Essay Questions On The Sun Also Rises
1. Compare Jake and Cohn. How does the fact that Jake went to war and Cohn did not make them different from each other? What qualities do they share with the rest of their acquaintances? Is it safe to call them both outsiders?
2. Bill tells Jake that “[s]ex explains it all.” To what extent is Bill’s statement true of the novel The Sun Also Rises?
3. Discuss the characterization of Lady Brett Ashley. Is she a sympathetic character? Is she a positive female role model? Does she treat her male friends cruelly?
4. Read closely and analyze one of the longer passages in which Hemingway describes bulls or bullfighting. What sort of language does Hemingway use? Does the passage have symbolic possibilities? If the bullfighting passages do not advance the plot, how do they function to develop themes and motifs?
5. Analyze the novel in the context of World War I. How does the experience of war shape the characters and their behavior? Examine the differences between the veterans, like Jake and Bill, and the nonveterans, like Cohn and Romero.
6. Why is Cohn verbally abused so often in the novel? Is it because he is Jewish? Why does Mike attack Cohn but not Jake, whom Brett actually loves? Why does Cohn accept so much abuse?
7. Discuss the problem of communication in the novel. Why is it so difficult for the characters to speak frankly and honestly? In what circumstances is it possible for them to speak openly? Are there any characters who say exactly what is on their mind? If so, how are these characters similar to each other?
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1. How have Jake and Cohn changed by the end of the novel?
By the end of the novel, Jake's world has mostly fallen apart. He has discovered how much like Cohn he really is, through the exposure of how little his own feelings seem to matter to Brett and how poorly he measures up against either Cohn's physical prowess or Romero's self-contained greatness. His drunken illusion of being back on the high school football team when returning to the hotel and confronting a crying Cohn further clarifies this parallel.
Jake must also deal with his own pathetic connection with Brett. He realizes, when she wires him in San Sebastian, that he has been complicit in her sexual liaisons with other men, and that he still maintains a naive hope that this connection might amount to something. He realizes that his willingness to help Brett get what she thinks she wants might be hurting her, when he must comfort her in the Hotel Montana. And, in the last line of the book, he seems to admit that their connection is only a pretty fantasy that can never be tested. He might know that the greatness of men like Romero offers some hope, but he must also realize that he is not in any way responsible for that greatness, and has even compromised his respect for it through allowing Brett to run away with Romero. If there is hope in Romero, it is not because of anything that Jake has done.
As for Cohn, by the end of the book, he has been destroyed as the naive, romantic hero. He has faced the meaninglessness of physical love with Brett, and he doesn't seem able to recover.
2. Discuss Robert Cohn's role, especially the meaning of his fight with Pedro Romero.
Cohn is, first, the romantic hero of the novel, in the sense of a chivalric romance, with knights and villains and quests. His naive quest for true love with a woman of nobility (Brett) seems to satisfy the fantasies that he gets out of the books that he reads. He consistently tries to construct the events around him as parts of that quest. His boxing ability gives him a physical skill with which to measure his manhood, as a knight might do, in combat with another man. He seems to actively seek confrontation with Romero as a way to prove his superiority.
When Cohn confronts Romero, he is faced with a concept of manliness that doesn't fit his understanding. Cohn seems to want to fight to prove himself to other people; he doesn't fight for himself, the way that Romero both fights for himself and in the presence of others. Cohn is easily able to knock Romero down, but Romero won't stop getting back up. It doesn't seem to matter that he can be knocked down because he can't be made to stay down, and because he won't give up. Cohn seems unwilling to prolong the fight when he knows that Romero won't stop trying to get up until he is dead, and Cohn doesn't want to kill him. Neither Romero nor Brett, who is watching, will shake his hand, refusing the convention of gentlemanly combat.
Cohn and his attachment to Brett present the older, more traditional way of understanding manhood, achievement, and moral value. The physical act of love between Cohn and Brett does not become a token of romantic love; instead, it becomes either a meaningless act of charity for a woman who doesn't attach any value to it, or a way for Brett to cope with her frustrated love for the impotent Jake. Cohn's impressive abilities with his fists make no lasting impression on Mike or Jake, much as Cohn and his quest cannot make an impression on the world. And Romero's ability to overcome Cohn's unmatched skill as a boxer demonstrates Romero's strength, which, unlike Cohn's, transcends physical skill.
3. Describe the role of Catholicism in the novel, especially for Jake and Brett.
The question of Catholicism and its relevance (or otherwise) is touched upon several times. Jake is aware that Catholicism does not meet his needs. For example, the evening after his first encounter with Brett in the novel, he thinks about how the Catholic Church tells people to avoid sex by not thinking about it. This proves to be woefully inadequate to his situation.
