The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: Characters & Themes

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson provides an overview of Ernest Hemingway's classic novel, ''The Sun Also Rises''. The lesson also examines important themes present in the novel and analyzes the meaning and significance of these themes.

The Sun Also Rises Overview: The Original Road Trip

At first blush, Ernest Hemingway's Modernist masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises, may seem like little more than a 1920s version of a male-driven buddy story. In the novel, a group of friends travels from Paris to Spain to do a bit of fishing and to attend a world famous bullfighting festival. But what all this really boils down to is that life in this era is far different than anyone ever could have imagined before the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918). World War I was one of the bloodiest wars in human history, claiming more than 17 million lives.

As a member of what Gertrude Stein famously called The Lost Generation, that cadre of Modernist writers and artists working in Europe in the aftermath of World War I, Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises gives us an up-close look at the era. He shows us how different the world can look, especially to young people, in the wake of a global catastrophe.

Cast of Characters: A Bunch of Guys and a Girl (Of Course)

Jake Barnes: Jake Barnes, an American expatriate and World War I veteran working as journalist in Paris, narrates the novel. Significantly, Jake has suffered some kind of unnamed wound in the war which, the novel suggests, has rendered him unable to perform sexually.

Lady Brett Ashley: An aristocrat by birth, Brett is the quintessential 'new woman' of the 1920s. Brett and Jake, who met in England while Jake was convalescing from his war wounds, seem to be soulmates. But Brett is unwilling to embrace a life of celibacy in order to be with Jake and so, despite having a fiancé, she engages in a series of doomed affairs.

Bill Groton: Groton is Jake's buddy and oft-time travel companion. A fellow WWI veteran, Groton travels with Jake from Paris to the south of France and on into Spain, where they plan to fish for a time before attending the bullfighting fiesta in Pamplona.

Robert Cohn: Cohn is Jake's friend. He is a wealthy and capricious writer who, early in the novel, falls in love with Brett at first sight. The two have a short-lived fling before Brett, predictably, breaks it off, devastating Cohn.

Mike Campbell: Campbell, another WWI veteran, is Brett's alcoholic, Scottish-American fiancé. Campbell openly and repeatedly ridicules Cohn for following Brett around, for showing up unexpectedly at every town she visits between Paris and Pamplona. Near the end of the novel, Cohn and Campbell finally come to blows. Cohn not only knocks out Campbell but also knocks out Jake, his fellow rival for Brett's affection. He finally realizes that his pursuit is futile and leaves Pamplona and his dream girl forever.

Romero: Romero is perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Cohn's dreams of a life with Brett. He is 19 and a world-famous bullfighter. At first, it seems as though Brett has met her match in Romero. She is instantly fascinated and the two have an illicit affair. But Brett soon calls it off with Romero, claiming that their relationship will ruin his career.

What It Means: Themes of Love, Loss, and Despair

Powerlessness: Jake's unnamed war wound is perhaps the most significant symbol in the entire novel. It represents an all-encompassing sense of powerlessness characterizing these post-war years. Prior to the outbreak of World War I, there had been a period of profound optimism. Modernization and industrialization had made it seem as though there was nothing that humans could not accomplish through the advancement of technology and science.

But when the war broke out, and airplanes, tanks, and chemical weapons were used for the first time in human history, we saw to our horror the brutality that humans are really capable of. Rather than making us more civilized, as had been believed, these advancements only made it possible to be even more barbaric. It is no wonder that young people in this post-war generation, represented in the novel by Brett, Jake, Cohn, Groton, and Campbell, felt so helpless in the face of the brutal forces of history.

Nostalgia: As the novel ends, Brett has just broken off with Romero and is preparing to return to her volatile but ill-used fiancé, Campbell. She laments to Jake that the two of them might have had a beautiful life together. Jake turns to her and declares, 'Yes, isn't it pretty to think so?'

This exchange reflects a harsh reality of the time: WWI created a culture of profound uncertainty, a loss of faith in anything enduring, anything to be relied upon.

No wonder Brett takes a series of lovers. And no wonder Jake recognizes in Brett's idealizing of their relationship nothing more than a 'pretty' dream, a fiction that, war wound or not, could never be: the beautiful ideals of the past, the novel suggests, are all passed away--if they ever existed at all. And with them have gone any faith or hope in the future to come, including faith in romantic love and the ideals of a traditional home life.

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