As the story begins, Jake Barnes, an American journalist and war veteran, is leading a somewhat bohemian life in Paris. He is in love with a young English war widow, Lady Brett Ashley, but their relationship is complicated by Jake’s having sustained a war injury that has left him sexually incapacitated. Brett has become engaged, as a matter of convenience, to Michael Campbell, an Englishman. Robert Cohn, a young American writer who was once a boxing champion at Princeton University, is also attracted to Brett. The expatriates journey to Pamplona for the Fiesta de San Fermin and there meet the young matador Pedro Romero, who performs “without falsity” and thus upholds the pure standards of the bullfight. Sexual intrigue, most of it centered on Brett, provides the catalyst for Jake’s reevaluation of his generation’s moral standing.
Hemingway chooses two contrasting epigraphs-that is, opening quotations-for The Sun Also Rises and, through their juxtaposition, establishes a clear, simple theme. Gertrude Stein, herself a writer and the mentor of many young artists in Paris during the 1920s, once said of the American expatriates: “You are all a lost generation.” Stein’s observation suggests the transience of humankind; Hemingway took her statement to mean that his generation no longer had recourse to the ideals and structural order of pre-World War I civilization.
Hemingway draws the book’s second epigraph from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever…The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down.” This prophecy suggests a cosmic order: in God’s scheme of the world there is no “lost generation,” and the self-centered, fragile human ego appears insignificant next to the cycles of the sun and the passing of time. Until Jake, Brett, and the others realize that they are indeed lost, but lost only because they lack the moral fortitude to subordinate individual desires to universal truths, their lives will lack meaning. Hemingway said that he did not intend for The Sun Also Rises to be “a hollow or bitter satire, but a damn tragedy with the earth abiding forever as the hero.”
Against the backdrop of tragedy, Hemingway strings scenes of happiness and celebration: the gaiety of Paris nightlife; the splendor of Pamplona at festival time, with its bustling crowds and noble matadors; and the serenity of the Basque countryside where Jake and Bill Gorton hike and fish. Behind the nightlife stands the alcoholism, behind the bullfights the tragic realities, and behind the fishing a generation’s unconscious quest for simplicity. The fishing scenes, far from being a mere pastoral interlude in an otherwise frenzied novel, serve to reinforce Hemingway’s primary theme; Jake recognizes that he is missing some element crucial to his happiness, and he undertakes a quest to discover his generation’s lost values.
Jake is most content fishing, observing the bullfight, or riding atop a dilapidated bus, drinking wine, and practicing his Spanish on the locals; the proprietor of the Hotel Montoya in Pamplona understands Jake better than do any of his “friends” because of the camaraderie the two share as aficionados. He ultimately sacrifices his most precious possession, his status as an aficionado, by exposing young Romero to Brett’s seduction. As such, Jake is emblematic of a generation that has come of age only to find individual peace more elusive than world peace.
An idea that gives form to much of Hemingway’s fiction is the notion of “grace under pressure,” a code by which individuals might bring honor upon themselves. Simply put, this code requires that, no matter what the circumstances, a person must not break. The grace referred to is a physical, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual matter; the circumstances to be withstood include the complexity of moral choice, the chaos of violence, and, above all, the presence of death that gnaws at every human being. The primary incarnation of death in The Sun Also Rises is the bullfight; exemplary behavior-rooted in courage, honor, and passion-is demonstrated by the matadors. In the ritual of the fight, the bull and the matador face uncertainty with equal dignity, and death with equal courage.
Hemingway once remarked that The Sun Also Rises was the most moral book he had ever written; that it was a kind of “tract against promiscuity.” Although at first it seems that Brett will sleep with anyone, in the end she realizes that she must not corrupt Romero. By recognizing the importance of Setting standards, Brett echoes the novel’s principal theme-the necessity of discovering, or rediscovering, those values that define a morally satisfying life.