The Code Hero in The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway is famous for his portrayal of war-torn populations, especially those affected by World War I. The “Great War,” as it is referred to, caused a lapse in values and standards in the generation who suffered through it, permanently damaging the remainder of their lives. Hemingway is equally famous for the use of a code hero who struggles to live in this post World War I age. Five different qualities, all of them the result of a physical or emotional wound, characterize Hemingway’s code hero.
This “anti-hero,” for he never wins, is a habitual drinker, has varying levels of sanity, uses women, escapes through a variety of means, and is not content. In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes is the code hero who strives to live with dignity and grace despite his physical and symbolic wounds from World War I. The physical and symbolic implications of Jake’s war wound are the source of his struggle. As a soldier is World War I, Jake suffers an injury that leaves him impotent. As if this physical wound is not enough, Jake’s impotency takes on a symbolic meaning as well.
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This wound, which “still throbs and gives him pain” (Rovit 157), causes Jake to believe that because he cannot sexually fulfill anyone, he also cannot have a lasting relationship. He tells people he is “sick” (Hemingway 21), and consequently drives them away. The hero’s impotency is symbolic of World War I, which “had been the catalytic agent in releasing the stark factor of nothingness and absurdity at the very root of the traditional values” (Rovit 159). Jake’s wound releases this “nothingness and absurdity” and The Sun Also Rises depicts the code hero’s attempt to live while enduring this wound.
Characteristic of the Hemingway code hero, Jake Barnes tries to continue living despite the harsh reality of his situation after World War I. Jake’s actions depict this battle to live with dignity and grace. For example, the hero tries to maintain his dignity through an assessment and evaluation of his values. According to critic Carlos Baker, “the Hemingway hero must work out his values for himself” (155). Jake’s debilitating wound causes him to question his values and what it actually means to live. Jake himself asserts, “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” (Hemingway 205). Jake’s experiences throughout the novel demonstrate “how well [he] knows the real values, values that might have some hope of enduring even in a modern world in which all traditional, received values have lost their force” (“Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises Speaks for the Lost Generation, October 22, 1926”). Whether successful or not, Jake at least attempts to learn “the real values” and maintain what little dignity World War I left him.
However, Jake impedes his battle to live with dignity and grace through his relationship with Brett Ashley. Jake’s wound prevents him and Brett from ever being together for she desires not only love, but physical intimacy as well. Consequently, Jake becomes a spectator of Brett’s relationships, observing the promiscuity with which she conducts her life while dying inside because he himself can never be with her. According to critic Earl Rovit, “Hemingway’s ultimate test of human performance is the degree of stripped courage and dignity which man can discover in himself in his moments of absolute despair” (63).
The characteristic wound from which Jake suffers strips him of courage and dignity for he can no longer rely even on a healthy relationship with a woman. Jake is truly “discovering how to live day to day when conventional structures of meaning have lost their power to compel belief” (“Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises Speaks for the Lost Generation, October 22, 1926”). The potential joy that a relationship with Brett could bring Jake does not “compel belief” (“Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises Speaks for the Lost Generation, October 22, 1926”).
In fact, Jake loses faith in all relationships that he maintained before receiving his wound. However, as a code hero, Jake still attempts to live despite the ugliness of the world around him and his hopeless situation with Brett. Alcohol is an outlet for the frustrations that accompany Jake’s struggle to live with dignity. According to critic Robert W. Lewis, “the bars and the drinks offer an illusory steadiness in a temporary refuge” (127). Each time Jake comes into contact with Brett, he follows the meeting with a trip to the bar.
Additionally, friends of Jake realize that he releases his sadness and frustration regarding his wound through the consumption of alcohol. Jake’s friend Bill Gorton tells the hero, “… You drink yourself to death” (Hemingway 109). Bill is able to see the reason for Jake’s incessant drinking; that it has become a means of release for the wounded hero. Jake himself admits, “Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy” (Hemingway 135). Alcohol, then, is Jake’s release for the frustration and pain that his constant battle causes him.