However, the vast number of pilgrims on the train makes it clear how many people still adhere to Catholicism. Their firm belief in God draws attention to the lack of such beliefs in Jake and Bill.
There are several instances of Jake and Brett entering the church in Pamplona. It appears that Jake still goes to confession, although apparently without much belief in it. As for Brett, her motivation in their first visit seems more curiosity than religious feeling. She wants to hear Jake at confession.
The last time Brett and Jake enter a church is on the last day of the fiesta, when they try to sit and pray for Romero, but Brett gets uncomfortable and asks that they leave. She later expresses skepticism about religion, saying that prayer has never done her any good, since she has never gotten anything she prayed for.
The last, and perhaps most important, reference to religion comes in the final scene of the final chapter. In this scene, Brett says of her decision to let Romero leave, "You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch," and then adds, "It's sort of what we have instead of God." In other words, for people to whom religion no longer means much, choosing a moral standard for oneself is an acceptable substitute. Indeed, Brett implies that the pleasure of being responsible (or doing the right thing) is the only substitute for God that is available to them.
These references to religion suggest, first, that religion no longer works for these characters. Jake admits that many people still believe in and follow God (as the pilgrims on the train do), but his religion does not help him deal with his impotent love. Second, these characters (especially Jake) seem to need something instead of religion. They don't merely reject religion and forget about it; they return again and again to the church, and keep talking about it. Jake is looking for something to substitute for religion, though he doesn't seem willing to let go of his Catholicism (because, he seems to think, it does seem to work for some people). He seems to find what he seeks in nature, fishing, the landscape, perhaps the Basque peasants, and sometimes in bullfighting. But these things don't seem adequate for some reason.
In the end, Jake's Catholic faith, because he can't decide to embrace or discard it, becomes another way of describing his failure.
4. How does World War I play a part in this book?
The most significant impact of the war on the book is Jake's wound. Jake is unable to consummate his feelings for Brett, and it could be argued that Jake's frustration is the driving force for the entire novel. A more pessimistic interpretation of the same idea could be that Jake's inability to give Brett what she so readily gets from everyone else becomes the reason that Brett's feelings for Jake don't disappear, and this frustration in Brett leads to the affair with Cohn, the strangely permissive relationship with Mike, and the fascination with Romero. In this way, the war, through Jake's wound, destroys the social conventions that make a traditional romantic plot possible.
Brett's relationship with the war is more complex, though, than just her relationship with Jake and his wound. Brett lost her "own true love" in the war to dysentery, and she married Ashley after that. She met Jake in the hospital as he was recovering from his wound. As a volunteer in the war, Brett could be said to be the third important character with experience in the war, in addition to Jake and Mike. Brett's motivation for seeking sexual relationships with multiple men might stem from her own experience in the war, apart from her encounter with Jake and his wound. Perhaps, like Jake, she sees Romero's value all the more clearly because of her experience in the war, and she appreciates him as a genuine source of hope all the more because of this experience. And, perhaps her decision to let him go stems from that experience as well.
The epigraph to the book, a quotation of Gertrude Stein ("You are all a lost generation") seems to cast the book as an attempt to characterize a generation. Ostensibly, the senseless and massive killing of millions of people in what was then called the Great War, through the newly deployed technologies of mass murder (chemical weapons, tanks, machine guns, planes) changed the world, and made it difficult to believe that any of the old truths of religion or morality had any relevance. These people are "lost" because the old ways of life are not available or are not meaningful anymore. Because the war is the reason that they are "lost," it is one of the reasons for the novel.
5. How does Hemingway's language affect the meaning of the book?
Hemingway's famous style is simple and straightforward, with minimum punctuation and without superfluous words and phrases. Hemingway also believed that it was not necessary to verbalize everything or write about everything, and that many things were better left out of the text. Often people will think that this means that Hemingway's ideas, plots, and characters are simple. But this would be a mistake. There are often unpleasant and complex emotions below the surface, and Hemingway trusts his reader to see those things through what he does put on the page.
Hemingway's tendency to evoke rather than describe things allows him to indirectly talk about topics that his contemporaries were having books banned for. Brett has sex with three different characters in the book; Jake hires a prostitute who tries to have sex with him in a taxi; Brett makes her initial entrance among a crowd of homosexuals. Hemingway's sparse prose allowed him to get these books published even in a climate of censorship.
But Hemingway's language has other effects. The reticent narrator becomes an effective mouthpiece for a narrative of personal suffering. Jake does not shed light on several incidents, including much of his interaction with Brett, and the restraint he shows makes the few scenes between them more poignant, and makes Jake's rare emotional outbreaks more significant.