Masculinity in The Sun Also Rises
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Norman Mailer once said, “Masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor” (Mailer). He is saying that the honor of being masculine is not just handed to one on a silver platter, but is rightfully earned, much like the way the bullfighters earned their masculinity by their successes in the arena. One of the themes in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises is how masculinity creates much conflict between the characters and the post World War I society they reside in. Hemingway employs many literary techniques to convey the complexities of the theme. Hemingway is able to portray the theme of masculinity through symbolism, the parallel between individual impotence and the impotence of society, as well as the flip of gender roles.
The bull provides great symbolic meaning when masculinity is the subject in this novel. Hemingway often uses the bull or the bullfight as a metaphor with which characters engage. Brett Ashley is highly attracted to the bull, and she admires its perfection of masculine qualities, shown in the passage where Hemingway describes the bull: Then I saw a dark muzzle and the shadow of the horns, and then, with a clattering on the wood in the hollow box, the bull charged and came out into the corral, skidding with his forefeet in the straw as he stopped, his head up, the great hump of muscle on his neck swollen tight, his body muscles quivering as he looked up at the crowd on the stone wall. The two steers backed away against the wall, their heads sunken, their eyes watching the bull (Hemingway 139).
The bull shows brute strength and great power, which amazes and stuns Brett. She reacts to this sight by saying “My, God isn’t he beautiful?” (Hemingway 139). While Brett is taken away by the power of the bull, she struggles to find such masculine qualities in the men in the novel. The bull is the most complete form of masculinity Brett sees, and in contrast to the disappointment of the men she sleeps with. In this way, Hemingway shows how true masculinity is nearly impossible to find in real men. To Hemingway, the closest men come to true masculinity as the bull is when they have “aficion”, meaning passion” (Hemingway 131). Bullfighters would have the most “aficion” since they work closest with the bulls. Jake has aficion, and it is his link to a secret world of men. The hotelkeeper Montoya is an aficionado, as is Pedro Romero. In fact, all the great bullfighters and lovers of the bullfights are aficionados, with a sort of spiritual bond linking them and the masculine bulls (Ford).
Another way of the theme of masculinity is expressed is in the struggle to be masculine, especially in the case of Jake Barnes. Jake’s impotence is a huge challenge and creates much conflict between him and the other characters. Jake’s injury in the War prevents him from being in a physical relationship with Brett. Hemingway continues to use the bull metaphor in illustrating the struggle of his characters in the world. The steers in the bullfight are castrated and have no choice, just as Jake has no choice in the matter of his injury. As Robert Cohn says in the novel “It’s no life being a steer” (Hemingway 141). Jake is sometimes the steer because not only of his injury but because of the way he lets his injury control him. He allows it to weaken him and let him go numb to the world around him. Not only is being impotent demasculizing in itself, because being able to perform is a huge part of the male role in society during this time period. Jake’s failure in this respect results in him being disconnected from the rest of his friends, especially Brett. Hemingway parallels Jake’s impotence with the general impotence of the lost generation during that time. The lost generation became as desensitized to the rest of the world just as Jake did to his friends (Oliver). Hemingway is showing the wounding affects of war through the lack of masculinity and something the majority of people take for granted (Oliver).
The novel also questions the true value of masculinity, especially in the character Brett. Brett proves that masculine qualities can be found in women as well as men. When Brett is first introduced in the novel, it is clear is that she is different from other women of the time. She has a crowd of men around her and while she is quite beautiful, she keeps her “hair brushed back like a boy’s.” (Hemingway 22). Another quality that makes her different is her tendency to drink like a man. Count Mippipopolous, one of the many men who become involved with Brett, and says that she is “the only lady I have ever known who was as charming when she was drunk as when she was sober,” (59). Her refusal to follow the rules of society often excludes her, such as when she cannot enter the church because she has no hat (Ford). She has a series of affairs, even though she secretly loves Jake the whole time. Her final affair is with Pedro Romero, the young bullfighter who is another symbol of manliness (Ford). Being that they both exemplify masculine qualities, they have great issues with being in a relationship. That relationship fails in part because Pedro wants her to grow her hair out, to be “more womanly.” He insists on marriage, but Brett refuses to be bound by society’s expectations of a woman (Ford). Ironically, Brett exemplifies masculinity and develops that theme more than the majority of the men in the novel.
Hemingway’s use of symbolism, drawing parallels between individual impotence and the Lost Generation’s impotence, as well as a complete flip in gender roles establish masculinity as a predominant theme in this novel. It touches almost every character and sets up major conflicts between them. Masculinity not only is a theme in the novel but was a theme among all who were part of the Lost Generation after World War I. It is much easier to focus on having successes in the arena as a bullfighter than it is to have successes with masculinity in the society at this time. The struggles and failures of the characters in The Sun Also Rises prove Mailer’s point that masculinity must be gained, not given.
Ford, James. “Gender in The Sun Also Rises.” McClinton-Temple, Jennifer ed. Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 1954. Print. Mailer, Norman. “The Columbia Book of Quotations.” The Columbia Book of Quotations. 579. Google Books. Web. 13 Dec. 2012. Oliver, Charles M. “impotence in the works of Ernest Hemingway.” Critical Companion to Ernest Hemingway: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc.