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Hemingway and Modernishm

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1769
  • Category: Hemingway

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Modernists were authors that broke away from many traditional standards of writing during the post World War I time period of the Lost Generation. “T.S. Eliot stated that, the inherited mode of ordering a literary work, which assumed a relatively coherent and stable social order, could not accord with the ‘immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’ Major works of modernist fiction, then, subvert the basic conventions of earlier prose fiction by breaking up the narrative continuity, departing from the standard ways of representing characters, and violating traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language by the use of stream of consciousness and other innovative modes of narration” (Abrams A Glossary of Literary Terms). In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway uses theme, structure, style, symbols and metaphors to “break up the narrative continuity,” “depart from standard ways of representing characters,” “violate the traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language,” and represents an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy.” Because Hemingway uses these methods to break away from traditional standards, he is therefore a modernist.

One of the aspects of modernism is “departing from standard ways of representing characters.” In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway breaks away from the standard representations of characters, most drastically seen in the character of Lady Brett Ashley. First off, this woman has a man’s name, initially suggesting that she is not a ‘normal’ lady. Brett also has traits that are not generally feminine, but rather masculine. For example, Brett is extremely independent, and she tends to have a great deal of power over every man she meets. She is always the dominant one in her relationships, and never commits to any one man, rather she prefers independence. She is manipulating and causes tension between other men, much like traditional male characters. Unlike traditional female roles, she is not submissive or ladylike, rather she goes after what she wants; Brett is the pursuer, not the one to wait around for what she desires. One example of this can be found in chapter XVI, when Brett is confessing to Jake that she needs to have Romero, a young Spanish bullfighter. She says to Jake, “I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think…I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to. I’ve lost my self respect.” “What do you want me to do?” (Jake)

“Come on,” Brett said. “Let’s go and find him.”… “Ask him to come over and have a drink.” (Brett)
“Not yet. He’ll come over.” (Jake)
“I can’t look at him.”
“He’s nice to look at,” I said.
“I’ve always done just what I wanted.” (Brett)
“I know.” (Hemingway, 183-184)

This is a perfect example of how Hemingway “departs from standard ways of representing characters,” in that Brett is displayed as a woman who acts unlike a traditional female character. In this instance, Brett is more concerned with getting Romero, the 19 year old Spanish bullfighter, than she is about anything else. She admits that she always gets what she wants, giving readers textual proof that Hemingway is indeed a modernist, as his way of representing the main female in this novel is more masculine than feminine, a representation that is clearly not traditional.

Another characteristic of modernists is that they “violate the traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language.” The entire style of Hemingway’s novel represents the ‘iceberg theory of minimalism.’ Hemingway demonstrates this minimalist theory in that he only gives readers the “tip of the iceberg”, so to speak. Instead of describing characters or events in a detailed, complex manner, Hemingway gives away as little information as possible in words, but underneath the surface of this minimal way of writing lays an entire iceberg of meaning and depth. For instance, Hemingway’s character, Jake, was wounded in World War 1. His wound unfortunately rendered him impotent. However, one must read between the lines to even come to the conclusion that his wound has to do with his inability to procreate. Hemingway gives very little to no information pertaining to the source of his wound or the actual wound itself. Instead, the entire novel uses black humor to reference his sexual inability. The best example can be found on the last page of the novel, when Brett says to Jake, “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?” (Hemingway, 247)

These four lines may seem trivial upon their first reading. However, Hemingway packed these last four lines with meaning, using the iceberg theory of minimalism, and “violating the traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language.” Unlike other authors of the period, like Charles Dickens for example, Hemingway does not write long complex sentences that verbally state their literal meaning, but rather he writes in short sentences and dialogue without textually stating the meaning, but allowing room for the reader to ponder. In the example above, the raising of the baton represents a phallic symbol, emphasizing Jake’s impotence until the last words of the novel. These last words carry so much weight and meaning, despite their minimalist structure, proving the iceberg theory and the violation of coherence of the language. Another example of the violation of traditional syntax can be found when Jake goes to the cathedral to pray.

After he prays for a few things, he wonders, “I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make it, and thinking of making money reminded me of the count, and I started wondering about where he was, and regretting I hadn’t seen him since that night in Montmartre, and about something funny Brett told me about him, and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time; and then I was out in the hot sun on the steps of the cathedral, and the forefingers and the thumb of my right hand were still damp, and I felt them dry in the sun.” (Hemingway, 97)

If nothing else, this excerpt from The Sun Also Rises absolutely proves the “violation of the traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language.” This excerpt, although twelve lines, is just a single sentence. It is an example of stream of consciousness, which is a literary style that presents a character’s random flow of thoughts as they occur. Stream of consciousness does not occur in the works of authors like Dickens, but rather is a modernist concept.

Words of modernist fiction represent an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy.” What better an example of futility than a man, who is passionately in love with a woman, yet cannot be with her because of his inability to fulfill her desires. The one thing Jake wants in life is to be with Brett, yet his war wound has rendered him impotent, and thus he is unable to grant Brett her biggest wish and he is left feeling futile. Futility is a major theme presented throughout the entire novel. As people in the Lost Generation, the men and women in The Sun Also Rises are all searching for something more to their life. Their lives consist of drinking, going to dinner, socializing with friends, sleeping with whomever, drinking some more, traveling, and drinking again. The excessive consumption of alcohol is one symbol of the pain these characters are trying to escape. Their lives are futile, and Jake’s life is the epitome of futility as his one great desire will never be fulfilled. As seen in the second example mentioned above, phallic symbols are used throughout the course of the novel to tease Jake’s impotence and futile desires.

The symbol of the baton being raised in the last few sentences of the book simply dramatizes the fact that Jake will never achieve his one wish, Brett, suggesting that his whole life consists of futility, as do the lives of the other members of the Lost Generation. Almost every one of Hemingway’s characters lives a futile life, with no real passion or purpose. The only true character we see with a passion or purpose is Pedro Romero, the young Spanish bullfighter. Romero serves as a foil to Jake and his friends because Romero did not fight in the war, and thus is not damaged by its devastating effects. His character simply dramatizes the futility of the others’ lives. Thus, unlike other writers of the time, Hemingway presents this futility as a major theme in The Sun Also Rises, trying to realistically illustrate the futile lives of the members of the Lost Generation. Because he strays from traditional writing standards and represents an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy”, Hemingway is therefore a modernist.

To “depart from standard ways of representing characters,” to “violate the traditional syntax and coherence of narrative language,” and to represent an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” is to dramatically cross the boundaries of and break away from traditional writing standards. This is exactly what Ernest Hemingway did in his novel, The Sun Also Rises. Instead of complying with traditional standards of writers like Charles Dickens in The Tale of Two Cities, Hemingway represented his characters in unconventional ways and he therefore subverted conventions of both men and women, taking a more realistic view on the members of the Lost Generation. Along with representing characters untraditionally, Hemingway cuts the traditional, detailed, complex sentences of other writers into short dialogue and thoughts, using the iceberg theory of minimalism. He often narrates in thought form, in lists, or in conversation, and interrupts the coherence of the narrative language. Thirdly, he presents futility as an overbearing theme to the lives of all the members of the Lost Generation, using Jake’s life as the epitome of futile. Because he incorporates all of these elements into his authorship of The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway is a modernist.

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