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The majority of people assume Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises is nothing more than a nymphomaniacal slut.
Hemingway’s symbolic portrayal of women may be best revealed through an investigation of the much-maligned heroine of The Sun Also Rises, Lady Brett Ashley. Popular opinion dismisses her as a shallow, selfish, vain, alcoholic bitch. (”Bitch”, though admittedly crude in casual conversation and a term I despise, is the technical term the critics have assigned to the Hemingway heroines they don’t particularly like.) One particular critic summarizes the range of popular opinions:
Like other Hemingway heroines, Brett Ashley has been denounced as a weak character The more serious and frequent critical charges against [her], however, are that she lacks the characteristics of a woman and, worse, that she is a “bitch” the sentimentally regarded dare-devil, and she never becomes “real”. (Whitlow 148) Brett’s seemingly insatiable sexual appetite and apparent lack of moral inhibitions do not aid the reader in reaching the conclusion that she is a romantic symbol. However, there are a few twists of plot in The Sun Also Rises that, when taken into account, explain not only Brett’s behavior but also the narrator’s reaction. First, the narrator, Jake Barnes, is impotent. Not even Viagra can help him; he had an unfortunate run-in with a shell fragment in the war. However, in this encounter he was not “emasculated”, per se; his sexual appetite is tragically spared, but he is left without a physical means to act on it. Second, he is in love with Brett and she with him. On a romantic drive through Paris, the couple speaks of their unrequited passion.
‘Don’t you love me?’ [Jake]
‘Love you? I simply turn to jelly when you touch me.’ [Brett]
‘Isn’t there anything we can do about it?’ [Jake] She looked [at Jake] as though there were nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things. [Brett and Jake are obviously deeply in love.]
‘And there’s not a thing we could do.’ [Jake, answering his own rhetorical question.] (The Sun Also Rises 26)
Brett loves Jake. Jake loves Brett. Brett loves sex. Problem! This is Brett’s true underlying role: she symbolizes all that Jake can’t have. She is his true love, his soul mate, and they are forever separated through his sexual wound. Love in the consummated sense is not possible, and for Brett, things romantic can’t be simply platonic or, as far as she’s concerned, they don’t exist. However, Jake clings desperately to that possibility:
“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”
“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it.”
“I stand it now.”
“That would be different. It’s my fault, Jake. It’s the way I’m made.” (The Sun Also Rises 54)
The whole affair is pathetic, poignant, and tragic. The entire novel’s view of love in general is warped, though. Considering the fact that the novel speaks for the “Lost Generation” following WWI, it may well be that the portrayal of love as a denial is a type of distortion technique. (Didn’t Fitzgerald, one of Hemingway’s contemporaries, portray the love Gatsby had for Daisy as a distorted, masochistic sort of denial?) Maybe the whole time period was warped. Consider, as evidence, this passage in which Jake states to himself, alone in a moment of helpless bitterness, his personal code:
Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis for friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend That only delayed presentation of the bill Just exchange of values You gave up something and you got something else. (The Sun Also Rises 148)
Love is not, and has never been, a “simple exchange of values”. This concept only applies to prostitution. What makes this so ironic is that when Brett is introduced at the beginning, Jake is out with a prostitute (not for the ever-impossible sex, but “because it might be nice to have dinner with someone” (The Sun Also Rises 43). Brett says he is “getting romantic”, when in fact she is the only real romantic symbol for Jake. The point is, in the face of lost or distorted love for lost generations (the theme of the novel) Brett is a powerful romantic symbol, running the entire gamut from puppy love to romantic fantasy to “other”. She makes the theme. Without Brett, Hemingway couldn’t have used this “death of love” theme; all the other characters were men. Brett, by her role as female lead, exposes Jake’s romantic side. We see him grow and change because of her. “Irrevocably committed to his unavailing love, Jake is forced to see his attitude in perspectives provided by the calculating appraisal of the Count, the lusty dependency of Mike, the romantic worship of Cohn, the passing interest of Bill.” (Baskett 112) The other men here are Brett’s other “sometime loves” Jake must watch her go through during the course of the novel, not counting the nineteen year old bullfighter. “Here again is the familiar tone of helpless, desperate commitment. Jake seems ready to resume his dance around Brett’s image, transfixed in a desire that can neither be denied nor satisfied ” (Baskett 118) Brett is the mover and the shaker; she creates the conflict, the romance, the desires, the actions of the other male characters. She is most certainly a symbol; she is nearly, for them, an idol to be worshiped. She is not, by any means, an oversimplified “bitch”.
