The Lost Generation in The Sun Also Rises

As World War I ripped through many European countries in the early twentieth century, the population suffered not only physically, but mentally. In addition to the many lives lost in this war, the youth of the world was greatly affected by this relatively new idea of death. Consequently, the “Great War” caused a lapse in values and standards in the generation who suffered through it, permanently damaging the remainder of their lives. Earnest Hemingway takes a glimpse into the lives of the people of this so-called lost generation in his novel The Sun Also Rises.

Set in this post World War I age, The Sun Also Rises shows the physical and emotional wounds, the religious abandonment, and the way in which members of the “lost generation” escape from their lives that were greatly affected by the first World War. Every character in The Sun Also Rises has been affected by World War I in some way. Some wounds show outwardly, while others are internalized, producing an even greater emotional and often psychological trauma on the character.

The narrator of this novel, Jake Barnes, is a character whose physical wounds from the Great War cause him both emotional and psychological grief.

While fighting in the War, Jake suffers an injury that leaves him impotent, but still desiring sexual activity. This wound causes him not only pain, but a great deal of confusion in regard to his relationship with Lady Brett Ashley: both partners know they love each other, but Jake’s inability to sexually fulfill Lady Brett Ashley causes her to reject him.

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In his book on Hemingway, critic Earl Rovit asserts that “[Jake’s] wound still throbs and gives him pain” (157). He cannot escape from his war injury and it continues to haunt him everyday he lives.

Using his situation with Brett as a basis for all future relationships, Jake decides that he cannot please anyone and he must instead be content with wandering aimlessly through life without a true love. The severity of the emotional side of Jake’s wound is in this belief that he cannot hope to find a mate. His interaction with a French prostitute shows the hopeless feeling that Jake receives from his War injury and how it has changed his life forever. When the prostitute simply lays her hand on Jake’s, he pushes her away and tells her that he is sick.

This emphasizes Jake’s truly hopeless notion that he can never have any type of a physical relationship with a woman due to his wound. The French prostitute’s response to Jake’s revelation that he is sick emphasizes even more the hopelessness of the entire generation of the post-World War I era. “Everybody’s sick. I’m sick too,” replies the prostitute (Hemingway 21). Although she does not specify exactly how she herself is sick, the prostitute believes that the Great War has caused everyone a certain degree of sickness and suffering.

Michael Friedberg states that the prostitute’s statement is “no doubt also a reference to the state of the world itself” (176). The state of the world, including the other characters in The Sun Also Rises, is as lost and hopeless as Jake, predominantly because of the War. The truth of the prostitute’s statement comes in the form of other characters in The Sun Also Rises including Lady Brett Ashley and Count Mippipopolous. Critic E. M. Halliday speculates that “Jake Barne’s war-wound impotence[is] a kind of metaphor for the whole atmosphere of sterility and frustration which is the ambiance of The Sun Also Rises” (303).

The other characters of this novel experience grief, frustration, and pain from the situations the War has dealt them, just as Jake does. The Count is a character who has been physically wounded by the Great War and war in general. The scars of arrow wounds pierce the Count’s torso from a battle in Abyssinia when he was a young man. His involvement in “seven wars and four revolutions” (Hemingway 61) including World War I gives him the aged disposition of a person who has been through very hard times. Brett Ashley is an additional example of a character whose war-time experiences greatly affect her life.

During the Great War, Lady Ashley orked as a nurse and was heart-broken when her true love was killed in battle. She consequently had a series of bad relationships in which she was physically and verbally abused and emerged with only her title, Lady Ashley. She recognizes her love for Jake as fruitless and is instead content with wandering aimlessly from one man to another. The effects of the War on Brett are seen in her “loose, discorded relationships [that] reflect the shattered unity (… ) of the modern world” (Martin 69). Lady Ashley’s post-war position in The Sun Also Rises symbolizes the death of aristocracy that was suffered through the war.

According to Richard Lehan’s essay on Hemingway, the post-War Lady Ashley represents “the purposelessness and moral abandonment of the [aristocracy]” (197). Her values and lifestyle were both destroyed when the Great War ended, and in essence, so was Lady Ashley. The Great War causes the characters of The Sun Also Rises not only physical and emotional suffering, but moral and religious abandonment as well. Although none of the main characters in this book professes true devotion to their religion, it is the contrast among characters that illustrates the morally lost state of the generation.

