Hemingway And The Lost Generation

1800 words (7 pages) Essay in English Literature

27/04/17 English Literature Reference this

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The effects of World War I in the early nineteen hundreds left the generation “lost”, a term that Gertrude Stein helped label (Reynolds 1). This was a time when the Volstead Act was in effect, which did not help the drinking problem at all. Instead, it turned “half the country into criminals” (Reynolds 1). This was a turning point for America and many attitudes were changed after the war. These men and women lost their faith and began to act out because of it. This was a time of alcoholic depression and rebellion, as the men and women lost their faith to pull themselves out of this hard time and instead let it take over their lives. Heavy drinking was common among this generation, which Hemingway demonstrates throughout the entire novel. Many died in the war and “Those who remain alive are the walking wounded: Jake with his genital injury, Brett with her lack of self-control, Mike Campbell with his compulsive drinking” (Reynolds 22). All of Hemingway’s characters spend their time drinking to try and have a little fun and to hide their true feelings, especially his main character Jake Barnes. Their conversations revolve around drinking and the bullfights, which Hemingway also uses as a symbol in his novel. In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises he uses the central theme of the Lost Generation, the character Jake Barnes, and the symbolism of bullfighting to show the emotional instability of many people after the First World War.

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The aimlessness of the Lost Generation is the common theme in this story. The Lost Generation refers to the people during and immediately after World War I who suffered emotional damage because of it. “It is a sad story about smashed people whose lives are largely beyond their own control” (Reynolds 73). These men and women have lost their meaning in life and often participate in heavy drinking to try to cover up their miserable feelings. Their reliance on alcohol to try to enjoy life was common during this time. Although Hemingway never states that his characters wander aimlessly and suffer emotional damage, the way the characters spend their time makes this apparent. According to Bloom “these characters are not ‘lost’ but merely ‘beat up'” (Bloom 105). Nonetheless, these characters are all suffering from being “beat up” from the war and display similar traits. Throughout the entire novel, heavy drinking is something all the characters participate in, and rarely are the conversations meaningful or do they ever say how they really feel. Drinking is merely a distraction from the war and “they seek refuge in broken relationships, in changes of scene, in drunkenness and the illusion that, however meager, they can find some pleasure in their brief interludes of time and place” (Dijos 3). Throughout the novel, “Jake gets very drunk at least three times; Brett is known to get drunk twice; Mike is drunk everytime we see him; Bill is rarely sober; even Cohn spends a great deal of time in his cups – and all of this happens during the two weeks or so that we as readers follow the story” (Dijos 3). No matter what activities they participate in throughout the novel, drinking is involved. One night in Pamplona they all have dinner together and get quite drunk. Jake admits that “Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy” (Hemingway 135). In order for them to feel happy or have a good time, they have to drink. Jake wakes the next morning trying to remember the night before. He remembers, “I was very drunk and did not want to shut my eyes because the room would go round and round” (Hemingway 135). Hemingway’s characters take themselves past the limit of intoxication to feel a moment of happiness and fun in life.