This loneliness of men is why Hemingway’s women are so important. The women are pivotal; they are vital in everything he writes even if they are only alluded to or not even mentioned in the first place. Sometimes, their absence makes us realize how much we wish they were there. We love them, we sympathize with then, and we even hate them at times. Hemingway has managed to find a way to make his women more that just characters; they are symbols, ideas, stereotypes, feelings, and sometimes, even people.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
It is kind of ironic that Lady Brett actually hold this title. Yes she is of noble blood but there seems to be a play on this word lady. Brett in those times, is actually very far from the image of lady: feminine, reserved, conservative. Brett seems to be more like a tramp. This is a characteristic of the post-war society; the loss of morals and values.
The count is our only hope for restoring the story. He is the only one who has found the meaning in life after the war. It’s all about the physical…not about emotions or values or anything that can be falsified….it all comes down to the physical. That is the only true thing. But in a world of a “lost-generation”, he is quickly discarded.
” Fair enough…though I think it’s meant to be seen as a very temporary improvement. Everyone who cares about bullfighting in the book seems to think that Romero’s involvement with Brett is the beginning of the end for him. His greatness is not elminated overnight but there is no suggestion at all that he is better off for his fling with Brett than he was before he saw her.”
[The larger argument of the story suggests that "whole" men - especially morally whole men - are improved by their association with women. Pedro is a "whole" man both physically and morally. I quote the whole paragraph of p. 216 here to show that:
"Pedro Romero had the greatness. He loved bull-fighting, and I think he loved the bulls, and I think he loved Brett. Everything of which he could control the locality he did in front of her all that afternoon. Never once did he look up. He made it stronger that way, and did it for himself, too, as well as for her. Because he did not look up to ask if it pleased he did it all for himself inside, and it strengthened him, and yet he did it for her, too. But he did not do it for her at any loss to himself. He gained by it all through the afternoon."
[Unlike some other bullfighters and men in general, Pedro is not in danger of Brett or of any of her kind. That quality in him does not, of course, excuse Brett or Jake for their "arrangement"; they know they have done wrong and, so far as Brett knows - and she *does* know, for that is what Jake has shown her at an earlier bullfight and what she reflects in changing her man's hat for a mantilla to wear to church to pray for a windless day - so far as she knows, I say, she *is* bad for Pedro. (It is no moral relief for her that Pedro is made even better by his association with her.) But to the irrestible tight green pants she has added respect and love for the man - the girl can't help herself.
Even Brett understands this...sadly no copy of the book to hand to quote from, but doesn't she leave him rather broken up?
[She says so, but then she also reports that Pedro has insisted that she let her hair grow long, which seems to mean that she has to give up the "manly" independence that she has developed. Pedro has made conditions, she has declined, declaring with the face-saving remark to Jake that she "will not be one of those bitches that ruin children." I don't think Pedro can *be* broken up, any more than the Count when last we see him calmly accepting his loss of Brett to Jake, or than Bill, who manages to do the right thing every time. ]
: In connection with another question you began to develop a definition of plot or story as arising from the ways a character changes or fails to change. What do you make of the characters in SAR — do you see them as changing at all? or do they fail to rise to the occasion?
[(Great in-joke there!) Jake and Brett "fail to rise to the occasion," yes. Jake, particularly, is given opportunities to strengthen himself and react like Pedro and the Count - that is what Spain was supposed to do for him - but he dodges the little challenges that might have strengthened him and made it possible to save himself in the Pedro/Brett arrangement. That is his tragedy. ]
Thanks for this detailed reading and the quotes to support it. Not sure I agree with you that “‘whole’ men are improved by their association with women” — I think it takes a certain kind of man AND a certain kind of woman — maybe Pedro is the ‘right’ kind of man but Brett, as she well knows herself, is not the right kind of woman. My view is based on her decision to leave him — I had always assumed this was because she ‘knew’ she would only ruin (corrupt) him — therefore acted relatively nobly in leaving him — but as you point out, her motives are more complicated — she doesn’t want to accept his conditions — what she does is therefore probably best for both of them.
