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Prevalent among many of Ernest Hemingway's novels is the concept popularly known as the "Hemingway hero", or “code hero”, an ideal character readily accepted by American readers as a "man's man". In The Sun Also Rises, four different men are compared and contrasted as they engage in some form of relationship with Lady Brett Ashley, a near-nymphomaniac Englishwoman who indulges in her passion for sex and control. Brett plans to marry her fiancée for superficial reasons, completely ruins one man emotionally and spiritually, separates from another to preserve the idea of their short-lived affair and to avoid self-destruction, and denies and disgraces the only man whom she loves most dearly. All her relationships occur in a period of months, as Brett either accepts or rejects certain values or traits of each man. Brett, as a dynamic and self-controlled woman, and her four love interests help demonstrate Hemingway's standard definition of a man and/or masculinity. Each man Brett has a relationship with in the novel possesses distinct qualities that enable Hemingway to explore what it is to truly be a man. The Hemingway man thus presented is a man of action, of self-discipline and self-reliance, and of strength and courage to confront all weaknesses, fears, failures, and even death.
Jake Barnes, as the narrator and supposed hero of the novel, fell in love with Brett some years ago and is still powerfully and uncontrollably in love with her. However, Jake is unfortunately a casualty of the war, having been emasculated in a freak accident. Still adjusting to his impotence at the beginning of the novel, Jake has lost all power and desire to have sex. Because of this, Jake and Brett cannot be lovers and all attempts at a relationship that is sexually fulfilling are simply futile. Brett is a passionate, lustful woman who is driven by the most intimate and loving act two may share, something that Jake just cannot provide her with. Jake's emasculation only puts the two in a grandly ironic situation. Brett is an extremely passionate woman but is denied the first man she feels true love and admiration for. Jake has loved Brett for years and cannot have her because of his inability to have sex. It is obvious that their love is mutual when Jake tries to kiss Brett in their cab ride home: "'You mustn't.
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Since Jake can never be Brett's lover, they are forced to create a new relationship for themselves, perhaps one far more dangerous than that of mere lovers - they have become best friends. This presents a great difficulty for Jake, because Brett's presence is both pleasurable and agonizing for him. Brett constantly reminds him of his handicap and thus Jake is challenged as a man in the deepest, most personal sense possible. After the departure of their first meeting, Jake feels miserable: "This was Brett, that I had felt like crying about. Then I thought of her walking up the street and of course in a little while I felt like hell again" (34, Ch. 4). Lady Brett Ashley serves as a challenge to a weakness Jake must confront. Since his war experience, Jake has attempted to reshape the man he is and the first step in doing this is to accept his impotence.
Despite Brett's undeniable love for Jake, she is engaged to marry another. Mike Campbell is Brett's fiancee, her next planned marriage after two already failed ones. Mike is ridiculously in love with Brett and though she knows this she still decides to marry him. In fact, Brett is only to marry Mike because she is tired of drifting and simply needs an anchor. Mike loves Brett but is not dependent on her affection. Moreover, he knows about and accepts Brett's brief affairs with other men: "'Mark you. Brett's had affairs with men before. She tells me all about everything'" (143, Ch. 13). Mike appreciates Brett's beauty, as do all the other males in the novel, but perhaps this is as deep as his love for her goes. In his first scene in the novel, Mike cannot stop commenting and eliciting comments on Brett's beauty: "'I say Brett, you are a lovely piece. Don't you think she's beautiful?'" (79, Ch. 8). He repeatedly proposes similar questions but does not make any observant or profound comments on his wife-to-be. In fact, throughout the entirety of the novel, Mike continues this pattern, once referring to Brett as "just a lovely, healthy wench" as his most observant remark. Furthermore, Mike exhibits no self-control when he becomes drunk, making insensitive statements that show his lack of regard for Brett and others. After Brett shows interest in Pedro Romero, the bullfighter, Mike rudely yells: "Tell him bulls have no balls! Tell him Brett wants to see him put on those green pants. Tell him Brett is dying to know how he can get into those pants!" (176, Ch. 16). In addition, Mike cannot contemplate the complexities of Brett and her relationships: "'Brett's got a bull-fighter. She had a Jew named Cohn, but he turned out badly. Brett's got a bull-fighter. A beautiful, bloody bull-fighter'" (206, Ch. 18). Despite Brett's brief affair with the bullfighter, she will eventually return to Mike who will no doubt openly welcome her again. Brett is a strong woman, who can control most men, and Mike is no exception. She vaguely simplifies their relationship when she explains to Jake that she plans to return to him: "'He's so damned nice and he's so awful. He's my sort of thing'" (243, Ch. 19). Mike is not complex enough to challenge Brett, but she does go on and decide to accept his simplicity anyways. Furthermore, despite his engagement with Brett, Mike betrays Hemingway's ideal man. Although he is self-reliant, Mike possesses little self-control or dignity.
