In the state art gallery I saw a painting that consisted of three huge orange swirls across a giant white canvas. It would have taken all of thirty seconds to paint. I imagine art critics raved about the piece’s “importance”, and discussed the great meaning it conveyed. Meanwhile, the humble art gallery patron was left to stare and wonder, What the heck is this all about? It’s just orange swirls. So it is with The Sun Also Rises. The novel is considered by many in the know to be Ernest Hemingway’s greatest work, a masterpiece full of meaning. The amateur book lover, however, is left wondering, What the heck is this?
Jake Barnes is an American living in Paris after World War I. Brett Ashley is a promiscuous woman with whom Jake would probably be in a relationship if a war wound hadn’t left him impotent. They go to a bar and drink. Along with friends Mike, who is Brett’s fiancé, Bill and Robert, they take a trip to Spain. Jake and Bill spend a few days fishing and drinking, before meeting the rest of the group in Pamplona in time to see the bullfights and drink. Brett sleeps with a handsome young matador named Romero, and jealousies flare among the men. The group drinks a lot. Robert, having recently had an affair with Brett, remains infatuated with her, and his futile desperation irritates the others, especially Mike. The group expresses its displeasure with Robert in the form of anti-semitic jibes, and Robert in turn demonstrates his championship boxing skills on Jake, Mike and Romero. After the fiesta the group goes its separate ways. Brett later contacts Jake to ask for help, and the book concludes with their continuing friendship, never able to be more than that.
The novel’s title is taken from the book of Ecclesiastes, which states:
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 his place where he arose.
The idea seems to be that life continues, whether things go your way or not. Jake got his balls shot off in the war, ruining his hopes of romance, and he just has to deal with it. Brett can’t be with the man she loves, so she has to make the best of the situation; hence her engagement to Mike. The war was awful, but life doesn’t stop and deal out apologies and compensation. The world keeps turning. All you can do is play the hand you’re dealt.
If that is the theme of the book, then Hemingway sure wrote a lot of nothing to make his point. The story is just a group of young people travelling, wanting sex and getting drunk—like the Contiki tour my cousin told me about (except without the herpes). The Sun Also Rises may be truthful, but it’s low on entertainment. There are no great twists, and the end fades out. To see a happier rendering of this kind of material, check out the movie Road Trip.
Like that giant painting of orange swirls, I feel like I’m supposed to be in awe of The Sun Also Rises, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. 5/10
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