Jake not only uses alcohol to release his frustrations, but also as a way to escape from the pain and hardship that come from his battle to maintain dignity. Critic Lawrence R. Broer contests, “Jake tries to combat his feelings of futility through an immersion into the life of the senses… by way of drink” (45). The code hero’s use of alcohol as an escape is most evident in Pamplona where Jake and his group of friends attend the summer fiesta. Brett attends the fiesta with her new fianci?? and as a result, Jake turns frequently to alcohol to escape the reality of this painful situation.
Furthermore, Jake uses alcohol to alleviate the pain he feels when Brett runs off with the young matador, Pedro Romero. Jake begins drinking absinthe to escape from his misery and remarks, “The absinthe made everything seem better” (Hemingway 199). As Jake continues drinking to get over his “damn depression” (Hemingway 201), he realizes that “[he] was drunker than [he] ever remembered having been” (Hemingway 201). Indicative of the Hemingway code hero, Jake escapes by drowning his sorrows in a great quantity of alcohol.
Jake’s struggle forces him to create a world of illusion, thus demonstrating the insanity of Hemingway code heroes. Critic Sibbie O’Sullivan contests that Jake belongs to the group of neurotic characters in The Sun Also Rises because he “uphold[s] false values and then act[s] against them” (73). For instance, Jake parades around with a prostitute, promoting the value of a sexual relationship. Jake upholds this value by keeping the company of a prostitute and acts against it because he himself cannot have a sexual relationship. Furthermore, critic Carlos Baker asserts, “Jake… urrender[s] to the neuroses like those which beset [the other characters]” (81). Jake introduces the prostitute as his fianci??, demonstrating the extent of his neurotic and illusory world. The insanity that plagues Jake is both a result of his wound and his attempt to deal with it. In creating this false reality, Jake continues his struggle to live despite the agony of his debilitating wound. Jake uses women to earn gratification in the face of his constant struggle. The hero illustrates this characteristic through his interaction with the French prostitute, Georgette.
However, “Jake’s motive is not sexual fulfillment or an escape from a dull marriage, but companionship” (O’Sullivan 66). Because Jake’s wound prevents him from sexual gratification, he cannot sexually use women. He instead demonstrates this code hero characteristic in a more symbolic way in that “… however kindly Jake treats Georgette, his actions still reflect the rigid gender rules of the twentieth century” (O’Sullivan 66). Even though Jake does not use Georgette for what she is, he still pays for her company at the end of the night. I took a fifty franc note, put it in the envelope, sealed it, and handed it to the patronne [to give to Georgette]” (Hemingway 28). Jake proves that even impotency cannot prevent him from assuming the male role in certain aspects of life. However, in contrast with the standard code hero, women also use Jake. According to critic Sibbie O’Sullivan, “Jake cannot be the traditional man because he is impotent” (70). Therefore, Brett has control of their relationship. This is made evident when Jake asks Brett if they could live together. She replies, “I don’t think so.
I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it” (Hemingway 57). Although both Brett and Jake realize they “could never have had an idyllic relationship even if [Jake] had not been wounded” (Hays 97), Brett still maintains control over their relationship. Furthermore, Brett uses Jake by calling for him every time she gets herself into an undesirable situation. This emphasizes the idea that a Hemingway code hero not only uses women as a way to ease the pain of reality, but that women remind him of this reality by using him.
Jake physically escapes from the problems his struggle presents through travel. For example, the hero narrates this story from Paris, completely detaching himself from the Kansas City life he once lived. The gaiety and entertainment of Paris serves as a means by which he tries to forget his unfortunate station, which is a result of World War I. In an attempt to forget his wound, Jake submerges himself in a seemingly care-free life of habitual drinking and dining as a French expatriate. Jake’s friend Bill remarks, “You’ve lost touch with the soil… Fake European standards have ruined you” (Hemingway 109).
Jake has in fact adopted the standards of a completely different continent to leave behind the world that he holds responsible for his current situation. Towards the end of the novel, Jake again uses travel to escape from a variety of people and situations that remind him of his hopeless struggle to maintain dignity and grace. When his relationship with Brett becomes too much, Jake accepts an invitation to go on a fishing trip in Spain. Jake and his friends Robert Cohn and Bill Gorton embark on this trip and immediately the tone of the book becomes lighter and happier.