Engaged to one man and in love with another, Brett demonstrates her disregard for the 1920's double standards. Very early in the beginning of the novel, she reveals to Jake that she had invited Robert Cohn to go with her on a trip to San Sebastian. Cohn, a Jewish, middle-aged writer disillusioned with his life in Paris, wants to escape to South America where he envisions meeting the ebony princesses he romanticized from a book. However, he cannot persuade Jake to accompany him and then completely forgets about this idea upon meeting Brett. Cohn is immediately enamored with her beauty and falls in love with her: "'There's a certain quality about her, a certain fineness. She seems to be absolutely fine and straight'" (38, Ch. 5). Cohn is immature in his idealization of Brett's beauty, as he falls in "love at first sight". Furthermore, like an adolescent, he attempts to satisfy his curiosity about Brett by asking Jake numerous questions about her.
After Cohn and Brett's short-lived affair in San Sebastian, Cohn is nervous around Jake: "Cohn had been rather nervous ever since we had met at Bayone. He did not know whether we knew Brett had been with him at San Sebastian, and it made him rather awkward" (94, Ch. 10). Moreover, Cohn is scared that when Brett appears she will embarrass him and so he does not have the maturity to behave appropriately in front of Jake and his friend, Bill Gorton. Nonetheless, Cohn is proud of his affair with Brett and believes that this conquest makes him a hero. When Brett appears with her fiancee Mike, Cohn still believes that they are destined for an ideal love despite her blatant coldness to him. However, it is apparent that Brett simply used Cohn to satisfy her sexual cravings: "'He behaved rather well'" (83, Ch. 9). Cohn does not understand the triviality of their trip to San Sebastian in Brett's mind and has become dependent on her attention and affection. In his rampant drunkenness, Mike blasts Cohn: "'What if Brett did sleep with you? She's slept with lots of better people than you. Tell me Robert,. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor bloody steer? Don't you know you're not wanted?'" (143, Ch. 13). Cohn is like an adolescent, as he vainly ignores the truth and continues to love Brett: "He could not stop looking at Brett. It seemed to make him happy. It must have been pleasant for him to see her looking so lovely, and know he had been away with her and that every one knew it. They couldn't take that away from him" (146, Ch. 13). Cohn over-exaggerates the significance of his affair with Brett. He does not understand that Brett simply used him and that their brief relationship has no meaning to her. Moreover, Cohn cannot conduct himself with dignity and he intrudes upon people and places where he is obviously not wanted.
Naively, Cohn dwells on the fact that he has slept with Brett and obsesses with her. When Brett begins to show signs of interest in Pedro Romero, Cohn irrationally approaches Jake demanding to know Brett's whereabouts, punches him in the jaw, and then calls him a pimp (190-91, Ch. 17). Later that night he encounters Pedro and Brett together in their hotel room. His actions of knocking Pedro down repeatedly until he eventually tires demonstrate a divergence from his character. Cohn for the first time takes some action in what he feels, rather than merely thinking about it or complaining about it. However, despite his persistence, Pedro does not remain down according to Mike: "'The bull-fighter fellow was rather good. He didn't say much, but he kept getting up and getting knocked down again. Cohn couldn't knock him out'" (202, Ch. 17). Eventually, Cohn gives up on this pursuit, is knocked twice by Pedro, and loses his battle for Brett. These events show that Cohn's boxing skills, a defense mechanism that he once used in college, will no longer pull him out of rough situations. Cohn fails to show the strength and courage needed to face the circumstances like a man.