Essayist John Pratt points out that, “[E]ach major character represents one religious attitude” (151). Hemingway’s novel contains a semi-pious Catholic, a detested Jew, and a pagan who combine to portray the religious abandonment that World War I essentially created. Jake Barnes is the semi-pious Catholic. Although Jake is deemed one of the “more religious” characters in the novel, his attitude towards religion and the Catholic faith in general show that the War affects him in this way too. Once again it is his relationship with Brett that causes his religious hopelessness.

Jake admits that when he first met Brett, he sought advice from the Catholic Church on how to handle their relationship while dealing with his injury. He knew that he and Brett would not be able to have children because of this injury that left him impotent, but Jake went to get advice from a religion that sees marriage as first a procreative and then a unitive sacrament. “The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling that. Not to think about it” (Hemingway 35). Therefore, Jake is bitter “toward what he thinks to be the Church’s unacceptable attitude toward his wound” (Pratt 153).

This very advice causes him much pain in his relationship with Brett that came as a result of the War. Lady Brett Ashley is the pagan. It is clear from the very beginning of The Sun Also Rises that Brett lacks certain beliefs and values that other people normally possess. During her stay in Pamplona, Spain, however, Brett makes it clear that she also lacks morals and any kind of religious beliefs. During the Pamplona fiesta, Brett tells Jake that she wishes to hear him confess. Jake, however, tells her that if she listens to him confess, it will be in a language she does not know.

The obvious reason for this is that Jake will confess in Latin or Spanish, but it is also possible that it means she will not understand “the language of the Christian religion” (Baker 89). After Brett meets Pedro Romero, the absence of God in her life can be seen again. Brett asks Jake to take her to a cathedral so she can pray for her new beau, but she soon becomes uncomfortable. After trying to pray for only a couple of seconds, Brett leaves the cathedral. “I’m damned bad for a religious atmosphere, I’ve got the wrong type of face” (Hemingway 188). Brett, therefore, knows that she has rejected God and she accepts this.

She re-emphasizes her pagan state at the end of the novel when she commends herself for deciding to end her relationship with Romero in an effort to save him. Brett tells Jake that her decision makes her feel good and that her goodness is what she has instead of God. Jake tells her that many people have God to which Brett replies, “He never worked very well with me” (Hemingway 221). Lady Brett Ashley, then, is most likely a pagan due to her War-time experiences, but she believes that her being so has worked to her advantage. Robert Cohn represents the detested Jew in a more symbolic sense than the rest of the characters in The Sun Also Rises.

During the course of the novel, not much is said about Robert’s religious preferences, but it is in fact his religion that makes him the scapegoat for the anger of his so-called friends. Jake states that Robert is a Jew within the first few pages of the novel. Jake also states that until Robert went to college, no one made him feel that he was a Jew and therefore different from anyone else. The significance of this statement lies in the fact that Jake, and other members of their circle of friends, do see Robert as different just because of his religion.

While Brett is never referred to as “the pagan,” Robert is often called “the Jew,” with a variety of derogatory terms attached to it. The first fault that Jake and his friends find with Robert is that he did not fight in the War. They attribute this to the fact that Robert is Jewish so right from the beginning, the Great War causes problems in Robert Cohn’s life. Throughout the remainder of the novel, Robert suffers a variety of insults pertaining to his religion.

When he becomes upset in Burguete because Brett has not yet arrived, Bill and Jake attribute this to his Jewish superiority. Well, let him not get superior and Jewish,” remarks Bill at one point (Hemingway 92). During the fiesta in Pamplona, Mike Campbell calls Robert a steer. By using this term, Mike is saying that Robert is inferior to the rest of the “bulls” (he, Jack, and Bill) because steers “lack not only testicles, but also the ability to inspire passion” (Quieto sec. 1). In this statement, Mike emphasizes his dislike of Cohn simply because of his religion. Mike sees that Cohn can become “Jewish and superior” at times so he feels that he must make him feel inferior in all other ways.

Although Robert never discusses his religion anywhere in the novel, he is detested by the majority of the characters for the simple fact that he is a Jew. By not fighting in the War, Robert receives further criticism from his friends and this emphasizes the idea that the Great War ruined religion for many people. The War wounds suffered by the characters in The Sun Also Rises cause a variety of responses in each character. While heavy drinking seems to be one of the ways in which these characters find solace for their miseries, traveling seems also to be a popular trend.

