These Friends Took A Trip To Spain And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next
I didn’t make it all the way through The Sun Also Rises the first time I tried to read it. I was 16, in high school, and easily bored by straightforward writing with understated action. Where were the explosions? Where was the mystery? Isn’t someone supposed to fight a bull? It wasn’t long after chapter three that boredom finally set in and I opted to spend my time playing video games.
Teenagers are idiots.
It wasn’t until I was older, on a plane ride to London, that I finally took the time to read the book in its entirety. It’s strange, because I was instantly engrossed by Hemingway's trademark journalistic prose, the opulence enjoyed by the main characters, and the intensely morose love triangle that was formed between Jack, Robert, and Brett. I’m not sure why The Sun Also Rises resonated so strongly with me on my second attempt at reading it. Maybe it’s because I was older, or smarter, or simply a better reader, but one thing is for sure: I wish I had read it earlier.
The novel follows Jack Barnes, a foreign correspondent living in Paris who suffers from a terminal case of unrequited love (oh, and a horrific injury from the war has also rendered Jack impotent for life). Hemingway uses Jack—somewhat autobiographically—to represent the aimlessness of life after World War I. In a time when masculinity was such a prized commodity, what could a man do when he could no longer be, well, masculine?
Jack’s sometimes-friend, sometimes-enemy Robert Cohn convinces Jack to join in on a trip to Pamplona, Spain, alongside Brett Ashley, a mutual love interest of both men. Spoiler alert: it ends horribly. The trip is tainted by heartache, shame, and in it’s darkest moments, bloodshed. The group finds themselves entangled in the brutal sport of bullfighting, with Brett falling in love with a 19-year-old bullfighter named Romero, leaving Jack and Robert with a need to express their masculinity and purpose.
Eventually, Robert—a former boxer—fights both Jack and Romero. While neither man fares well in their respective bout, the encounter leaves all three embarrassed, emasculated, and deeply troubled. As you can imagine The Sun Also Rises does not end on an upbeat note. In other words: no one is happy.
While this tale might seem overly macabre by today’s standards, it’s the perfect snapshot of life in the time between World War I and World War II. Even more so, the comments that Hemingway makes on the nature of masculinity—either on purpose or as a side effect of drawing from personal experience—are extremely relevant and applicable. Like I said, the first time I tried to read The Sun Also Rises, I was a video-game obsessed 16-year-old kid. While I eventually grew up to be a mature, semi-self-actualized adult, I honestly believe that the lessons gleaned from Hemingway’s classic would have saved me much of the trouble that comes with becoming a man.
And, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about learning how to fight, or how to make a woman swoon, or any of the other things that, when I was 16, I thought made a man a man. No, I’m talking Jack’s struggle to maintain purpose once certain masculine traits are no longer accessible. Trust me, it’s the kind of lesson that teenage gamers would do well to learn.
But The Sun Also Rises is more than a comment on masculinity. It’s the story of a generation, of loss, and of the pitfalls of falling into the assumed roles that society has prepared for us. Why do Jack and Robert fight over a woman who doesn’t really want either of them? Why does Romero fight bulls? Why is each character a borderline alcoholic? In the end, it’s because they are all, in their own way, searching for meaning. It’s this universal theme that makes The Sun Also Rises one of the most enduring books in all of literature.
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