Traditional Hero


The Hemingway Hero Prevalent among many of Ernest
Hemingway's novels is the concept popularly known as the
"Hemingway hero", an ideal character readily accepted by
American readers as a "man's man". In The Sun Also Rises,
four different men are compared and contrasted as they
engage in some form of relationship with Lady Brett Ashley,
a near-nymphomaniac Englishwoman who indulges in her
passion for sex and control. Brett plans to marry her
fiancee for superficial reasons, completely ruins one man
emotionally and spiritually, separates from another to
preserve the idea of their short-lived affair and to avoid
self-destruction, and denies and disgraces the only man
whom she loves most dearly. All her relationships occur in
a period of months, as Brett either accepts or rejects
certain values or traits of each man. Brett, as a dynamic
and self-controlled woman, and her four love interests help
demonstrate Hemingway's standard definition of a man and/or
masculinity. Each man Brett has a relationship with in the
novel possesses distinct qualities that enable Hemingway to
explore what it is to truly be a man. The Hemingway man
thus presented is a man of action, of self-discipline and
self-reliance, and of strength and courage to confront all
weaknesses, fears, failures, and even death.
Jake Barnes, as the narrator and supposed hero of the
novel, fell in love with Brett some years ago and is still
powerfully and uncontrollably in love with her. However,
Jake is unfortunately a casualty of the war, having been
emasculated in a freak accident. Still adjusting to his
impotence at the beginning of the novel, Jake has lost all
power and desire to have sex. Because of this, Jake and
Brett cannot be lovers and all attempts at a relationship
that is sexually fulfilling are simply futile. Brett is a
passionate, lustful woman who is driven by the most
intimate and loving act two may share, something that Jake
just cannot provide her with. Jake's emasculation only puts
the two in a grandly ironic situation. Brett is an
extremely passionate woman but is denied the first man she
feels true love and admiration for. Jake has loved Brett
for years and cannot have her because of his inability to
have sex. It is obvious that their love is mutual when Jake
You must know. I can't stand it, that's all. Oh darling,
please understand!', 'Don't you love me?', 'Love you? I
simply turn all to jelly when you touch me'" (26, Ch. 4).
This scene is indicative of their relationship as Jake and
Brett hopelessly desire each other but realize the futility
of further endeavors. Together, they have both tried to
defy reality, but failed. Jake is frustrated by Brett's
reappearance into his life and her confession that she is
miserably unhappy. Jake asks Brett to go off with him to
the country for bit: "'Couldn't we go off in the country
for a while?', 'It wouldn't be any good. I'll go if you
like. But I couldn't live quietly in the country. Not with
my own true love', 'I know', 'Isn't it rotten? There isn't
any use my telling you I love you', 'You know I love you',
'Let's not talk. Talking's all bilge'" (55, Ch. 7). Brett
declines Jake's pointless attempt at being together. Both
Brett and Jake know that any relationship beyond a
friendship cannot be pursued. Jake is still adjusting to
his impotence while Brett will not sacrifice a sexual
relationship for the man she loves.
Since Jake can never be Brett's lover, they are forced to
create a new relationship for themselves, perhaps one far
more dangerous than that of mere lovers - they have become
best friends. This presents a great difficulty for Jake,
because Brett's presence is both pleasurable and agonizing
for him. Brett constantly reminds him of his handicap and
thus Jake is challenged as a man in the deepest, most
personal sense possible. After the departure of their first
meeting, Jake feels miserable: "This was Brett, that I had
felt like crying about. Then I thought of her walking up
the street and of course in a little while I felt like hell
again" (34, Ch. 4). Lady Brett Ashley serves as a challenge
to a weakness Jake must confront. Since his war experience,
Jake has attempted to reshape the man he is and the first
step in doing this is to accept his impotence.
Despite Brett's undeniable love for Jake, she is engaged to
marry another. Mike Campbell is Brett's fiancee, her next
planned marriage after two already failed ones. Mike is
ridiculously in love with Brett and though she knows this
she still decides to marry him. In fact, Brett is only to
marry Mike because she is tired of drifting and simply
needs an anchor. Mike loves Brett but is not dependent on
her affection. Moreover, he knows about and accepts Brett's
brief affairs with other men: "'Mark you. Brett's had
affairs with men before. She tells me all about
everything'" (143, Ch. 13). Mike appreciates Brett's
beauty, as do all the other males in the novel, but perhaps
this is as deep as his love for her goes. In his first
scene in the novel, Mike cannot stop commenting and
eliciting comments on Brett's beauty: "'I say Brett, you
are a lovely piece. Don't you think she's beautiful?'" (79,
Ch. 8). He repeatedly proposes similar questions but does
not make any observant or profound comments on his
wife-to-be. In fact, throughout the entirety of the novel,
Mike continues this pattern, once referring to Brett as
"just a lovely, healthy wench" as his most observant
remark. Furthermore, Mike exhibits no self-control when he
becomes drunk, making insensitive statements that show his
lack of regard for Brett and others. After Brett shows
interest in Pedro Romero, the bullfighter, Mike rudely
yells: "Tell him bulls have no balls! Tell him Brett wants
to see him put on those green pants. Tell him Brett is
dying to know how he can get into those pants!" (176, Ch.
