Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises

The breakthrough novel for Ernest Hemingway was The Sun Also Rises (1926). It is a contemporary novel describing a few months in the life of an American journalist working in France during the early twenties of the twentieth century (which is what Hemingway was himself at the time). It is mainly about his relationships with other expatriates in Paris. The locals only play a minor role.

What quickly comes to front is the lack of purpose of the characters. There is a great focus on parties, drinking and enjoying life. Work one does to get the bills paid and one tries to keep it to a minimum. Such characters have of course been around in novels written before this date but I haven’t seen them taking the center of the stage.

With such a focus in the storytelling there is not really much of a plot. It centers about how the characters spend their time and the relationships between them. These relationships are quite peculiar. What struck me most that these were very much like possible relationships of current times. Such kind of relationships could not have existed before the time of the Interbellum which contained great changes in society and culture which seem so common nowadays. I tried to imagine such relationships within the frame of that time, but Hemingway wrote about it without making judgments. The characters involved take it as a matter of fact and there does not seem to be any outsider who takes a different view and expresses.

The story is told from a first-person point-of-view. Compared to the other characters he is more controlled and grounded. Sure he parties and drinks a lot, but he is more level-headed and not taking much serious.

The prose is written in a clean journalistic style. The main character observes and tells us what he thinks is noteworthy without adding much of his own thoughts. Through dialogue and action the reader has to make his own impressions and understanding. In a way this style reminded me of The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger as it uses a similar approach. A main difference is that this main character does not take center stage and stays on sideline, observing but not judging or acting. If his friends aim for self-destruction than he will let them do so unless they ask for his advice or help.

There is a strange mixture of honesty in what he tells while what he says to his friends and how he behaves towards them that contrast with each other. I would not say they conflict. It is part of the honesty to show what really occurred.

One thing that became striking in the central part of the novel is the level of detail Hemingway used to tell his story. In the beginning it was no more than necessary. Afterwards he writes as if he has been personally there in the places the main character visits and he goes into lengthy details of everything that is going on. It is like Hemingway went to the locations and made a detailed diary which he filled in continuously while he went through the experience (checking the background to this novel disclosed to me that he spent plenty of time at the locations). In a way such detail is impressive and it enlivens the scenes greatly. On the other hand I did not feel it to be that necessary. To me he was not really describing things that I could not imagine myself. To me part of the reading experience is filling in the details with my own imagination. Hemingway left no space for that at times.

As I am adding some criticism now I would like to mention one section of the story which contained a journey by car. An earlier journey by train went by quickly. In the car sequence Hemingway felt it necessary to mention every twist and turn. This might have been bearable if the sequence was not made up of long sentences created with repeatedly using the word ‘and’. This part of bad writing really surprised me. Luckily it didn’t last very long.

A lack of plot always gives me trouble. Usually it is avoided because the character undergoes a certain change or the story itself creates a powerful impact. The story of The Sun Also Rises has none of that. The reader gets a period in the life of the main character which does not seem to be any special except that plenty happens which only leads to the side-characters getting some bad experiences. All in all the characters were not particularly likable. One can assume the emptiness of their lives is what Hemingway wanted to describe, but to me that does not make a great or interesting story.

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