The very book itself is an example of this in that Jake Barnes narrates from Paris, completely detaching himself from the Kansas City life in which he once lived. The gaiety and entertainment associated with Paris serves as a means by which he tries to forget his unfortunate station in life caused by the Great War. In an attempt to forget his wound, Jake submerges himself in a seemingly care-free life of habitual drinking and dining as a French expatriate. “You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil… Fake European standards have ruined you” (Hemingway 109).

One of Jake’s friends makes this remark to him, proving that Jake has in fact adopted the standards of a completely different continent to leave behind the world that he holds responsible for his current situation. Jake also uses travel later on in The Sun Also Rises to escape from a variety of people and situations that remind him of his hopeless state. When his relationship with Brett becomes too much, Jake accepts Robert’s invitation to join him on a fishing trip in Spain. Jake and his friend, Bill Gorton embark for this trip and immediately the tone of the book becomes lighter and happier.

Aside from their frequent disagreements with Robert, Jake and Bill manage to have a good time fishing in Burguete, a small town in the Pyrenees mountains. Instead of obsessing over his relationship with Brett, Jake concerns himself only with fishing, drinking, and enjoying himself. “We stayed five days at Burguete and had good fishing… There was no word from Brett or Mike” (Hemingway 117). It is on this trip to Burguete that Jake and Bill become good friends through their mutual desire to get away “from the petty and noxious tribulations of Robert Cohn and company” (Baker 84).

Their camaraderie also stems from their shared need to escape from the world that the Great War has created from them and Burguete is the closest each character comes to experiencing this. Robert Cohn is another character who uses travel as a way to escape from the harsh realities of the times. The novel begins with Robert in a somewhat disastrous relationship that he was forced into by his lady. Things begin to go awry in the relationship and this, combined with Robert’s new interest in the book The Purple Land cause him to yearn for a change of scenery.

He suggests a trip to South America to Jake who cynically replies, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (Hemingway 18). Jake speaks from experience for his current place of habitation is a desperate attempt to get away from himself and the way he has become. Robert, however, does not take Jake’s advice and after ending his relationship of four years, he sets off for San Sebastian, Spain. More than half of The Sun Also Rises is set in Pamplona, Spain where Jake, Brett, Robert, Bill Gorton, and Mike Campbell attend the summer fiesta.

Although Jake attends this fiesta almost every year to watch the bullfights, this year he cannot truly escape from himself because his past haunts accompany him on the trip. Therefore, he must resort to a lifestyle of perpetual drunkenness to deal with his problems, as do many of the other characters. “The world of The Sun Also Rises is a world of drunken promiscuity, shot through with streaks of pity” (Wagenknecht 374). Although Jake turns to alcohol frequently on this trip, his relationship with Brett manages still to tear at his emotions.

After he and Bill discuss the idea of irony and pity, Jake feels especially low as he realizes that irony and pity “are the combination he used whenever he thinks about Brett” (Baker 92). Their relationship is ironic in that they both love each other but can never be together, and pitiful in the same sense. The trip that is supposed to help Jake escape reality actually makes him realize his hopeless state even more. He proves his own advice to others during the course of this trip; “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (Hemingway 18).

Jake knows this from experience, but he also keeps reliving it every time he goes away. The characters of The Sun Also Rises never do manage to get away from themselves. The Great War, it seems, has caused permanent damage to the lives of those who suffered through it. At the end of the novel, Jake attempts to rescue Brett after she runs off with Pedro Romero. Once he arrives, Brett begins to speak nostalgically of their relationship, saying that they could have had a good life together. “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so? ” is Jake’s reply (Hemingway 222).

This is true for the entire “lost generation” affected by the War. It is quite possible that any of the characters in The Sun Also Rises could have led normal lives, but the influence of World War I was too much. According to Rovit, “World War I had been the catalytic agent in releasing the stark factor of nothingness and absurdity at the very root of traditional values” (159). The Great War destroyed the traditional values of love, faith, and hope and consequently, the characters of The Sun Also Rises wander aimlessly through their resultant lives, constantly seeking ways to escape.

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The Lost Generation in The Sun Also Rises. (2017, Aug 19). Retrieved from

The Lost Generation in The Sun Also Rises
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