Jake Barnes is Hemingway’s main character who we see the story through. He is a U.S. Navy Pilot in World War I. This main character is part of the Lost Generation and throughout the story displays many of the traits associated with this generation. “Jake Barnes does not drink as excessively as either Brett Ashley or Mike Campbell, a confirmed alcoholic, but Jake’s drinking should be understood as a way of not thinking about his sexual and moral condition” (Reynolds 62). Jake is not only facing feelings that many people were facing after war, but he also has to deal with a genital injury which leaves him impotent and destroys any chance with Brett Ashley. When Jake is wounded during the war, he falls in love with his nurse, who is Brett Ashley. Brett refuses to be with Jake, despite her love towards him, because of his injury. Jake throughout the entire novel has to watch the woman he loves sleep with many men in the novel. Over the two week course of the novel, Brett sleeps with Robert Cohn, Mike Campbell, and Pedro Romero. Mike Campbell is actually her fiancée, who she obviously is very unfaithful to. She makes it even harder for Jake because she always comes to him when something is wrong and often leads him on. After going to Jake to tell him how miserable she is, he tries kissing her and she turns away, telling him not to touch her. However when she leaves, she asks, “Kiss me just once more before we get there,” (Hemingway 32). This only gives Jake hope that they can be together, which she knows will never happen because of his injury. Brett uses Jake as her shoulder to cry on and to help her when she gets herself into trouble. Jake being the kind person that he is, lets her take advantage of him even though she has told him before that they cannot be together. “If Jake’s centrality is not immediately obvious, it is because he only infrequently speaks of his own feelings. However, when we turn the final pages, it is Jake’s condition we best know: his values, his fears, his failures” (Reynolds 23). At one point in the novel Jake shows his feelings to the reader while he is alone in his room. He lays awake thinking about Brett and his injury while looking in the mirror. Hemingway writes, “I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sudden smooth waves. Then all if a sudden I started to cry” (Hemingway 35). At this point the reader realizes how sad Jake really is; not only about his injury, but that it is keeping him from the woman he loves. Although he feels this way he never confesses his feelings to any of his friends in the novel. He plays the role of peacekeeper among his group and listens to their feelings and concerns instead of dealing with his own issues.

Hemingway uses bullfighting as a symbol in his novel. Jake is like the steers that are involved in the bullfights. Not only does his groin injury make him like the steers, but his behavior is also steer-like. Jake explains to his friends that “They let the bulls out of the cage one at a time, and they have steers in the corral to receive them and keep them from fighting, and the bulls tear in at the steers and the steers run around like old maids trying to quiet them down” (Hemingway 124). The steers are there to settle down the bulls and keep them from hurting or killing each other and this is how Jake is with his friends. There are several occasions over the two week course the novel covers that Jake has to calm his friends down and prevent situations from escalading. At one point in the novel, Mike and Cohn get into an argument over Brett. Mike is mad because Cohn is always hanging around Brett and is about to hit Cohn when Jake grabs Mike and says “Come to the café. You can’t hit him here in the hotel,” (Hemingway 162). Jake serves as the peacemaker between all of his friends in the novel and “Clearly, Jake is to his herd of friends in Europe as the steers are to the bulls as they enter the ring in Pamplona” (Bradley 1). Jake is very neutral with his friends and doesn’t take sides, despite how he really feels. Jake agrees with what each of his friends say and rarely expresses his true feelings. He especially does this with Brett, who he is in love with and wants to be with. Throughout the entire novel he is a very good friend to Brett and no matter what predicament she gets herself into, he provides a shoulder for her to cry on. Instead of telling her that she is doing it to herself, he listens and agrees with everything she says. At one point in the story, she is complaining to Jake about Cohn: “My God! I’m so sick of him!” (Hemingway 164). Jake just listens and agrees. “He could have taken the opportunity to violate the code and question her responsibility in Cohn’s obsession with her, but instead he chooses to leave her statements unchallenged” (Bradley 2). Jake’s steer-like behavior makes his role as the main character an important one and makes his injury not seem like such a tragedy.

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Hemingway’s novel may have received some criticism; however he was only demonstrating how many men and women of this generation felt after WWI. This was such a devastating time; many lives were lost and many things began to change. Because of this, their generation’s attitudes changed and many lost all their faith or any desire to change their situation to make life better. Instead they tried to drown their sorrows in alcohol in order to forget about their difficult lives. This only made matters worse, as alcohol only intensifies emotions and escalades many situations, as Hemingway demonstrates in his novel. This theme of the Lost Generation that Hemingway portrays in his novel is based on the lives of many people of the early twentieth century; however the characters in his novel are fictional characters and not based on anybody in particular. He uses his main character Jake Barnes to tell the story and to demonstrate the excessive use of alcohol and lack of an expression of true feelings. Through him the reader meets all the characters and develops an opinion of each of them. He uses the symbolism of bullfighting and the “steer-like” behavior of Jake to show that he was often the one who had to calm his drunken friends. Through Hemingway’s characters, his demonstration of their generation, and the symbolism of Jake and the steers involved in the bullfights, the reader is able to see the effects that WWI had on their lives.

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