hemingway’s novels are frequently pointed to for providing a clear example of the “Tip of the Iceberg” style of writing in which only the barest of details are provided to a story, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and understand for themselves the depth of meaning hidden between the lines. This was a common practice among Modern writers as they sought to interact more with their readers through their writing.
Hemingway’s book essentially tells a complicated love story in which one woman is desired by multiple men, including the main character, but it is she who decides the outcome thus taking on some of the traditional characteristics normally attributed to men in that time. Through the characters he portrays, Hemingway frequently explored the idea of what it means to be male – sometimes by showing what it means to be a handicapped male as he seemed to see himself and sometimes portraying what it meant to be the ideal male. In Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, the three main characters Jake, Robert, and Lady Brett Ashley reveal the sometimes contradictory roles of Hemingway’s male figure, demonstrating that none of them contain the ideal characteristics by themselves, but might when taken as a group.
Hemingway begins his exploration of the ideal male versus the faulty male at the surface level of a character’s appearance. Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn could not appear more different from each other unless you gave them the female curves that come in with the character of Lady Brett Ashley. Jake appears as fragile, a shattered World War One veteran clearly suffering from emotional and physical scars. His most defining characteristic is that he’s an alcoholic as his life is dedicated to a never-ending series of “We went in the bar and sat on high stools and drank whisky” (Hemingway 236). According to Nielsen with the Mayo Clinic, alcoholism is a chronic and often progressive disease that includes problems controlling your emotions and will eventually begin to show in your appearance, such as in the form of burst blood vessels in the nose or ruddy cheeks. However, Jake gives off a confident, decisive persona which gains him attention and admiration from women. While Jake appears frail and hurt, Robert was the college football player and the boxer which means he likely has a strong, large physical appearance. This makes him a lady’s man because he provides a sense of protectiveness for his women. “He was an attractive quantity to women, and the fact of a woman caring for him and wanting to live with him was not simply a divine miracle” (Hemingway 15). Robert lives off of his father’s money and notoriety so the images that are portrayed of him seem immature or spoiled and he has a hard time dealing with the everyday problems of the common man. Lady Brett Ashley, on the other hand, purposely adopts a more male-oriented look without necessarily hiding her feminine curves. She announces this with her appearance with her bobbed hair. The novel states that “She [Brett] started all that” (Hemingway 30) referring to the hair style but also to everything that it represented. “This idea that Brett started the trend of short hair positions Brett as not simply a symbol of the New Woman, but rather as an influential symbol within the realm of the novel” (Yu 177). The masculine side of her appearance makes her challenge the masculinity in the men she encounters.
From their appearances, Hemingway also exploits his character’s personalities to demonstrate how they either support or refute the male persona. Jake suffers from a personality disorder that makes him try to always seem in control. He can be very convincing, but he is also dominant, reserved, hostile, and can be very touchy. Even though these are elements of his personality, Jake feels detached, like a spectator, isolated but not actually alone. At the same time, he suffers sexually because of the war. “His own private tragedy is a war wound that emasculated him” (Neilson). Proving that this isn’t just a fictional device, the Citizen Commission on Human Rights indicates this particular effect of war has been documented since ancient times. Today, they say, some 80% of vets are labeled with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is treated with psychotropic drugs which affects a person’s mental state. While other veterans are also treated with antidepressant drugs, many choose to treat themselves with alcohol or drugs as a means of coping with their feelings. Because he needs this crutch and is not sexually active, Jake is a failed man. While Jake is struggling with his issues, Robert is mostly shy and withdrawn. His spoiled and immature behavior causes the others to dislike him, mocking him and embarrassing him as often as they can. “I misjudged you, you’re not a moron, you’re only a case of arrested development” (Hemingway 44). Robert’s personality is shy, awkward, and apprehensive. Unlike Jake who lives in his experienced past, Robert lives out the various ideas he draws from inside a book somewhere. Even though he has the physique, Robert is a failed man because he never fully grew up to take on the role. Lady Brett’s behavior reinforces the idea that she is challenging male ideas of women as she deliberately ignores Jake’s warnings about not watching the violence of the bullfights. Although she does admit some nervousness, “I’m a little nervous about it … I’m worried whether I’ll be able to go through with it all right” (Hemingway 166), but she comes through it just fine. “In all of these examples, Brett asserts herself in the primarily male arena, which further connects her to the historical figure of the New Woman who also asserted herself in primarily male fields” (Yu 177).
Finally, Hemingway reveals the nature of man in the lifestyles of his characters, showing how all of them fail to be proper men. Jake is a single man working as a journalist in Paris. He enjoys socializing and having drinks with his friends. He jumps from bar to bar from Paris to Pamploma trying to forget the horrible images he still carries with him from the war but is never able to get past them. Robert’s lifestyle reflects his continued dependence on his wealthy Jewish family. “Robert Cohn was a member through his father, of one the richest Jewish families in New York” (Hemingway 12). He was also the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton during his college years and tends to draw on that for his identity. Although he’d been married for five years and had three children, he is now alone since his wife left him to be with a miniature painter, further emasculating him. Lady’s Brett’s lifestyle is more comparable to the ideal man. Lady Brett emerges as more of a typically male predator as Jake or Robert, maybe more so. “Throughout the novel, Brett selects the men with whom she desires to have a sexual relationship and then pursues them only to later forcibly end the affair” (Yu 178). Although she insists she is not in control of her interests in pursuing the men she seeks out, it remains true that Brett, more than any of the other characters in the book, is in control of when her relationships begin and end, is more assertive in her actions, and is more a man than anyone else.
Thus, Hemingway demonstrates the fall of the masculine character and the rise of the feminine as the new masculine in his book. While all of the male characters have tragic flaws that keep them from being the ideal male candidate that Hemingway envisions, Lady Brett emerges as the most ideally male among them. However, she cannot be the ideal male for the simple fact that she is a woman who eventually does need some form of rescue from a man.
- Citizen Commission on Human Rights 1995-2014. Web. www.cchr.org/documentaries/html
- Hemingway, Ernest. “The Sun Also Rises:” New York, New York: Scribner, 1926 print.
- Neilson, Keith. Master plots, Fourth Edition; November 2010, p1-4 Web. http://www.Mayoclinic.org
- William, Martin. “War With End” Texas Monthly Article, Vol.42 issue 6 June 1, 2014. Print.
- Yu, Xiaoping. “The New Women in The Sun Also Rises.” English Language Teaching. Vol. 3, N. 3 September 2010. Print.