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
mustn't. 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 a 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
willing 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
wenchö 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 dignity. 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

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. 


Quotes: Search by Author