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A Hard Day’s Knight: Searching for a Hero in The Sun Also Rises

Unlike many of the books published before the 1920s, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises there is a distinct lack of the stereotypical nineteenth-century hero figure. In looking for such a hero, the reader expects one character to stand out as the champion of a moral truth or of a standard above mere human existence. Though all of the main characters exhibit the characteristics of a classic noble protagonist at one time or another throughout the narrative, limitations prevent each from exhibiting the consistency innate in the classic hero figure. There isn’t one character that stands out enough, or for any significant period of time, to merit the label of “a hero.”

Hemingway gives each character a chance at being the champion of the story, but never allows that dream to be realized. By examining each of the four main characters individually, it will become apparent how Hemingway structured the novel so that the hope for a single hero is ever-present, but the reality of such an individual actually existing is an unfortunate impossibility given the personality flaws present in each.

When one speaks of unfortunate impossibilities in this novel, it is Jake’s war injury that most often comes to mind first. It is appropriate, though, that this is the case, because in Jake, we find the character most often given the chance at being the hero. Hemingway evokes immediate compassion for Jake at the suggestion of Jake’s sexually incapacitating war wound. By appealing to the male reader’s sense of machismo (and subsequent fear of sexual inadequacy) and the female reader’s sense of sympathy, Jake’s plight is given a tragic, but character enhancing, perspective. He can be immediately seen as brave and strong for living a “normal life” despite his serious misfortune. His association with Brett further reinforces this image. Despite his injury, he is able maintain a relationship with a woman who, as Hemingway goes to great lengths to show, loves him. Their exchange on pages 26-27 displays quite clearly how Jake and Brett feel about each other, but given the circumstances, that love is, says Brett, “hell on earth. Instead of abandoning his feelings, however, Jake is shown as heroic enough to live through not only his impairment, but also Brett’s sexual escapades.

If such courage were consistently all that Jake displayed, at the end of the novel he would quite clearly merit the hero title. His petty jealousies and sadistic tendencies towards Cohn, however, destroy any possibility of that. Early in the narrative, when he and Cohn are waiting for Brett, Jake comments on Cohn’s anxiety by saying, “We walked to the station. I was enjoying Cohn’s nervousness. Later, he takes his sadism a step further, saying, in fact, ” I liked to see him [Mike] hurt Cohn. These are not the words of a hero. It appears, from these passages, that Jake acquires some evil pleasure in the difficulties that Cohn has in their elite circle of friends, a community in which Jake seems to exist comfortably. By drawing entertainment and strength from the ways by which he feels superior to Cohn, Jake shows personal insecurities and an ego unbecoming of a traditional hero.

Also insecure with her position in life is Brett, a character Hemingway seems to enjoy using to toy with the emotions of the other characters. Brett causes almost every conflict in the story, either directly or indirectly. Given that a hero is supposed to resolve conflict rather than initiate it, Brett does not seem a likely candidate for that role. She is promiscuous, a drunk, and seems utterly unfazed by the difficulties that she causes the rest of the group. She also displays little or no sympathy for Cohn as he attempts to communicate his “crush” on her. This wanton behavior and careless disregard for the feelings of others seems to leave no opportunity for Lady Brett Ashley to assume the part of a hero.

Hemingway asks the reader to disregard this conduct, however, and temporarily elevates Brett’s status at the end of the story. By giving Brett the strength to leave Romero at the conclusion, Hemingway places her in a position reminiscent of the ancient Greek, tragic, female hero. Her position as a woman sacrificing her own happiness for a stronger purpose is comparable to Medea, or possibly Electra. She “released” Romero from her grasp so that he could continue his life as he should, in the ring. Brett says, “He [Romero] shouldn’t be living with any one. I realized that right away. She alludes to the fact that Romero had shifted his focus totally away from bullfighting, and by using the phrase “shouldn’t be living with any one,” Brett implies that her realization was more for his benefit than hers was. “Shouldn’t” has the connotation of abstaining from an action for the well being of the parties involved. This case is no exception as Brett decides that, despite possible happiness with him, not only was it to her advantage to leave Romero now, but was also the best thing for him (and his bullfighting). In addition to that, by saying that she “didn’t have a soul to go away and leave him, yet sending Romero away anyway (without taking his money), her action seems even more admirable.

Such selfless acts are often indicative of a tragic hero, and Hemingway comes close to allowing Brett that honor. At the last minute, however, he refutes Brett’s apparent courage in the tearful display that occurs after she leaves Romero. “‘I’m going back to Mike.’ I could feel her crying as I held her close. ‘He’s so damned nice and he’s so awful. He’s my sort of thing’. In this passage, Brett’s constant cycle of irresponsible and unhealthy relationships, which might have ended after her courageous act with Romero, returns to plague her frivolous lifestyle. She appears, in this passage, a pitiful creature, totally undeserving of admiration (or even respect). By surrendering and returning to Mike, she negates what could be seen as a heroic act and, in conjunction with the obvious flaws mentioned before, ruins her chances at ever being the hero.

And, one might ask, what of the notorious fianc , Mike? From what perspective might he be seen as the hero? It seems apparent that his cruelty towards Cohn, his excessive drinking, and the lack of sympathy he displays towards Brett have more than excluded him from consideration. Mike, at one point in the narrative, states, “Brett’s gone off with men before. But they weren’t ever Jews, and they didn’t come and hang about afterward. This rampant jealousy and bigotry, though more socially acceptable in Hemingway’s time, is nonetheless a strong indicator that Mike does not possess the values or sensitivity to fit the mold of the moral champion of anything. His bankruptcy also serves to reinforce the impression that he is a deadbeat and a drunkard. To many readers, in fact, Mike comes across as an annoying character serving little purpose beyond irritating Cohn.

