The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway is a story of being apart of
the “Lost Generation” in the 1920’s. The Great War had changed the ideas
of morality, faith and justice and many people began to feel lost. Their
traditional values were changed and the morals practically gone. The “Lost
Generation” rejected Victorian ideologies about gender, sex and identity.
The main characters, Brett and Jake, redefine masculinity and femininity,
drifting away from the Victorian ideals of sexuality and identity.
Lady Brett Ashley is a perfect example of how women in the “Lost
Generation” changed. Brett strives for an individuality that Victorian women
would not look for. She also seeks more activity in the social sphere. By
doing these things, Brett rejects the Victorian ideals of proper behavior of
women and marriage. The time after the Great War is a perfect stage in
which Brett can begin to express herself freely. She enters the social scene,
which is predominately male, even though she is not socially accepted. She
goes to bars and gets drunk, she even goes to bullfights, which are bloody
and violent, to try to become accepted by her male counterparts as not just
a woman’ but a person equal to them. Brett also uses sex to break free of
the traditional Victorian ideals and to explore a new lifestyle where women
are free to do as they please. “Victorianism established clear emphasis
added sexual boundaries and a single standard of monogamy for men and
women that ensured a stable family and allowed for passion within
committed relationships. ” (White) Brett obviously throws these boundaries
out the door. She is characterized as a female unconstrained by sexual
repression, going about sleeping with whomever she feels fit, unstoppable
by the Victorian ideologies of what women and sex should be. However, her
many meaningless, broken relationships with men are repeatedly as
tumultuous as the new, modern world in which she lives.
Throughout her many attempts to set herself apart from the traditional
world, she still acts uncertainly about what she wants. Lady Brett in many
ways is torn between the new modern woman and the idealistic Victorian
woman. You can see this in her dependence on men for money, as in her
engagement to Mike Campbell who is “…going to be rich as hell one day”,
and her need for a secure place for her to delve into her sexuality. Maybe
something like what Count Mippipopolous, a very sane and stable
man, could have provided her with.
Jake Barnes is an example of loss. Not only does he lose his morals
and traditions in the era following the Great War, but he also loses his
“masculinity” in a tragic war accident that ended in impotence. This accident
drastically changes Jake’s views on masculinity. Traditional ideas of what it
means to be a man have been changed by the war. “Jake tries to define
himself as a man even as a war related genital wound denies him the most
basic assertion of manhood, sexual gratification.” (Fulton) The handicap
seems to take away from his authority and his idea of male invincibility. As
a result of his impotence, a new man arises. This man sits back and
suppresses his sexual desires and quietly endures the hard times of life,
much like a Victorian woman would.
Jake can sense the transition of gender roles and is not happy or
secure with it at all. “Jake objects… to femininity express through the wrong
body.” (Elliott, 80) He fears that his handicap makes him feminine, thus, he
looks to other things to keep from thinking about it. He goes out drinking
with his friends to avoid thinking about all of his problems and his fears.
Amidst this time of physical, social, and emotional chaos, Jake seeks
structure in his everyday life. This is made obvious in chapter twelve:
“I laid the trout out, side by side, al their heads pointing the
same way, and looked at them. They were beautifully colored and
firm and hard from the cold water. It was a hot day so I slit them all
and shucked out the insides, gills and all, and tossed them over across
the river. I took the trout ashore, washed them in the cold, smoothly
heavy water above the dam, and then picked some ferns and packed
them all in the bag, three trout on a layer of ferns, then another layer
of ferns, then three more trout, and then covered them with ferns.
They looked nice in the ferns, and now the bag was bulky and I put it
in the shade of the tree.”
Jake finds security in order. Paying attention to tiny details keeps his mind
off of bigger things that he cannot control, like his impotence and desire to
be with Lady Brett Ashley that will never be fulfilled.
Jake desperately wants to be with Brett, but he can not because of his
accident. Since sex is such a driving force in Brett’s life, she could not stand
to be with him. Jake can only be friends with Brett, this gives us the idea of
a new kind of relationship between men and women.
In conclusion, Jake and Brett do a very good job of making the
transition from Victorian ideas to modern beliefs visible to readers. Not only
do they redefine their sexuality, but they seem to go though a sort of role
reversal, where females aggressively express their feelings and men cry.
Elliott, Ira. “Performance Art: Jake Barnes and Masculine Signification.”
American Literature Mar. 1995: 1-2
Fulton, Lorie Watkins. “Reading Around Jake’s Narration: Brett Ashley and
The Sun Also Rises.” Hemingway Review Fall 2004: 20-61
White, Kevin. Sexual Liberation or Sexual License?: The American Revolt
Against Victorian Sexuality. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.