Jake focuses greatly on describing the scenery on this trip and the immense beauty of Burguete, a small town in the Pyrenees Mountains. “Then we crossed a wide plain, and there was a big river off on the right shining in the sun from between the line of trees… ” (Hemingway 90). Jake’s appreciation for the beauty of this foreign land represents his desire to escape from the ugliness of his life. Additionally, the hero enjoys himself more when he travels from place to place. Aside from frequent disagreements with Robert, Jake manages to have a good time fishing in Burguete.
Instead of obsessing over his relationship with Brett, Jake concerns himself only with fishing, drinking, and enjoying himself. “We stayed five days at Burguete and had good fishing… There was no word from Brett or Mike” (Hemingway 117). Jake desires to get away “from the petty and noxious tribulations of Robert Cohn and company” (Baker 84), company meaning Brett. He does so by physically removing himself from the environment that World War I created. Critic Robert W. Lewis states, “As soon as Jake leaves Paris, he begins to find some inner peace” (126).
This is true only temporarily, for the Hemingway hero never finds true inner peace and must continue the struggle to live with dignity. Although Jake attempts to physically escape from the reality of his wound, he knows that complete escape is not possible. When a friend of Jake’s professes the desire to travel to South America, Jake cynically replies, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another” (Hemingway 18). Jake speaks from experience for his current place of habitation is a desperate attempt to get away from himself and the way he has become.
Although “Jake finds temporary wholeness by the waters of the Irati River with Bill… and in the bay of San Sebastian,” he returns “to Brett and despair each time” (Hays 90). As a code hero, Jake uses escape to disguise reality, but understands that it can only offer temporary solace in his world of grief and despair. Jake, therefore, continues his struggle fully knowing that he will never truly attain closure. Because Jake can never fully achieve a dignified lifestyle, he can never be fully content. Critic Lawrence R. Broer observes, “Jake’s world is still a world at war-in the constant fight against despair and dissolution” (Broer 44).
This despair and dissolution with life transfers to Jake’s faith. After receiving his wound, Jake seeks advice from the Catholic Church about how to approach a relationship while dealing with his wound. However, “The Catholic Church had an awfully good way of handling that. Not to think about it” (Hemingway 35). Jake is heartbroken, discontent, and bitter towards “what he thinks to be the Church’s unacceptable attitude toward his wound” (Pratt 153). He can no longer turn to even the Church for guidance and is truly discontent, if not disillusioned with the world around him.
However, faith is not the only aspect of Jake’s life with which he is not content. His constant struggle to maintain dignity causes him discontentment as he sees the true hopelessness of his plight. Jake’s discontentment with his life and relationships results from the fruitlessness of his struggle. As Critic Earl Rovit contests, “[Hemingway] characteristic heroes have been ‘anti heroes’ or non heroes; aggressively doomed men… at the mercy of… implacable victimization” (64). Jake knows he can never win and much of The Sun Also Rises deals with his realization of this.
He himself asserts, “I thought I had paid for everything” (137). This statement represents the hero’s awareness that he will continue to pay “for everything” because his struggle to maintain dignity is never ending. Jake previously believed, “You gave up something and got something else” (Hemingway 137). His constant battle in life, however, shows the hero that even if “you [give] up something… [you do not necessarily get] something else”. Jake pays for his wound through the disparity of his life and receives nothing in return. This unequal exchange of value in Jake’s invariable struggle causes true discontentment in his life.
Jake Barnes exemplifies the idea of the Hemingway code hero. He possesses all of the criteria that defines a code hero yet at the same time, strives to live with dignity and grace. However, Jake’s inability to win despite his constant struggle is the most profound element that characterizes him as a code hero. The post World War I era in which Jake lives prevents him from achieving true dignity or grace for he is always reminded of his wound. This hopelessness, despite the effort to combat it, is what truly makes Jake a Hemingway code hero.