You say that Pedro “is not in danger of Brett or of any of her kind”. Is it possible that the “danger” arises from the people around Pedro who disapprove of his going off with Brett, and withdraw their support from him — a withdrawal prefigured by Montoya’s refusal to speak to Jake after the fiesta? Do you detect any “vanity” in Pedro — I remember feeling a sense of danger (to him as a bullfighter) in the way he turns his back on the people around him — is he really so totally self-sufficient? In your reading, Pedro doesn’t compromise himself at all; I’m suggesting that he is led to the brink by the selfish Brett, but ultimately turns or is turned back — maybe too late, or maybe not. One thing that suggests his “corruption” to me is that — in my admittedly imperfect recollection — he offers her money to stay with him? Money comes into it somewhere…linking the Brett/Pedro relationship with the whole theme of money in the book?
Incidentally on a minor point, do you see Brett as referring to Pedro when she makes that remark about “not ruining children”? I mean is Pedro the “child” she doesn’t want to ruin? Or is she talking about actual children she might one day have — doesn’t Pedro actually propose marriage to her? Just wondering.
“Thanks for this detailed reading and the quotes to support it. Not sure I agree with you that “‘whole’ men are improved by their association with women” — I think it takes a certain kind of man AND a certain kind of woman –”
[As I have said, I disagree. Pedro is a man essentially dedicated to his work which he approaches as a dedicated monk approaches God (an image that is used to describe Pedro in monastic circumstances of his dressing room). The passage I quoted for you reflects his absolute dedication to his own integrity in this regard that is proof against any temptation. And besides his "shadows" in the Count and in Bill here in the novel, there are other examples in Marjorie of "The End of Something" and the wife in "Snows", both women whose love for men morally inferior to themselves still is a source of improvement for the women, themselves. And beyond all the works of Hemingway or of anyone else, there is the world of experience, wherein we see that it is not the quality of the person loved, but the act of loving in the lover that improves the latter - a love for what is best in the beloved which, finally, is indistinguishable from what is best in and for the lover - integrity, honor, God. Where it is faint in the beloved, the lover is enjoined by his or her own perception of it in himself/herself to encourage it in the other. It is when the lover abandons that ideal in himself and surrenders to the pursuit of something less, perhaps evil in himself and in the beloved, that the beloved can and does corrupt the lover. That is what is happening to Jake with regard to Brett. (By the way, this is a meditation on the service of Cohn in the story of Jake: Jake's failure to save his friend, to improve him, is a further, perhaps central, mark against him.)]
“… You say that Pedro “is not in danger of Brett or of any of her kind”. Is it possible that the “danger” arises from the people around Pedro who disapprove of his going off with Brett, and withdraw their support from him — a withdrawal prefigured by Montoya’s refusal to speak to Jake after the fiesta?”
[Montoya and others of his school think of Pedro as a victim; neither ideally nor practically will they turn against him. As they see it, he is young and vulnerable; unlike Jake, who is older and aged and highly respected - even consecrated - in the world of aficion - whose "sin", therefore, is unforgiveable.]
” Do you detect any “vanity” in Pedro — I remember feeling a sense of danger (to him as a bullfighter) in the way he turns his back on the people around him — is he really so totally self-sufficient?”
[Oh, Pedro has his faults. But they are peripheral to his "proof", a mere chink in his moral armor. (And he is very young.) The notes on that begin with the telling scar on that perfect face, and include his considedration for and allowance of the fact that his public do not like to know that he can speak English. They continue with his giving Brett the cape of his suit of lights - but insisting that she not display it. Then he is aware of the "ragging" he is getting for taking up with a "manly" woman (and so the insistence that Brett let her hair grow out.) But the paragraph I quoted treats of matters much deeper than those things and defines Pedro's essential soundness. These others are "but the trappings and the suits" of weakness. ]
” In your reading, Pedro doesn’t compromise himself at all; I’m suggesting that he is led to the brink by the selfish Brett, but ultimately turns or is turned back — maybe too late, or maybe not. One thing that suggests his “corruption” to me is that — in my admittedly imperfect recollection — he offers her money to stay with him? Money comes into it somewhere…linking the Brett/Pedro relationship with the whole theme of money in the book?”
