|Who doesn't like a good bull fight?|
It’s hard to explain why I love the works of writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Borges. I live so far removed from the world and time to which they belonged. I can’t necessarily relate to the crisis of identity experienced by the Lost Generation. I can’t say that I live a lavish lifestyle surrounded by the epitome of decadence. I don’t often dance the line between reality and fantasy either. What I can appreciate is the idea of trying to express and represent new sensibilities of the time. The great writers challenged the status quo and reassessed the prevailing assumptions regarding reality. That is something I respect and admire. My first such experience with this revolutionary style of writing came when I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
I was a junior in High School when I was forced to read Hemingway’s story about a group of expatriate misfits struggling to find meaning in their complicated lives. I was captivated by the simplicity of the prose, the matter-of-fact dialogue, and the complexity of the characters. The story itself was not particularly fascinating. There were no wizards or vampires, but I guess those kinds of stories never appealed to me anyway. There was something real and true about it. It didn’t seem fabricated. It was like a series of snapshots about life, each speaking its share of one thousand beautiful words. I fell in love with it then, and it has become one of my favorite novels since.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is the interaction between the various flawed characters. The protagonist, Jake, appears to have everything that he could possibly want. He is a war hero who lives a privileged life in Paris surrounded by opulent friends and acquaintances. However, Jake guards a thinly veiled secret; he suffered an injury during the Great War that rendered him sexually impotent. The tragedy of his situation is only amplified by the fact that he shares a mutual love for the sexually promiscuous Lady Brett. The irony of his situation is both tragic and absurd. The real heartbreak of their situation is felt at the conclusion of the novel after Jake and Brett have passed through some tribulation.
Her wishful claim is answered by Jake’s pathetic surrender.
“Yes,” Jake said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”
There is a real sadness that the two share because they are both too superficial to be able to put aside their deficiencies and to let themselves be happy together—and they both know it. The story leaves you wanting more, something that the Modernist writers must have felt about reality.
One of the most appealing aspects about The Sun Also Rises for me is being able to view and analyze the characters based on my knowledge of Latter-day Saint doctrines. It might sound a bit lame to do so, but I can see real people in the story and I understand the way they feel because I know of what they do not know. In other words, I find it fascinating to uncover certain aspects of the characters that have led them to feel the way that they do. A great example is Jake. I have met people like Jake. They’re successful, inquisitive, and complex. I think that his problems can be summed up by one of his most interesting quotes.
“You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to the other.”
I love this quote. It explains so much about nearly all of the characters in the story. As they look for happiness in all the wrong places, they become engulfed in troubles. Their natural reaction is to drown their problems in money, booze, and vacations. Naturally, this only invites more problems. I love these complicated characters because I feel like everyone can relate to them. Who hasn’t tried to cheat the system at least a little bit in search of some glorifying end? I think that my LDS background makes it easier for me to identify their flaws and I feel like I could possibly help them. The way in which Hemingway wrote his novel makes these people real to me, and, instead of reading about a few days of their lives, I am able to put myself in the story with the intent of trying to counsel my friends. If only this were possible.
As much as I enjoy analyzing the characters from the story, I feel like the best part about them is their ability to teach. What I mean by this is simple; each character contributes a verse to the underlying theme that life is meant to be lived. Jake is continuously worried about not being able to live his life to the fullest extent. One of his more wise quotes illustrates this point:
“Don't you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you're not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you've lived nearly half the time you have to live already?”
If nothing else, each character helps illustrate this point that life is meant to be lived. Once we are able to find what makes us happy, we are to do just that to the fullest extent. What is truly tragic is the fact that none of the characters have discovered what it is that makes them happy. They are clueless to the notion. They don’t even realize that they are lost. Jake makes this point when he realizes that all he wants is some sort of consistency and happiness:
“I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”
There is a desire there to live a full and happy life, but he just can’t figure out how to do it.
This state of perpetual unhappiness and vicious cycles of letdown was common after the Great War and is characterized by this beautiful story. Therefore, I was really able to empathize with the characters because Hemingway allowed me to see their strengths along with their flaws. They’re good people just trying to discover what it is that could make them happy.
The Sun Also Rises has become more than a story to me. It serves a much greater purpose. I can use it as a model for how not to live my life. Like a parent who understands the consequences of actions, I can look at these characters—my friends—as if they were my children and understand the weight of their decisions. I can learn from their mistakes. Because they struggle, I learn, and, therefore, do not have to suffer their same fate. I love the world that they live in because it is new and exciting to me. I love how each has a distinct personality that rubs off on my own. They help me more than they hurt themselves, and for that, I find them the most noble of literary characters. The same could be said for Gatsby, Daisy, Juan Dalhomme, and the Compson family; they all teach and inspire. However, it is my opinion that the characters from this story perfectly and elegantly teach the most important lessons. At least, that is what I see, and I prefer not to think differently.