16). In addition, Mike cannot contemplate the complexities
of Brett and her relationships: "'Brett's got a
bull-fighter. She had a Jew named Cohn, but he turned out
badly. Brett's got a bull-fighter. A beautiful, bloody
bull-fighter'" (206, Ch. 18). Despite Brett's brief affair
with the bullfighter, she will eventually return to Mike
who will no doubt openly welcome her again. Brett is a
strong woman, who can control most men, and Mike is no
exception. She vaguely simplifies their relationship when
she explains to Jake that she plans to return to him:
"'He's so damned nice and he's so awful. He's my sort of
thing'" (243, Ch. 19). Mike is not complex enough to
challenge Brett, but she does go on and decide to accept
his simplicity anyways. Furthermore, despite his engagement
with Brett, Mike betrays Hemingway's ideal man. Although he
is self-reliant, Mike possesses little self-control or
Engaged to one man and in love with another, Brett
demonstrates her disregard for the 1920's double standards.
Very early in the beginning of the novel, she reveals to
Jake that she had invited Robert Cohn to go with her on a
trip to San Sebastian. Cohn, a Jewish, middle-aged writer
disillusioned with his life in Paris, wants to escape to
South America where he envisions meeting the ebony
princesses he romanticized from a book. However, he cannot
persuade Jake to accompany him and then completely forgets
about this idea upon meeting Brett. Cohn is immediately
enamored with her beauty and falls in love with her:
"'There's a certain quality about her, a certain fineness.
She seems to be absolutely fine and straight'" (38, Ch. 5).
Cohn is immature in his idealization of Brett's beauty, as
he falls in "love at first sight". Furthermore, like an
adolescent, he attempts to satisfy his curiosity about
Brett by asking Jake numerous questions about her.
After Cohn and Brett's short-lived affair in San Sebastian,
Cohn is nervous around Jake: "Cohn had been rather nervous
ever since we had met at Bayone. He did not know whether we
knew Brett had been with him at San Sebastian, and it made
him rather awkward" (94, Ch. 10). Moreover, Cohn is scared
that when Brett appears she will embarrass him and so he
does not have the maturity to behave appropriately in front
of Jake and his friend, Bill Gorton. Nonetheless, Cohn is
proud of his affair with Brett and believes that this
conquest makes him a hero. When Brett appears with her
fiancee Mike, Cohn still believes that they are destined
for an ideal love despite her blatant coldness to him.
However, it is apparent that Brett simply used Cohn to
satisfy her sexual cravings: "'He behaved rather well'"
(83, Ch. 9). Cohn does not understand the triviality of
their trip to San Sebastian in Brett's mind and has become
dependent on her attention and affection. In his rampant
drunkenness, Mike blasts Cohn: "'What if Brett did sleep
with you? She's slept with lots of better people than you.
Tell me Robert,. Why do you follow Brett around like a poor
bloody steer? Don't you know you're not wanted?'" (143, Ch.
13). Cohn is like an adolescent, as he vainly ignores the
truth and continues to love Brett: "He could not stop
looking at Brett. It seemed to make him happy. It must have
been pleasant for him to see her looking so lovely, and
know he had been away with her and that every one knew it.
They couldn't take that away from him" (146, Ch. 13). Cohn
over-exaggerates the significance of his affair with Brett.
He does not understand that Brett simply used him and that
their brief relationship has no meaning to her. Moreover,
Cohn cannot conduct himself with dignity and he intrudes
upon people and places where he is obviously not wanted.