If one examines the standard by which the “hero” was defined in the nineteenth century, however, Mike plays a larger role than is obvious. To put it in the simplest terms possible, he gets the girl at the end. Though this seems a particularly chauvinistic and outdated standard by which to judge a hero’s worth, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, often times it was the sole indicator of who the hero was in a story. Mike, though verbally abusive and inebriated throughout most of the tale, nonetheless retains “possession” of Brett at the end of the novel. Whether this outcome is a blessing or a curse for Mike remains to be seen, but the fact that he somehow ends up with Brett still as his fianc , despite his bankruptcy and behavior, is testimony to endearing characteristics which must exist. Had Brett decided to settle down and marry Cohn, no doubt she could have lived a comfortable life with a devoted husband and no fear of financial hardship. She returns, however, to Mike, the man she describes as “damned nice”, and with whom she feels most secure (besides Jake). It could be argued, therefore, that Mike bravely tolerated all of Brett’s antics, courageously competed with her other suitors, and deservedly won her hand at the end. Granted, such a description is melodramatic and distorted at best, but often this was the case in the epic romance novels of the time.

In following the trend of the romantic novels of the time, there also often exists the character best described as a “hopeless romantic.” In this case, Robert Cohn fits the description perfectly. Cohn insists on believing in the illusion that the affection he and Brett once shared means anything to her now. His pursuit for Brett’s interest evokes a strong feeling of pity for Cohn. Because his pursuit is so obviously in vain, Cohn follows Brett in the mold of the tragic hero. It is painfully obvious to the reader that his hopes will never be fulfilled, but still Cohn persists. Everyone loves the underdog, and by taking up this endeavor for Brett’s affection, he secures his existence as such a character. His seemingly endless crusade for the love of Lady Ashley, and the everyday abuse he endures for being a Jew, makes Robert seem as though he is somehow supporting the weight of the world. It is in this sense that Robert Cohn can be seen as the hero of the story. He shows the courage and conviction to maintain his quest, however futile it may appear, for the love of a lady. Storybooks have been based on exactly that premise, and one can only assume that “The Purple Land,” the book on which Cohn bases his life, follows such a formula. Jake says, at one point, “Cohn, I believe, took every word of ‘The Purple Land’ as literally as though it had been an R.G. Dun report. In believing so strongly in the ideal of romantic love, Cohn dooms himself to a miserable existence in a group whose trademark is a disillusionment with reality rather than with romance.

Cohn also dooms himself to an existence short of heroic, however, by immaturely basing his entire life on this single pursuit. His one-night stand with Brett leaves him so obsessed with the idea of romantic love that Robert’s whole trip to Spain becomes a pitiful excuse to follow and ogle her. By having the audacity to claim her as his own after one night of passion, Robert displays that he is little more than a child inside. Jake says as much in describing him; “Internally he had been molded by the two women who had trained him. He had a nice, boyish sort of cheerfulness that had never been trained out of him . . . By using the phrases “trained” and “boyish”, Jake is basically comparing Robert to an infant, simple and kind of cute, but not capable of comprehending anything more than an elementary situation, or in this case, an elementary emotion. Cohn’s inability to cope with a concept he obviously does not understand culminates with the fight scene near the end of the book. His part of the dialogue during that scene is remarkably similar to that of an angry child:

“Tell me where she is.” “Sit down,” I said. “I don’t know where she is.” “The hell you don’t!” “You can shut your face.” “Tell me where Brett is.” “I’ll not tell you a damn thing.” “You know where she is.”

It is apparent from this scene that Robert has claimed Brett for his own and feels it his duty to guard over her every minute of the day. By then calling Jake a “pimp” and getting himself into a juvenile fight with Jake (and then Romero), Cohn has secured his status (despite the outcome of the brawl) as a cowardly and immature child. This description is supported by his tearful display later in the hotel. “He was crying. His voice was funny. Hemingway is careful to mention the change in Cohn’s voice, a trademark of a frightened, crying youngster. On the whole, these traits suggest that Robert Cohn possesses the potential to be a hero, but because he does not have the level of maturity and common sense necessary for such a role, the dream of a “Purple Land” for Robert Cohn can never be realized. He will always be, at best, just another man in Brett’s colorful history, and at worst, a child forever lost in a fantasy.

In the Robert Cohn dream world of knights in shining armor and damsels in distress, the hero is always there to save the day at the end. In the disillusioned world of our four main characters, however, there is no champion of justice, no gallant knight. Each of them had the chance to ride off on the proverbial white horse, knowing that what they had accomplished was something more than just surviving the daily grind. Hemingway, though, did not allow any of his characters to actually achieve that goal. The flaws present in each of their personalities prevented the romantic ride into the sunset and drunken nights left future days without a savior. With the title phrase from Ecclesiastes, Hemingway seems to suggest, though, that the sun also rises; it rises on the hope of a hero in each of their futures. Perhaps their seemingly endless cycle will be broken and one of the group can rise out of the ashes to an existence better than the drunken blur that is their life now. As Jake realizes, however, in the final line, the faith in such a forecast is but wishful thinking. But “isn’t it pretty to think so?


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