[Yes, he offers her money - not to marry him, but to have money to take her back to Paris after they have decided to part. Then, when Jake appears in Madrid to rescue her, they find that Pedro has paid the hotel bill. ]
” Incidentally on a minor point, do you see Brett as referring to Pedro when she makes that remark about “not ruining children”? I mean is Pedro the “child” she doesn’t want to ruin? Or is she talking about actual children she might one day have ”
[Yes, she is referring to Pedro. In the conversation with Jake she repeats references to the difference of age between her and Pedro: he is nineteen, she is thirty-four; she was in school in Paris when he was born, etc. ]
“– doesn’t Pedro actually propose marriage to her? Just wondering.”
[Yes, he does. But she must let her hair grow out; i.e, become a woman, give up her promiscuous freedom - which she can no more do than Jake can regrow his p*nis. In her story, her sick promiscuity is her particular moral challenge, as, in his story, Jake's impotence is his.}
[I hope I do not insult you when I say that I DO wish you would re-read the novel. It's certainly worth your time.]
The very last sentence when Brett and Jake are
talking about what a good time they could of had together, Jake
“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
He acknowledges what could have been between them and
he takes his loss.
Another thing is that they are always drinking alcohol
They are always drunk and if they’re not, they’re waiting
for a beer.
That definess the whole sadness of the story.
All the characters have the same problems at the end
of the book. They drown their sorrows in alcohol.
What do you think? If we put our minds together,
maybe we can both pull an A out of this one!
“No man embraces her (LAdy Brett Ashley) without being, in some sense, castrated…and when she leaves the 19 year old bull fighter, one suspects she is really running away because she thinks he might make her a woman”
think, however, one of the most defining traits of a modern woman is the willingness to be “one of the guys.” Still, maybe Brett is only a woman with some modern traits – not fully a “modern woman.”
Hemingway ends his novel by describing a scene where Brett tells Jake “Don’t get drunk . . . You don’t have to.” After getting drunk throughout the whole novel, Brett accepts their lives and doesn’t feel the need to escape by drinking anymore. There was no perfect ending where the circumstances of their lives magically changed to a new life; they just learned to accept late and deal with things as they are. This subtly ends the novel with a different attitude, but with no real changes taking place in their situations.
Lady Brett is a 34-year-old Englishwoman who is beautiful and emotionally scarred. She had an innocent love affair when she was a volunteer nurse in the war, but ever since her young soldier died, she has drifted from one worthless man to another. Her husband, a British Lord from whom she is separated, gave her her title, but also made her sleep on the floor and more than once threatened her with a gun. Now she runs around Paris with a group of homosexuals. She is engaged to Michael Campbell, a drunk and bankrupt Scot, but she has numerous affairs. She also loves Jake Barnes, but because of his wound, they can’t make love; their relationship only frustrates them both. Like Jake, she is a hardboiled realist. Lady Brett represents everything that offends the prevalent sensibilities of her time. She smokes and drinks too much. She is in the process of a divorce, and is promiscuous. She has no religion and no strong moral beliefs. In short, she is irresponsible and neurotic. Brett is considered a goddess by the dancers at the Spanish fiesta. She is said to collect men, and indeed at one point all the principal men in the book–Jake, Robert Cohn, Mike, Bill, and Pedro Romero–are in love with her. One character calls her Circe, after the mythical woman who turns men to swine, and many readers see Brett as having an evil magic that emasculates men. Brett herself is mannish and tries to act like the men she associates with. She has very short hair and often refers to herself as “one of the chaps.” Sexual roles are confused in The Sun Also Rises–the hero is impotent and the heroine behaves like a man. This confusion represents the perversion and failure of love Hemingway saw in the postwar world. Brett is an example of an individual trying to cope in a world that has lost the unquestioned moral order of organized religion.
Name: Lady Brett Ashley
Brett was “damned good looking.” She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey. (Hemingway 22)
Role: Idle socialite
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