Pedro Romero, on the other hand, comes closest to the embodiment of Hemingway's hero. Brett is almost immediately enchanted by this handsome, nineteen-year-old, a promising matador. Pedro, a fearless figure who frequently confronts death in his occupation, is not afraid in the bullring and controls the bulls like a master. Pedro is the first man since Jake who causes Brett to lose her self-control: "'I can't help it. I'm a goner now, anyway. Don't you see the difference? I've got to do something. I've got to do something I really want to do. I've lost my self-respect" (183, Ch. 16). In contrast, Pedro maintains his self-control in his first encounter with Brett: "He felt there was something between them. He must have felt it when Brett gavehim her hand. He was being very careful" (185, Ch. 16). Brett falls in love with Pedro as a hero who promises new excitement. In the scene between Pedro and Cohn described previously, Pedro demonstrates his confidence and strong will. Knocked down time and time again, Pedro rises each time refusing to be beaten. His controlled and dignified demeanor in an unusual situation contrast sharply with Cohn's fear and weakness.
Soon Pedro and Brett run off together but when he demands too much from her, Brett asks him to leave. "'He was ashamed of me for a while, you know. He wanted me to grow my hair out. He said it would make me more womanly." In addition, Pedro "really wanted to marry" Brett because "'he wanted to make it sure [Brett] could never go away from him'" (242, Ch. 19). Pedro will not compromise his expectations for a woman and will not accommodate Brett's character even though he loves her. In his affair with Brett, he has performed according to his rules and when he discovers that his ideals are impossible for Brett to accept, he leaves willingly. Pedro has been left untainted by Brett, sustaining his strong-willed, correct behavior. Moreover, Pedro leaves without sulking like Cohn or whining like Mike.
Brett's acceptance or rejection of particular qualities in each of the four men she becomes involved with help define Hemingway's male hero. Mike is not dependent on Brett but does not maintain his dignity and self-discipline in his drunken sloppiness. Cohn is a complaining, weak, accommodating adolescent who has little understanding of others or himself. Pedro is the near perfect embodiment of strength, courage, and confidence. Jake is the lesser version of this perfection as the hero of the novel. Hence, Hemingway's ideal hero is self-controlled, self-reliant, and fearless. He is a man of action and he does not, under any circumstances, compromise his beliefs or standards.
Jake, as the supposed hero of the novel, is challenged by his emasculation in the deepest sense possible, because the traditional ways in which masculinity are defined are insufficient and impossible for him. Jake needs the strength and courage to confront his impotence because he has not yet adjusted to this weakness. It is ironic that Cohn, a character least like the Hemingway man, has slept with Brett while Jake will never be able to accomplish this feat. However, because Cohn so inadequately fulfills the roles of a true man, Hemingway implies that the sexual conquest of a woman does not alone satisfy the definition of masculinity.
Nevertheless, Jake fails to fulfill other requisites of the Hemingway man as he deviates from his own ethical standards. Jake sees that Brett is mesmerized by Pedro's skillful control and extraordinary handsomeness and recognizes the possibility of furnishing her carnal desires with the most perfect specimen of manhood that he can offer in place of himself. Jake thus betrays the aficionados of Pamplona and the trust of a long-time friend, Montoya, who fear that this rising star may be ruined by women. Thus, regardless of his physical impotence, Jake's true weakness is the impotence of his will and the supposed hero of the novel is flawed due to his failure to adhere to what he believes is right and wrong.
Hemingway thus refrains from presenting a true hero in his novel. With the absence of a leading male ideal, Hemingway betrays the larger socio-cultural assumptions about men and masculinity and questions the conventional means in which they are defined in his society.
Works Cited and Consulted:
Bloom, Harold. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1993.
Svoboda, Frederic J. Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises: The Crafting of a Style. Kansas: The University Press of Kansas, 1983.
Young, Philip. "Ernest Hemingway." Encyclopedia International. v. 8, p.388-389. 1982 ed.