Purpose, Insecurity, and Gender Identity: Hemingway’s Take on the Lost Generation in The Sun Also Rises

As a lifelong fan of Hemingway’s short stories, I found The Sun Also Rises to be a surprising change from his normal literary style. Contrary to Hemingway’s predisposition toward succinct, observation-driven storytelling and apathetic exposition, The Sun Also Rises is filled with loaded language, moments of intense vulnerability delivered character dialogue, and comprehensive internalized focalization that gives way to immense insight into the “Lost Generation” following World War I. Through these techniques, Hemingway reveals the insecurity of the male characters in a post-war society, particularly Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes, as the men find themselves unwittingly coming to terms with their loss of purpose and unaddressed jealousy over the attentions of Lady Brett Ashley. The novel, which exercises many of Hemingway’s well-known habits of redundancy, truncated one-liners, and tenebrous dialogue, used the characters’ near constant state of inebriation to serve as a platform for retrospection, anger/pathology projection, and self-contemplation, both rare in Hemingway’s later works, revealing the complicated dichotomy of pre-War gender roles versus post-War identities for both men and women. In this paper, I will analyze how Hemingway repeatedly used internalized focalization, loaded dialogue, and word choice throughout The Sun Also Rises to convey to the reader the vulnerability of the Lost Generation, and the repercussions expatriates faced as they struggled to regain purpose, confidence, and accept new gender roles following World War I.

Hemingway introduces the reader to their first glimpse of male insecurity with the opening lines of the novel, describing Robert Cohn as a man who had taken up boxing in college “to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton” (Hemingway 11). He described Cohn as painfully self-conscious and that he had married “the first girl who was nice to him,” enduring an unhappy marriage until the woman ran off with another man (Hemingway 12). While Hemingway does not commit as much time and energy to describing the other male characters as he does with Cohn, almost every male presented suffers from a paralyzing character flaw: Mike Campbell, Lady Brett Ashley’s fiancé, is a bankrupt and boasts a raging temper when drunk; Belmonte, the aged bull-fighter contending alongside Pedro Romero, finds himself bitter and doleful when he can’t perform the way he did before as a young man (an obvious symbol of the expatriates injured in the war); even Bill Gorton, Jake Barnes’ closest friend in the story and with whom he seems to have the least problematic relationship, falls prey to poking fun at the seriousness of Robert Cohn during their stay in Spain. While Hemingway never specifically identifies these faults and abnormal mannerisms, his tonality and clever descriptions give light to deep-set insecurities among the cast. Almost all of the male characters in the piece are battling insecurities, either physical or emotional, and those pathologies surface continually through the novel as they struggle to identify their purpose and identity while living abroad.

One of the most notable features of Hemingway’s writing is the laudable use of dialogue to not only reveal the scene, but also much of the backstory of the characters. While Hemingway never directly explains Jake Barnes’ injury, through a series of conversations with multiple characters in different scenes, we learn of his impotence –and the primary reason Lady Brett Ashley will not settle down with him:

“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”
“I don’t think so. I’d just
tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it.”

“I stand it now.”

“That would be different. It’s my fault, Jake. It’s the way I’m made.” (Hemingway 62)
While previous dialogue between Barnes and the prostitute, Georgette, hinted at a disinterest in sex, this brief scene between Brett quickly tells the audience two major facts: Barnes loves Brett, and Barnes is unable to satisfy her. By Jake acknowledging his inability with the line, “I stand it now,” the reader quickly realizes this is something Jake has come to terms with, and, given his participation in the war, is likely the result of his service. Hemingway cunningly gives the reader more in a future exchange with Bill Gorton during their fishing trip in Spain:

[Bill] “You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”
“It sounds like a swell life,” I said. “When do I work?”
“You don’t work. One group claims women support you. Another group claims you’re impotent.”
“No,” I said. “I just had an accident.”
“Never mention that,” Bill said.

While the conversation was in jest between the two friends, Hemingway uses this playful dialogue as an opportunity to solidify the reader’s belief that Jake is, in fact, impotent, and that this plagues his relationship with Brett and his identity as a man.

Lady Brett Ashley, the love interest of several of the male characters in The Sun Also Rises, also struggled with purpose and gender identification in the post-War society. From her chosen name to her hairstyle– “brushed back like a boy’s” –she refused to conform to former gender normatives from the pre-War era (Hemingway 30). In stark comparison to her male counterparts, Brett Ashley had a deep-set aversion to monogamy, engaging in a tryst with Robert Cohn, an engagement with Mike Campbell, an asexual yet tender adventure with Count Mippipopolous, and a run-away romance with a 19-year-old bullfighter named Pedro Romero in the course of the novel, which spanned only a few short weeks. While it’s obvious to the audience that Jake Barnes is in love with Brett Ashley and she cares deeply for him, she continues to pursue sexual adventures that leave her disenchanted and unhappy. Hemingway reflects the hopelessness of these two central characters romance –which, I believe, mirrors the very spirit of the Lost Generation– in the closing lines of the novel:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes, I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Because both Barnes and Brett have lost their identities, the futility of their love is palpable; the reader is left with a sense of bleakness that permeates more than just the lives of these two characters, but of their world as a whole.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway successfully captures the emotional climate of the Lost Generation –the loss of self-identity, the lack of purpose and meaning, the mitigation of defined gender roles, and the overall climate of discontent– through cunning application of literary technique. From a superficial perspective, the novel traces the escapades of a group of friends who drink heavily and enjoy length vacations; through a close reading, however, the reader sees troubled war veterans seeking solace through alcohol, purpose through travel, and who are struggling to accept the flaws of themselves coupled with the flaws of the world around them. In an early scene in the novel, Robert Cohn verbalizes his discontent with life, attributing it to Paris and suggesting that South America must hold the secret to happiness and fulfillment. Barnes rebukes him, summing up in one line the entire motif of the novel: “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that” (Hemingway 19). For Hemingway, the past was inescapable, and it had shaped the men and women of the post-War society so permanently that their only solution was to accept their disillusionment, to consent that they’d never “live their life all the way up,” and to make peace with it (Hemingway 18). The Sun Also Rises encapsulated the restlessness of the battle-fatigued American and European expatriates and, through succinct language and layered meanings, it forecasted the evolving gender-roles that would be explored in many Modern literature pieces over the next twenty years.


Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2003. Print.


Works Read, But Not Cited

Lamb, Robert Paul. “Hemingway’s Art of Focalization.” Art Matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010. Print.

Bodistean, Florica. “Heroic and Erotic in Hemingway’s War Novel.” Studia Universitatis Petru Maior. Philologia. (2012): 284-292. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 October 2017.


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