Naively, Cohn dwells on the fact that he has slept with
Brett and obsesses with her. When Brett begins to show
signs of interest in Pedro Romero, Cohn irrationally
approaches Jake demanding to know Brett's whereabouts,
punches him in the jaw, and then calls him a pimp (190-91,
Ch. 17). Later that night he encounters Pedro and Brett
together in their hotel room. His actions of knocking Pedro
down repeatedly until he eventually tires demonstrate a
divergence from his character. Cohn for the first time
takes some action in what he feels, rather than merely
thinking about it or complaining about it. However, despite
his persistence, Pedro does not remain down according to
Mike: "'The bull-fighter fellow was rather good. He didn't
say much, but he kept getting up and getting knocked down
again. Cohn couldn't knock him out'" (202, Ch. 17).
Eventually, Cohn gives up on this pursuit, is knocked twice
by Pedro, and loses his battle for Brett. These events show
that Cohn's boxing skills, a defense mechanism that he once
used in college, will no longer pull him out of rough
situations. Cohn fails to show the strength and courage
needed to face the circumstances like a man.
Pedro Romero, on the other hand, comes closest to the
embodiment of Hemingway's hero. Brett is almost immediately
enchanted by this handsome, nineteen-year-old, a promising
matador. Pedro, a fearless figure who frequently confronts
death in his occupation, is not afraid in the bullring and
controls the bulls like a master. Pedro is the first man
since Jake who causes Brett to lose her self-control: "'I
can't help it. I'm a goner now, anyway. Don't you see the
difference? I've got to do something. I've got to do
something I really want to do. I've lost my self-respect"
(183, Ch. 16). In contrast, Pedro maintains his
self-control in his first encounter with Brett: "He felt
there was something between them. He must have felt it when
Brett gave him her hand. He was being very careful" (185,
Ch. 16). Brett falls in love with Pedro as a hero who
promises new excitement. In the scene between Pedro and
Cohn described previously, Pedro demonstrates his
confidence and strong will. Knocked down time and time
again, Pedro rises each time refusing to be beaten. His
controlled and dignified demeanor in an unusual situation
contrast sharply with Cohn's fear and weakness.
Soon Pedro and Brett run off together but when he demands
too much from her, Brett asks him to leave. "'He was
ashamed of me for a while, you know. He wanted me to grow
my hair out. He said it would make me more womanly." In
addition, Pedro " really wanted to marry" Brett because
"'he wanted to make it sure [Brett] could never go away
from him'" (242, Ch. 19). Pedro will not compromise his
expectations for a woman and will not accommodate Brett's
character even though he loves her. In his affair with
Brett, he has performed according to his rules and when he
discovers that his ideals are impossible for Brett to
accept, he leaves willingly. Pedro has been left untainted
by Brett, sustaining his strong-willed, correct behavior.
Moreover, Pedro leaves without sulking like Cohn or whining
like Mike.
Brett's acceptance or rejection of particular qualities in
each of the four men she becomes involved with help define
Hemingway's male hero. Mike is not dependent on Brett but
does not maintain his dignity and self-discipline in his
drunken sloppiness. Cohn is a complaining, weak,
accommodating adolescent who has little understanding of
others or himself. Pedro is the near perfect embodiment of
strength, courage, and confidence. Jake is the lesser
version of this perfection as the hero of the novel. Hence,
Hemingway's ideal hero is self-controlled, self-reliant,
and fearless. He is a man of action and he does not, under
any circumstances, compromise his beliefs or standards.
Jake, as the supposed hero of the novel, is challenged by
his emasculation in the deepest sense possible, because the
traditional ways in which masculinity are defined are
insufficient and impossible for him. Jake needs the
strength and courage to confront his impotence because he
has not yet adjusted to this weakness. It is ironic that
Cohn, a character least like the Hemingway man, has slept
with Brett while Jake will never be able to accomplish this
feat. However, because Cohn so inadequately fulfills the
roles of a true man, Hemingway implies that the sexual
conquest of a woman does not alone satisfy the definition
of masculinity.
Nevertheless, Jake fails to fulfill other requisites of the
Hemingway man as he deviates from his own ethical
standards. Jake sees that Brett is mesmerized by Pedro's
skillful control and extraordinary handsomeness and
recognizes the possibility of furnishing her carnal desires
with the most perfect specimen of manhood that he can offer
in place of himself. Jake thus betrays the aficionados of
Pamplona and the trust of a long-time friend, Montoya, who
fear that this rising star may be ruined by women. Thus,
regardless of his physical impotence, Jake's true weakness
is the impotence of his will and the supposed hero of the
novel is flawed due to his failure to adhere to what he
believes is right and wrong.
Hemingway thus refrains from presenting a true hero in his
novel. With the absence of a leading male ideal, Hemingway
betrays the larger socio-cultural assumptions about men and
masculinity and questions the conventional means in which
they are defined in his society. 


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