Masculinity in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

Topics: Masculinity, The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway Pages: 7 (2618 words) Published: December 13, 2013
A New Masculine and Feminine Identity

Understanding cliched ideas of masculinity is fairly simple, but the process of challenging these stereotypes by defining new ideas of what it means to be masculine is exceptionally difficult. Fishing, bullfighting, and war all emphasise masculine qualities. Men are expected to delight in these things, idealizing manly events in order to increase their own sense of masculinity. Even more importantly is a man’s sense of sexual mastery. Stereotypically, a man is, above all else, sexually driven; always attempting to persuade a beautiful woman to accompany him behind closed doors. In Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, the idea of what it means to be masculine and feminine, amidst the post World War I Roaring Twenties, is critically and dramatically called into question. The narrator of the story, Jake Barnes, is a war veteran rendered impotent from an unspecified war injury. Because of his impotence, Jake’s sense of masculinity is unsurprisingly set in doubt, yet he also has other reasons to question his masculinity. In stark comparison to Jake is his love interest--the love interest of virtually all the men in the novel--Lady Brett Ashley, who places herself within Jake Barnes circle of friends as a new version of what it means to be feminine. In similar but opposite fashion to Jake’s inability to be masculine, Lady Brett Ashley is able to remain feminine despite having many typically masculine attributes usually deemed inappropriate for a woman. By the end of the novel both Jake and Brett represent a new embodiment of what are and are not appropriate masculine qualities for men and women. Although they are still very lost and unsure about their place in society, their mutual casting-off of societal normalities allows them to find solace in each other as the book reaches its end. The most significant challenge to Jake Barnes’ masculinity is his complete inability to be satisfied by traditional sexual acts. During World War I, he received an injury that permanently changed his life; in multiple parts of the novel it is implied that this injury has left Jake impotent. Jake’s injury makes him incapable of the traditional satisfaction found in sexual acts, so at first he tries to circumvent this challenge to his masculinity. In the early part of the novel Jake picks up a prostitute in attempt to artificially create this connection, “because of a vague sentimental idea that it would be nice to eat with someone” (Hemingway 22). He knows he can’t have sex with her, but wants to satisfy that same desire by spending time and “eating” with a prostitute. However, he is dissuaded from enjoying the encounter because of her lack of intellect, saying, “with her mouth closed [Georgette] was a rather pretty girl” (Hemingway 23). He settles for the company of a girl, but cannot enjoy her attractiveness he is distracted when she talks. His compromised masculinity is illuminated early in the novel because the representative act of hiring a prostitute is unsuccessful beyond the obvious lack of sexual satisfaction. This inability to connect with a woman physically does not only limit Jake's ability to connect sexually but also limits his ability to even be in a relationship at all. Lady Brett Ashley, whom Jake is entirely infatuated with, tells him that she loves him, yet primarily because of his impotence she is unwilling to actually be in a relationship with Jake. His emasculation even gets in the way of his relationship with other men. Later in the novel while on a fishing trip, Jake speaks to his friend Bill Gorton about his war wound. Jake likes the Bill’s advice, to “never mention your accident. . .work [the impotence] up into a mystery,” and also, “you don't work. One group claims woman support you. Another group claims you’re impotent” (Hemingway 129). At this point Bill changes the topic as the two men dig deeper into the wilderness to find a decent fishing spot. Jake express his...

Cited: Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner. 2003. Print
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